Nearly fifty million Americans suffered panic attacks, phobias, or other anxiety disorders in the past year. Sixteen million suffered major depression, which is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. Most concerning, suicide rates in the U.S. continue to rise, especially among working-age men, increasing 43% from 1997 to 2014 and showing no sign of slowing down. Depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide have reached epidemic proportions in 21st Century America.
Four years ago, I discovered the significance of these statistics firsthand. At 37, with a wife, two kids, a nice house, and a respected career, my life seemed enviable. But over the course of eight months a lead blanket of despair settled on me, pressing all joy and hope out of me. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was falling into clinical depression caused by a potent combination of prolonged stress, existential angst, and career stagnation. My ambition was gone. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning. Relationships became distant and difficult. At its worst, I could barely function.
Fortunately, through counseling, medication, job changes, exercise, and motorsports, I am remarkably better, if not yet cured. Yes, you read that last item correctly! In addition to the typical treatments for depression, my automotive hobby proved a major part of my treatment, and I believe it can offer the same help to many who struggle with mental health issues. So to those of you struggling to find a way to justify the financial costs of this hobby to a significant other, here you go! No, it’s NOT cheaper than counseling; one set of Hoosier’s could pay for a LOT of time on the couch! But motorsports is much, much cheaper in both financial and relational cost than a mental breakdown, an addiction, or a suicide attempt, which are the far-too-common costs of untreated mental health struggles. So let me show you how this hobby can help us each improve our mental health.
Though I began my career as an automotive engineer, an unexpected series of events led me into a job where I counsel many people who struggle with mental health issues. Treatment is multi-faceted, including spiritual, medical, and lifestyle changes. Yet there are consistent patterns that apply to all patients, including a trifecta of needs for (1) new relationships, (2) new challenges, and (3) periodic relief of emotional pain. Motorsports can meet all three of these needs. Whether you love drag racing, track school, wheel-to-wheel, endurance racing, rally, autocross, or car shows, your automotive passion can be a powerful tool for maintaining your mental health.
First, motorsports provides us with NEW RELATIONSHIPS. I’m an introvert. So “new relationships” was up there with “root canal” for things I preferred to avoid! I have a hard-enough time keeping up with the people I already know through work and family. However, as depression set in I discovered a difficult reality. It’s very hard to have fun with friends and family when they are connected to the situations causing your anxiety or depression! My friends were my coworkers. Hanging out with them kept a major cause of my depression (career stress and stagnation) in the foreground of my mind. Similarly, time with family kept the stress at home in sight (raising twins has proven to be harder than my wife and I ever imagined possible). I needed a new group of friends with whom I could enjoy something fun unrelated to my career and my family. I found that at my local race track. Wandering the garages between HPDE sessions, no one asked me about an HR situation at work or a child’s bad grade at school. We talked about wheel bearings, braking zones, and lap times. Now I’m certainly not saying that we should abandon work friends or, worse, family just because they cause us stress. Quite the contrary, the new, outside-the- box relationships we can develop through our automotive hobby provide a much needed “safe space” to rest our minds and enjoy friendship briefly removed from the stressors of everyday life. In my case, these new friendships breathed fresh air into a stale room, and thanks to the ubiquity of internet forums, continued to do so long after a track weekend ended. I could always find a little R&R reconnecting online with a friend from a track day over a technical question or driving technique. Motorsports provides a wealth of new relationships that can help us find hope in the midst of mental health struggles.
Second, motorsports gives the anxious, depressed, addicted, or lonely individual the gift of NEW CHALLENGES to embrace and overcome. We need that, especially those of us who have reached a plateau in our careers. A midlife crisis may be a cliché, but it’s no joke. A staggering number of professionally successful, middle-aged adults, especially men, suffer from this affliction. From my experience, it seems to strike when we are at our best in our chosen careers. It strikes the doctor not during the long hours and financial hardships of medical school, but after he or she builds a successful practice and settles into an efficient routine. It strikes the lawyer after, not before he or she makes partner. In my case, it struck in the years after I had gotten a master’s degree, honed my craft, and planted a successful church. I could speak to thousands of people without fear or hesitation. I had scaled the mountain and planted my flag. It was time to settle into an easier stage of my career at the top of my game. Only it didn’t work. Life was best when I was conquering new mountains. But I had conquered the final career mountain that lay before me, and like the successful doctors and lawyers I knew, the expectation was that I would now continue to do the same thing each week till I retired or died! That thought crushed me. I needed a new mountain to climb, and that’s what motorsports provided. Few hobbies give us as many potential mountains to climb! We can learn how to buy, build, set-up, drive, race or show a multitude of different cars in different classes and competitions. There are tens of thousands of possible permutations to explore, meaning there is literally no end to the possible mountains we can climb! Some of my best days in battling depression were spent underneath a car learning how to change a transmission, or out at a track learning how to handle an off- camber track-out. I still relish the thought of each HPDE promotion and each second cut off my best lap time. These victories have helped me flourish personally even without any new victories to score in my career.
Third, motorsports offers us brief moments of complete RELIEF from the mental anguish of depression or anxiety. When my depression was at its absolute worst, there was only one place where I could find total escape from the mental pain: behind the wheel lapping a track at full tilt. During hot laps, my mind was so completely engrossed on the task of driving that no other thought could compete for space. Adrenaline, exhilaration, and a healthy amount of fear consumed the darkness, if only for a moment. That was where I found relief, 25 minutes at a time! If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or profound loneliness, I encourage you to find a brief respite from the pain by pushing your automotive passion to the limit. Engage your brain and body in a challenge that will, at least for a few moments, absolutely consume you.
Finally, let me offer a word of encouragement to our entire automotive community, including those who have never struggled with mental health. Please realize that if the statistics quoted at the beginning of this article are true, a large percentage of the people with whom you race, build, or show are in the throes of a mental health struggle that, if left untreated, could cost them their families, their careers, and even their lives, and you may be the only “safe” person they can talk to about it. They can’t discuss it at work or home for fear of collateral damage. But they can talk about it with you because you don’t hold their career or home in your hands! You’re safe. You are uniquely positioned to be the friend who checks up on them, who asks how they’re really doing, and who encourages them to see a doctor or a counselor when needed. Yes, keep talking about wheel bearings and lap times! But please be willing to go beyond that. Let’s take care of each other. May our motorsports family become an even greater place of healing for the millions like me fighting for mental health.