The mental health benefits of riding a motorcycle 

By Mark Kaufman, MSW, LICSW • JFCS Therapist

“You never see a motorcycle parked outside a therapist’s office.” 

You may be surprised to hear that riding a motorcycle has mental health benefits, but in the riding community, this is an often-quoted statement. I can attest that literally, the statement is not true. Mine was parked right outside my window the other day and I opened the blinds so I could see it while doing some paperwork. (Non-motorcycle people might think this is weird, but motorcyclists love looking at their bikes.) 

Of course I am not suggesting that anyone should go get a motorcycle and start riding without proper knowledge and training. Motorcycling is one of many activities that has mental health benefits, but it provides an example that can highlight how your chosen activities might be of benefit as well. Some of the benefits are best when the rider is proficient at riding. 

Last year, I was kicking around the idea of writing about the mental health benefits of riding motorcycles and I asked members of several motorcycle-related Facebook groups about their experiences. There were a lot of responses. 

Stories and anecdotes included the experience of being out in nature; increased relaxation; increased mindfulness or even a meditative state; simplification of the world to concrete; manageable tasks; feelings of accomplishment and increased confidence; an adrenaline rush that can reduce the perception of other anxiety; a sense of freedom when otherwise feeling trapped; getting away from social media; and better sleep. Several people talked about getting relief from anxiety or depression symptoms while on the bike, although there was one suggestion that this may constitute escapism in a negative way.  

I was also privileged to be told a story of a suicidal crisis in which the survival instinct of managing difficult riding conditions rekindled the desire to survive. 

Robert Pirsig wrote about his experience of self-discovery on a motorcycle trip with his son and some friends in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. Early in the book, and often quoted, he writes, “In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” This sense of being truly present in the environment is consistent with what a lot of riders talk about in terms of being out in nature and the sense of mindfulness. A lot of it for him, I believe, was processing grief by revisiting places from his past. 

Less famously, and more recently, Mathew Sturtevant wrote The Topography of Fear about his own motorcycle journeys across the country and how that was a part of his own healing. He rode the Trans-America Trail, a route that takes the most rugged roads possible across the country. Twice. He had to face a lot of fears and grief as well, almost describing it as a form of exposure therapy – (exposure therapy involves gradually doing the things that cause anxiety until the anxiety becomes more manageable). 

Some content creators, including The Girl on a Bike, who manages chronic pain due to a bicycle accident, see motorcycling as an important part of mental health management. She attributes much of her ability to recover from her accident to riding. @zenmotorcyclemaintenance is another who creates content on the mental health benefits of riding a motorcycle including ADHD management. 

While it is interesting to hear personal accounts of the mental health benefits of riding, there is some science that documents the effects of riding a motorcycle for mental health, and even alertness and sensory awareness. One study observed a decrease in hormonal biomarkers of stress by 25% and similar improvement of alertness to a cup of coffee.

Probably the most interesting relationship between riding and mental health for me is the comparison between competently riding a motorcycle and doing EMDR – made by Joseph Leondike, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and veteran, who works with other vets. EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is one of the gold standard trauma treatments. Due to several factors, including the necessary sweeping of the rider’s eyes and achieving a state of flow, he identifies some similarity in how the brain experiences the ride and EMDR. (A personal correspondence with Dr. Leondike, and episode 46 of the This Motorcycle Life podcast hosted by Bruce Philp.) He believes there may be some direct benefit to riding for people with enough competency riding to achieve a state of flow, in which the rider is faced with a challenging enough situation to demand full attention and presence but not so much as to be overwhelmed.

Of course, these conditions can be met by engaging in many different activities, from mountain biking to horseback riding, and many other things. I am excited to have a good excuse to ride my motorcycle, however, and I’m sticking to it! 

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