Growing up, most of my family members were afraid of amusement park rides. Truthfully, there was anxiety about a lot of things around me. From swimming to elevators to fear of flying, my little eyes witnessed a lot of panic from an early age. As a kid, I did a lot of things on my own, including riding my first roller coaster, Space Mountain, alone when I was five!). That younger version of myself would have never believed that I’d need help figuring out how to overcome fear on roller coasters and thrill rides. Yet, it happened.
This post shares effective tips and strategies for how to overcome fear on roller coasters. Based on research and personal experience, we share the steps we took to eventually conquer world record-breaking rides. Keep reading to learn how to beat anxiety and enjoy roller coasters.
During my childhood in Montreal, my friends and I would make several trips to LaRonde each summer and every year, I’d push myself to go bigger. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for 10-year-olds to navigate the world on their own. I’m amazed by how independent kids used to be.
After becoming a mother and suffering a concussion, I stopped being as daring. That changed last year. Leading up to my grandmother’s death, my life was a living hell. Family drama, fights with nursing homes, grief… it took a toll — and then it liberated me. Rather than let those challenges knock me down, I decided to stand tall and live my best life.
Here’s how I started overcoming my fear of roller coasters and thrill rides. Every time I take it up a notch and try something new, I move through these same steps. It works for me!
How Research Helped Me Overcome Fear of Roller Coasters
When my thrill riding journey began, I found myself doing a lot of research to see if anyone else had done what I was doing. It turns out that there are are other people who go to theme parks as a form of therapy. Take Pete Trabucco, for example. Even though he authored, the book America’s Top Roller Coasters and Amusement Parks he hated rides as a kid. Now that he’s an adult, all of that has changed.
He confronted his feelings about roller coasters because he felt that it was rooted in “a fear of all things unknown.” After climbing on more than 1,000 coasters around the world, he believes that getting on thrill rides can actually be wonderful for our mental health. As Trabucco says, “Once you’ve overcome one fear, you’re like, ‘Let’s look for the next one.’”
Meanwhile, I pored over the work of Dr. Kevin Meyer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio. This incredible academic decided to think outside the box and created the “Face Your Fear” project. Students in his Abnormal Psychology class work through fears in this eight-week course and the end with a trip to Cedar Point Amusement Park, “The Roller Coaster Capital of the World.”
In a video for the class, Meyer’s students learn how to cope with their anxiety using techniques including:
- Breathing and focusing on the present.
- Positive affirmations.
- Rethinking how you think.
For months before traveling to Cedar Point to conquer Top Thrill Dragster, I watched this video documenting the students’ journeys. It was so encouraging and I’m so grateful to have found it when I needed it most!
One more important piece of research — The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions states that the chance of being seriously injured on a fixed-site ride at a U.S. amusement park is 1 in 18 million.
How to Overcome Fear on Roller Coasters
Based on what I’ve learned from research, my background as a psychology professor, and as someone who has personally worked through anxiety, these are my three steps for how to overcome fear on roller coasters. I’ve added a fourth for those of us with obsessive compulsive disorder and/or germaphobia.
- Start with smaller roller coasters
- Gather information about the rides
- Work on mindfulness and self-talk
- Deal with germs on roller coasters
Before we go any further, I’ve got to say that this is no overnight cure. You’re going to have to work hard for it, but I promise that it will get easier. I’m always pushing myself and still get a little nervous, but I can’t believe how far I’ve come. Now, the things that used to terrify me are completely and utterly boring. It’s fantastic!
Start With Smaller Roller Coasters
Want to get on a world record-breaking roller coaster like Cannibal at Lagoon or Do-dodonpa at Fuji-Q Highland? Maybe you just want to be able to get on the rides with your friends and family on your next theme park trip. You could jump right on one of those big roller coasters and try to conquer your fears that way, but it could backfire.
When we were early in this process, my younger daughter summoned up her courage to join me on Cannibal and she just wasn’t ready. She experienced a regression in her progress and her nerves intensified. It took some extra time to get back in the saddle, so that moment of bravery wasn’t worth it. We think it’s best to work your way up and keep going from there.
Do not worry about what anyone has to say — head straight to the kiddie coaster, if that feels like the best choice for you. When we started this journey and I decided to find my roller coaster groove, we were truly nervous on the Wild Mouse (picture above). We picked rides based on the ride height requirements or thrill factor listed on the park’s website. When we conquered one level, we moved on to the next. We took it one step at a time and never judged ourselves during the process.
