Face Your Fears: Mount Students Calm Anxiety While Riding Roller Coasters
This story appears in the Exceptional Education section of the Fall/Winter 2016 edition of the Mount Union Magazine.
As I write this, I am ten days from arriving at Cedar Point with a bus full of anxiety-filled humans who, just eight weeks ago, professed a full-blown phobia of the mechanical wonders they will soon ride for the first time. As you read this, you can rest assured those individuals have joined the ranks of hundreds of successful alumni of the Face your Fear Project, an ensemble of some of the most courageous, hard-working students with which I have ever had the pleasure of working. Now in its seventh year, this experiential journey brings abnormal psychology to life, and students witness first-hand how anxiety disorders are diagnosed and treated.
Before fall classes begin, the 30 students who signed up are screened to see if they display either an extreme anxiety or phobia of roller coasters. If they do, they are cast into the “participant group” and begin a journey towards freeing themselves from the shackles of their fear. If they didn’t, they became part of the “support group”, and play a vital role in their peers’ journey.
You may be wondering how I am so confident in this year’s class’ success. For starters, 83 students have been in the participant group over the past six years, and the success rate is 100 percent. Yes, all 83 students who have set goals have found a way to reach them. And yet, like any coach before a big game, I will spend hours listening to the voices in my head whisper worry and self-doubt: “Did you do enough?” “Have they done enough?” “What if the bus breaks down?” (OK, so that one has actually happened. Often). That said, when that anxious noise gets louder, it helps to remind myself that I have learned something invaluable from my students: trust them.
Be here, not there
I have learned quite a lot working with my students over the years, and if you ever find yourself dealing with the boogeyman inside your head, here are two to keep in mind (pun intended).
Next time someone asks you what you are going to do on a given day, say, “Not much. Just going to find a quiet place to meditate”. As you walk away, there is a good chance the person will either brush it aside as you trying to be funny, or wonder where your robe and sandals are, since you have clearly become a monk or joined some hipster cult of pseudo-medicine. If the answer you gave was honest, you are among a growing group in our society that has chosen to tap into a well-researched “too-good-to-be-true-only-this-time-it-really-is” practice that anyone can participate in anywhere.
Our mind’s natural state is to meander through our pasts and futures. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, anxiety lives in the what-ifs of life, and for someone struggling with anxiety those “what-ifs” often take the form of catastrophic potentials that feed the boogeyman and can set off a vicious cycle. Keeping our minds in the present takes concerted effort, but when we practice for as little as 15 minutes every day, benefits are reaped. Our concentration improves and negative emotional reactivity goes down. We feel happier and more satisfied with our lives. We’re more prone to empathy. We learn better. Our blood pressure drops. Did I mention United States Marines practice it? NFL teams? Elementary school children? If you can’t tell I could go on, but the bottom line is that by choosing to insert some mindful-meditation into your life, you are taking a huge step towards improving you.
Now that I have you convinced, here is a simple way to get started. It’s a little exercise that my wife (who is a therapist and part of our Mount Union faculty family) helped me find, and something everyone involved in the Face your Fear Project learns on day one:
- Find a quiet place to sit. You don’t necessarily have to be alone, as long as anyone joining you is also participating. Relaxing instrumental music is optional, as are Buddhist robes and incense.
- Take a slow deep breath, and when you do, make sure your shoulders do not move up or down. In fact, the only part of your body that should move is your abdomen, and it should extend out. Way out. This may feel awkward to some people, as many don’t know how to use abdominal breathing. Unless you do it this way, you are not using your lungs to their maximum capacity. So keep practicing!
- Now that you know how to breathe, it’s time to begin. Take a slow deep breath in to a count of five, and hold it for a couple moments. Next, exhale to the same slow count of five, pressing all of the air you can out of your lungs. Take two normal breaths, and then repeat. Inhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…hold it…and exhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
- As you breathe, make an effort to keep your mind focused on the breath moving in and out of your body. But be warned: your mind will wander. That’s OK. It happens to even the most seasoned, mindful meditators. The brain-change happens when you make the choice to not feel guilty or shameful about not being focused 100 percent of the time. No one can. The trick is to keep reminding yourself that these are just thoughts moving through, and to mentally wave them goodbye as they pass and make an effort to refocus to your breathing. A non-judgmental mindset (of yourself) is key.
- Keep this up for 15 minutes every day and give it at least four to six weeks to really make an impact. That last part is something that doesn’t always sit well with folks. We want quick fixes and immediate results. The problem is that most quick fixes may not offer not lasting relief. Adopting a small lifestyle change like this can have lasting results.
A common question about Face your Fear is, “What do the support students do?”, but I am thoroughly convinced that without the help of this group the success of the project would not be close to what it is. Students in the support group learn from the other students the things they can do to help on the day of exposure (the portion that takes place at Cedar Point). They also work with them over the eight weeks by conducting interviews about their progress, insights, and experiences. In brief, the groups become something greater than just their parts. They are all working towards a common goal, all equally committed to everyone’s success. That sounds an awful lot like family, and it’s precisely the type of support anyone battling anxiety needs. The take home? You don’t have to be in the fight alone, so choose not to be.
I often talk about the role or surrogate support system that therapists frequently play for people who need it. So if you happen to feel alone, I promise there are empathetic therapists living amongst you with the knowledge and life mission to be there for you. And what does a supportive person do in the face of anxiety? They listen, they ask what type of help someone might need, and sometimes help provide that caring and understanding push needed to get on that roller coaster. Or drive down that highway. Or get on that plane. Or give that speech.
As I write this, there’s a voice in my head whispering that this time I didn’t do enough for my students’ success and that this whole piece will come off as uniformed drivel. It’s also reminding me that the bus will most likely break down. Again. But that’s just the anxiety talking, so I’m going to go find a quiet place and meditate, and remember to trust my students. Now where did I put my robe…