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Anatomy of a panic

My ride home from the MOA’s National Rally outside Richmond, Virginia, was going well. I’d savored the Blue Ridge Parkway on my leisurely trip there, but had to hustle down the interstate on my way back. While I-81 can be dense with truck traffic, it wasn’t bad this time, and the rolling hills of Virginia’s midsection offered a peaceful, bucolic counterpoint to the rally’s high-intensity stimulation. Rain was forecast for parts of my journey, but never materialized beyond a transient sprinkle, and I was enjoying wonderfully mild temps in sharp contrast to the last National’s inferno! (See “Baptism by Fire.”)

My fuel mileage was worse than it’d been on the way up from my home in eastern Tennessee, probably due to a much higher average speed. Whereas two tanks had gotten me to my hotel with a dozen miles to spare, I was playing chicken with my fuel gauge as I neared my home county line, my GPS and miles-to-empty countdown showing identical distance remaining. I decided to save myself the anxiety about having this pleasant trip disrupted by running out of gas; I could afford several minutes for a splash of petrol! Half-consciously on autopilot, I removed my tank bag, flipped open my gas cap and reached for the jacket pocket where I always keep my wallet…

A wave of nausea crashed down on me with startling weight.

The pocket, which I routinely zip shut tightly to prevent the escape of its precious cargo, was wide open and empty. I quickly patted down the other handwarmer pocket and the slash pockets in my riding pants, as I have occasionally stuffed my wallet in those places before. Nothing. I frantically double- and triple-checked in case the wallet might have inexplicably evaded detection during a previous search or magically reappeared. My disbelief—or, more accurately, hopeful denial —didn’t last long. There’s a profound sinking feeling impossible to capture in words, but everyone has had it. That feeling engulfed me as the sickening realization my wallet was gone eclipsed everything else in my awareness.

Did I forget to zip the pocket, allowing my wallet to tumble out somewhere—could be anywhere—along the 220 miles since I last refueled? While certainly possible, this seemed unlikely, given the pocket’s cradle shape and how a bit of tension across it in the riding position actually snugs down its contents. No, what else could have happened? Then I remembered.

Mark’s first mistake was stopping at THIS gas station.

Upon climbing back into the saddle at that last gas stop, I’d felt something under my butt. It didn’t seem like much at the time, and a sweep of my hand eradicated the anomaly, as though it’d simply been a little fold in the reinforced seat panel of my riding pants. Now I questioned this interpretation and grew more skeptical by the second. I’d worn these same pants many times and had never felt such a wrinkle in the past. The odd impingement at my posterior must have been my wallet, left absent-mindedly on the seat after filling my tank. Somehow, I’d swung my leg over the saddle without noticing it and plopped down on it without knocking it off its perch. Then, with a glove-insulated hand, I’d unwittingly brushed it off the seat onto the pavement beside me, oblivious in my helmeted, ear-plugged state to any sound its impact might have made. Maybe some honest soul turned it in to the gas station clerk (with or without the cash it contained—I cared much more about the credit cards and IDs). Maybe said clerk had the integrity to put it in some kind of lost-and-found box. Maybe I could figure out how to call them from the information on my gas receipt—or maybe they’ve already tried to call me! I grabbed my phone to see if a message had come in during my last stint on the road. No such luck.

During all this distressing reverie, cars were lining up behind me at the pump. Not only was my wallet gone, but now I couldn’t even put enough fuel in my bike to make it home. Could I beg a few bucks from someone? Then I remembered something else: I’d taken MOA Digital Editor Wes Fleming’s touring advice and hidden some cash on my bike (thanks, Wes!). At least I could finish this ride and figure out my next steps in a safe space. I steeled myself against despair and methodically dug out the tools needed to uncover my secret stash, paid the clerk, and replenished my fuel supply. The line of undoubtedly impatient drivers witnessing this clumsy, time-consuming sequence was growing, but I stayed focused and was able to hobble out of their way before anyone barked at me. I put my bike and myself back together elsewhere in the parking lot.

Maintaining momentum through the elementary procedures of filling up doesn’t typically require great effort, but I was seriously upset about the loss of my wallet—especially given how appallingly careless I’d been in leaving it on my seat and knocking it to the ground. Such grave consequences for such a piddling, easily avoided error! I’d have to drive 230 miles each way to retrieve it if it was even available for retrieving! My mind was flooded with worry, self-reproach, and dread of the many hours of tedium that’d be required to remedy this catastrophe, whether returning to that gas station or replacing my wallet’s contents.

Should I call to cancel all my credit cards right now, even though I’m only ten miles from home? Maybe I could avoid that hassle if someone turned in my wallet. Is there a phone number on my gas receipt? OH NO!! I tucked that into my wallet! I didn’t even know where that gas station was! As the last drops of hope drained out of me, I put my tool bag away, stood to stretch my stiff limbs—and felt a subtle lump against my chest. Finally, another memory resurfaced.