Gather Information About the Roller Coaster
When I’m working to overcome fear on roller coasters and thrill rides, I don’t want any major surprises. The ride itself is experience enough! Gathering information beforehand really helps me manage my anxiety because knowledge is power. In addition to the park’s official website, I scour the internet for the goods.
Here are the things I like to know before I’m locked in:
- How fast is it?
- What is the max height?
- How steep is the drop?
- How long does the drop last?
- What’s noteworthy about it?
- Have there been incidents?
- Is there a YouTube video?
- Do people like it?
Yes, I’ve been known to watch the YouTube video of a ride while I’m waiting in line, if I didn’t have time to do it before heading to the park. Yes, I want to know if there were incidents and I want to know if they were resolved. And yes, I absolutely talk to people in line and ask them to tell me about anything they think would be rough for me. By the time I get to the front of the line, I usually have a group of people cheering me on. How great is that?
The key here is removing the element of surprise. For thrill seekers, this might dampen the experience. For me, it gives me the knowledge and reassurance I need to get on a ride. When I know *exactly* what lies ahead, I’m able to be prepared. That preparation has not diminished the joy of getting on a roller coaster. After all, I wouldn’t be able to get on without the confidence my research provides. Now, I’m the girl making yearly roller coaster bucket lists!
Self-Talk and Mindfulness to Overcome Fear on Roller Coasters
In scary situations, have you ever paid attention to what you’re saying to yourself? You’d be amazed at all the negative thoughts looping around inside your head. I’m sad imagining all of the experiences I missed out on because of negative self talk. When I decided to start tackling roller coasters again, I reflected on the way my mind and body would respond. I made it a goal to change the narrative into something more inspiring and positive.
My thoughts would run wild with things like, “this is crazy!” or “this is stupid!” or “this is too scary!” It wasn’t uncommon for me to feel convinced that a roller coaster would lead to my death. I started making a conscious effort to stop that cycle in its tracks.
My whole body would tense up (and sometimes it still does!), which would only add to my fears. While paying attention to my physical and mental response, and thanking my mind and body for trying to keep me safe, I take a centering breath and mentally say:
- I can do anything for 30/60/90 seconds.
- This is exciting.
- I’m a complete badass!
- This is going to be crazy, but amazing.
- If I don’t like it, I never have to do it again.
- I’m relaxing my jaw and shoulders (on repeat, as much as needed!)
So, when I’m strapped in and I get that sinking feeling, I immediately work on my self-talk. You can calm the “I’m so scared” thoughts by taking a deep, cleansing breath. Tell yourself, “This is a new experience but I’m going to relax and open myself up to the adventure.” Altering your self-talk to overcome fear on roller coasters and thrill rides creates a huge mental shift and it’s empowering.
Dealing with Germs on Roller Coasters
Conquering the fear of getting on an intimidating roller coaster is one thing, but the grossness factor of thrill rides is just as scary to me (if not more) than plunging down a steep drop. The level of concern, though, really depends on the type of restraints on a ride. If it’s just a lap bar, I’m less stressed. If it’s an over-the-shoulder harness that might come in contact with my face, let’s just say that’s more of a problem.
Hundreds of riders have drooled, snotted, coughed and barfed on those things. The last thing I want is to touch that, so, this was a big deal when I was focusing on overcoming fear on roller coasters. Over time, I’ve developed this strategy (for more, read our 5 Ways to Avoid Germs at Amusement Parks):
- Check seats for grossness before loading onto rides.
- Sanitize the areas of the harness that touch my face with hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes.
- Use Kleenex Germ Removal Wipes on your arms, neck and face, as needed.
- Have an extra hand sanitizer in a bag or locker.
If you’re planning to visit Universal Orlando Resort, you should know that you’re not allowed to take ANYTHING on the rides. They even made me put my pocket sanitizer in a locker! Having a backup plan in case you go somewhere with rules like these is always a good idea. Use a Lysol wipe (that’s allowed) to clean the harness when sanitizer isn’t available.
Remember, what you do to cope doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else. This is about finding ways to work through your own anxiety (or OCD in my case) in order to live life more fully. If you’re with someone who is struggling, don’t judge their process and don’t point out any flaws in their thinking. Just offer your compassion, empathy, and support!