How to Overcome Fear on Roller Coasters and Thrill Rides

by Jeanne
Lagoon Colossus: The Fire Dragon

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.

Busch Garden's Williamsburg Loch Ness Monster

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:

  1. Breathing and focusing on the present.
  2. Positive affirmations.
  3. 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.

  1. Start with smaller roller coasters
  2. Gather information about the rides
  3. Work on mindfulness and self-talk
  4. 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.

Lagoon Wild Mouse

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. 

Cedar Point Top Thrill Dragster Ride Photo

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.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg Griffon overcome fear on roller coasters and thrill rides

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):

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!

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9 comments

Katie April 14, 2019 - 3:19 pm

What an interesting article! I’ve never ever contemplated using strategies to use in hopes of overcoming the fear of rollercoasters/thrill rides. I just always assumed you liked them or didn’t and never thought of trying to encourage somebody who doesn’t like them to figure out how to overcome those fears. We’ll be taking my 12 yo thrill-ride-fearing son on some adventures this summer and I plan to put these strategies to work. Thank you!

jeanne April 14, 2019 - 4:48 pm

Last year, my daughter (14, at the t time) and I started this all with a weekend to a nearby park. She had never been on any “big” rides before and when I announced the destination for our girls getaway she seemed confused and nervous (I was too haha). Then, we turned it into an opportunity to see if we truly hate thrill rides or if it was just fear. Now, we’re getting ready to travel to Japan to tackle the coaster with the world’s fastest acceleration!

Nicole Smith April 14, 2019 - 4:28 pm

Why didn’t I ever think of the germs! Now I feel disgusting although I haven’t been on a roller coaster since I was a teenager. I think you gave solid advice for any situation that brings anxiety. I’m going to have to ‘steal ‘ some of them for when I go grocery shopping (I suffer from severe anxiety)

jeanne April 14, 2019 - 4:50 pm

Thank you so much! And if it feels any better, sometimes I think grocery shopping is scarier than a roller coaster (I really don’t love crowded stores!).

Debra Baca April 14, 2019 - 5:47 pm

Oh, my, gosh! I never really thought I would be a person that feared roller coasters. I usually avoid the ones that go upside down or twist a lot due to motion sickness, but I like thrill ride in general. I went on the Rip, Ride, Rock It at UO and thought I WAS GOING TO DIE! It really got to me, and I didn’t want to try a lot of the rides at Six Flags and Knott’s Berry Farm on our last trip. I definitely need to read your tips before our next trip so I can join my kids next time!

jeanne April 15, 2019 - 9:20 am

When I was a kid I really loved them and then things changed. I never thought I’d get on them again, but here I am! It’s not for everyone, but if you really want to get back on the rides, I hope these tips help you!

Denise Sullivan April 14, 2019 - 8:37 pm

I never think of the germs when going on the rides with my son at Universal (we go about every year)! Now, I’m going to be thinking about them. I loved your advice for dealing with the anxiety it brings. I’ve talked myself into every ride at the park (even the Rip Ride Rocket that I HATE) but I do them for my son. I’ve had to do some deep breathing and grounding myself when around the crowds though. The rides don’t bother me as much as the sheer number of people and they all seem to lose the concept of personal space. I’m sure your suggestions will help me as I face them once again in June!

Sherry April 14, 2019 - 9:05 pm

I love the concept of a cheering section of strangers that you meet in line. I’m afraid of heights but always wanted to try a zip line. They had a small one on the boardwalk once and I HAD to do it but I was nervous in line. There was a young kid, maybe 12 in front of me and he started telling me not to be scared, that it was awesome, he’d done it a few times, etc. His dad apologized but I was like, nonono, let him keep talking to me, this is so helpful. It really made a difference, even though I had to come down by myself.

Mona April 14, 2019 - 10:05 pm

Wow, I had not really considered the germs involved. I know the over the shoulder harness just raises my anxiety level. Great idea of sanitizer.

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