When was the last time you rode a roller coaster? Did you have fun? Did you scream? Or did you vow to never go on a roller coaster ever again? If you have a fear of roller coasters, your experience probably wasn’t as fun as the thrill-seekers in your life.
Having a fear of roller coasters is common, but it can be frustrating when you chaperone trips to amusement parks or check out thrill rides with your friends. By understanding what happens in the body and mind when you read about or ride roller coasters, you can more logically think through your experiences and work toward overcoming your fears.
What Is The Fear of Roller Coasters Called?
The fear of roller coasters has a rather unsurprising name - coasterphobia. This phobia, also known as veloxrotaphobia, is completely normal. After all, roller coasters were designed to be scary! It is possible, however, to overcome a fear of roller coasters and enjoy every ride at your favorite amusement park!
Is Fear of Roller Coasters Common?
Hundreds of millions of people ride roller coasters each year, but it’s hard to determine how many people aren’t riding roller coasters because they are terrified of them. Experts do believe it’s a common fear, and you are not alone if you don’t like roller coasters!
Data on specific phobias show that 19 million people experience intense phobias of things like sharks, heights, or frogs, but how many of those are afraid of roller coasters? We can’t be completely sure. Most people who have a crippling fear of roller coasters simply live their lives without going to theme parks or boardwalks.
Considering how scary roller coasters are designed to be, it’s not surprising that coasterphobia is common!
Can You Be Diagnosed with a Fear of Roller Coasters?
Unless you cannot keep a job because the only employment opportunities available are at nearby amusement parks, you probably don’t need to see a professional to deal with your fear of roller coasters. A therapist or counselor cannot diagnose you with coasterphobia, either. Coasterphobia is considered a “specific phobia,” like the fear of ghosts, the fear of cotton balls, or the fear of failure.
What Is A Specific Phobia?
The DSM-5 lays out specific criteria for “specific phobias”:
- Marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation
- The phobic object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety.
- The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger posed by the specific object or situation and to the socio-cultural context.
- The phobic object or situation is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for 6 months or more.
- The disturbance is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, including fear, anxiety, and avoidance of situations associated with panic-like symptoms or other incapacitating symptoms (as in agoraphobia); objects or situations related to obsessions (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder); reminders of traumatic events (as in posttraumatic stress disorder); separation from home or attachment figures (as in separation anxiety disorder); or social situations (as in social anxiety disorder).
The important criterion here to note is “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” Most people can go about their lives with a fear of roller coasters and function just fine. This means that it’s unlikely that anyone who goes to a therapist’s office with a fear of roller coasters will receive a formal diagnosis.
What Causes Fear of Roller Coasters?
Why are people afraid of roller coasters? Well, because we’re supposed to be! Roller coasters were designed and marketed to give us a thrill and shake us up! It makes sense that our bodies and minds respond to watching or being on a roller coaster with fear or trepidation. Humans were not meant to go so fast, stop so short, or whip around the way we do on these rides!
Marketing and Messaging Surrounding Roller Coasters
Here’s how Six Flags writes about the Kingda Ka roller coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey:
“You’ll leave the station going from 0 to 128 miles per hour in a jaw-dropping 3.5 seconds. Actually, there won’t even be time for your jaw to drop. You’ll be shooting up that impossible height so fast, you won’t even have time to think, so just hang on. It’s 90° straight up. And once you get to the top you’ll be plummeting right back down in a 270-degree spiral that is not recommended for wimps. There is very little that can prepare you for a drop of this intensity.”
Words like “death-defying,” “thrilling,” “exhilarating,” and “terrifying” all paint a picture of what it’s like to be on a roller coaster. Our rational brain has the opportunity to check in with ourselves and remember that all these roller coasters go through rigorous safety testing. But that isn’t on the poster outside the roller coaster!
It’s normal for people who don’t like thrilling experiences to get anxious at the idea of impossible heights or something that they cannot prepare for.
Seeing people being terrified by roller coasters may invoke the fear of roller coasters, too. Think about what people do when they ride roller coasters. They scream, pray, cry, you name it. Watching people experience fear on a roller coaster may light up parts of the brain that make you feel nervous, even though you aren’t experiencing the roller coaster yourself!
Our brains have mirror neurons that activate when we watch someone perform an action. Have you ever watched someone eat a delicious meal and felt like you were eating it, too? Have you ever watched a horror movie and felt the dread of the main characters, even though you were safe at home? Mirror neurons explain why we feel these emotions. They may also explain why we get scared by watching people do other scary activities. Think of a child watching people scream and freak out on a roller coaster, without knowing the safety mechanisms and testing that go behind that roller coaster. It’s no wonder they become scared!
If we are conscious of this process, however, we can actually use roller coaster footage and being around roller coasters to help overcome coasterphobia.
Past Experiences With Roller Coasters
It is also possible that a past experience with roller coasters turns a person off of the thrill rides forever. Sure, you may be afraid of roller coasters if you experience being stuck on a roller coaster or even being hurt by one. But you do not have to go through trauma to ride a roller coaster and decide they are not for you. During a roller coaster ride, the body senses a threat and goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. Adrenaline is released throughout the body, and we experience the symptoms that we commonly associate with roller coaster rides:
- Elevated heart rate
- Shaking, trembling, and tingling
- Fast breathing
- Chest pain
We experience these symptoms when we are crossing a rickety bridge, running from a bear, or falling in love. (Psychologists call this state being “aroused.”) Some people love the feeling of their heart pounding and their palms sweating. Others attribute it to danger and threats. They want to avoid it at all costs!
These are all completely valid reasons to avoid roller coasters. Having the knowledge of these causes may help you overcome your fear if you want to enjoy the thrill of roller coasters again.
Other Fears that Play Into Fear of Roller Coasters
You may not be afraid of roller coasters themselves, but a jumble of fears put together makes the idea of riding a roller coaster a terrifying experience. These three fears often play into the discomfort people feel when thinking about roller coasters:
Fear of Heights
The fear of heights is called acrophobia. This is a very common fear - 1 in 15 people reportedly get nervous thinking about high heights! Roller coasters play on that fear, building heights higher and higher. Kingda Ka remains the world’s tallest roller coaster, sending riders up and down 456 feet! That’s like dropping from a 45-story building.
Fear of Small Spaces
The fear of small spaces, or being trapped, is called claustrophobia. Even when you ride a roller coaster that is completely outside, being “trapped” by the ride’s safety mechanisms may trigger claustrophobia!
Fear of Vomiting
When the ear and brain cannot make sense of a roller coaster’s twists and turns, a rider may experience motion sickness. If the motion sickness is bad enough, the rider might feel nauseous or even vomit. That possibility alone keeps many people off roller coaster rides. The fear of vomiting is also known as emetophobia.
How To Overcome Fear of Roller Coasters
Whether you have never ridden a roller coaster or have recently developed a fear of roller coasters, you can take many steps to overcome your fear and enjoy all that an amusement park can offer. Try the following to overcome your fear:
- Journal about your experiences
- Practice mindfulness meditation to connect with feelings and emotions in your body
- Create affirmations about safety that you can repeat as you watch roller coasters or ride one yourself
- Watch people ride the same roller coaster over and over again until the experience “bores” you
- Ask trusted family and friends to ride roller coasters with you
- Buy yourself a gift or treat after you ride smaller, then larger, roller coasters
You may not overcome your fear of roller coasters overnight, but with small steps, you can become more comfortable with the idea of thrill rides!