At that last fuel stop, I’d noted dark clouds on the horizon and decided I’d best prepare for rain proactively. All I really had to do was switch to my waterproof gloves, as I was already wearing Gore-Tex-fortified gear everywhere else, but I’d done a little extra. Instead of putting my wallet back in its usual place, I’d slipped it into an interior pocket at chest level—a spot that seemed less vulnerable to water intrusion, although the handwarmer pockets had proven reliably dry. This was a fleeting whim, a trivial move involving zero deliberation, and the new location was one I’d never used before. All this seemed meaningless, and was promptly displaced by other thoughts about resuming my ride.

Now, clutching it from the outside, I recognized my wallet’s shape. I felt a vague sense of relief, but it took time for my churning guts and black mood to abate after looming so large only seconds before. Though there was no practical advantage in doing so at this point, I moved my wallet to its proper place and took comfort in feeling it there. Just as I’d been incredulous about the carelessness imagined moments earlier, I couldn’t believe I had forgotten about the chest pocket transfer, or taken seriously the utterly unrealistic notion I could’ve climbed aboard my bike without seeing my wallet on the seat. What was wrong with me?! Was this a sign of senility’s arrival? A manifestation of pathological reactivity? Evidence I can’t trust myself to manage even the simplest, most mundane tasks without a terribly consequential fumble?

On the brief remainder of my ride home, as my body and mind settled down, I came to a less disturbing conclusion. Anxiety, fear and panic all narrow our attention and perspective. If I’m running from a bear, it behooves me to focus tightly on the project of escape, not reflect on how to best rebalance my investment portfolio for the upcoming quarter. However, I might point my sharpened attention at the bear, instead of the path ahead through the woods, and trip over a branch. Or I might start imagining more bears hiding in every shadow and freeze, unable to choose a direction. If my internal alarm is loud enough, I could lose my focus altogether and experience a splintering fragmentation of thought, with my attention darting counterproductively from the bear to this bush or that vine, or a sound I might have heard off to my left.

The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes is brought to you by the MOA Foundation.

Gripped by fear, our minds automatically orient to details at the expense of the big picture; we can’t see the forest for the trees. Those ideas—and actions—most deeply ingrained by prior repetition may withstand such turbulence, while the rest are quickly swept away by powerful emotional crosscurrents. This is why it’s so important to practice panic stops, for instance, and make those control inputs reflexive. In a split-second crisis on the road, we have neither the time nor the psychological bandwidth to sort through multiple options or the individual steps involved. This is especially true when we’re physically and/or mentally fatigued, as I was after a day of interstate droning. In the heat of the moment, we do what we’ve done most.

When my wallet wasn’t where I expected it to be, the first alarm was triggered. When it wasn’t in any of the other familiar places, more alarms went off. When my mind seized upon the memory of feeling something odd under my butt, it got stuck there because of my emerging panic; the cacophony of alarms drowned out logical thought and precluded further exploration. I experienced “target fixation,” like what can happen when we spot a threat with our eyes, and my train of thought crashed into this gaping pothole of an idea. I then elaborated upon the imagined mishap, rather than zooming back out to a broader perspective that probably would have included the transfer of my wallet to a novel location. My tunnel-vision insisted it had to reside in its established spot or be lost, end of story. Perhaps I could have calmed myself down with a few deep breaths if I hadn’t felt pressured by the line forming behind me at the pump and my increasing desperation about getting home.

Obviously, this wasn’t my first panic rodeo. I’m all too familiar with the horrible juxtaposition of my anxiety shooting through the roof while my stomach falls through the floor. Some of those times I really did make a costly mistake; other times I was mistaken. Regardless, the first priority is reestablishing emotional equilibrium so rational thought has a fighting chance of recalling relevant information and employing careful reasoning. An agitated approach to problem solving is at best woefully inefficient, and at worst fatally impaired by blind spots and misdirected attention. Breathing deeply, walking slowly around the block, releasing muscular tension, drinking some water and getting a bite to eat—any of these can be helpful in regaining perspective. Deliberately resisting the tendency to focus tightly on some detail is key, although actually doing so is far easier said than done. We must pry open our minds and regain sight of the big picture, so we can take a more complete inventory of the possibilities.

A missing wallet is not a bear or emergency braking; I could have simply wheeled my bike out of the way and taken my time recovering from that initial shockwave. Had I then been able to think straight, I wouldn’t even have had to fool with exhuming my spare cash. Anxiety and panic build on themselves; it’s much better to interrupt them sooner, rather than later.

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.