On a recent Sunday morning in Ohio, a group of college students found themselves in a precarious situation.
They’re standing on the edge of a platform at a place known as “The Roller Coaster Capital of the World” and for them, there is nothing amusing about this amusement park.
Sensing the tension in the air, their professor offered a small, yet powerful, bit of advice – “Just breathe.”
Several of these students take the advice to heart because they’re not here for fun. They’re here to face, and hopefully overcome, their biggest fears.
The students are human guinea pigs in an “Abnormal Psychology” class at University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio.
In this unique “Face Your Fear” project, Dr. Kevin Meyer, an assistant professor of psychology at the university, teaches his students to overcome general anxiety and phobias through immersion and exposure therapy.
The class is divided into two groups – those who have a crippling fear of roller coasters - and those who do not. The goal is that at the end of the eight-week course, half the class will have learned to overcome their fears, while the other half will form a “support group” and learn to council their peers like a therapist would.
“The techniques they’re going to learn in this class are generalizable to all sorts of anxieties, all sorts of fears,” Meyer said. “Think of all the times you might be stumped by anxiety…asking for a raise at work, asking somebody out on a date…some people can just naturally overcome them, but other people get blocked, and they need help pushing through.”
Nearly 40 million adults in this country have some form of an anxiety disorder, from social anxiety to panic disorders to full-blown phobias.
Meyer said many of these different anxieties can be treated and even cured using a common approach.
“We teach people to relax their bodies so that they can learn to control their emotions and become more mindful of what they are thinking and feeling,” Meyer said. “After going through all the other steps we get the individual to face their fear.”
Biology major Lexie Bushee was one of the students who signed up for Meyer’s class. Terrified of certain roller coasters where riders sit in open cars, Bushee said she hoped his eight-week course would not only help her overcome her fears of the ride, but also other anxieties.
“I have anxiety for social situations. I hate to go anywhere with a crowd,” she said. “I would come up with any excuse to try and avoid those situations.”
May Tout, an exercise science major also in the class, knows exactly how Bushee feels.
“When it comes to over-thinking things I can be so extreme about it and just almost make myself sick,” she said.
Tout’s goal was to overcome her fear of riding a roller coaster named Top Thrill Dragster after witnessing a minor malfunction on it last year.
“It went straight up but it didn’t make the loop at the top and it went back down backwards and I was like, ‘Nope! Not going on this,’” she said.
At the beginning, she was skeptical that Meyer’s lessons would be enough to erase her fear.
“It’s terrifying to say the least,” Tout said. “So I guess my goal is to get farther in line, let alone ride it, so, we’ll see. I don’t know. I’m like sweating right now thinking about it.”
Another student in the class, criminal justice major Zach Irwin, a six-foot-six tall frat brother, had never ridden a roller coaster before because he had been so consumed with the idea he might fall out.
“It’s a very intense fear, whether it’s rational or not,” he said.
In preparation for the day when the students ride the roller coaster, Meyer teaches his class a series of techniques for keeping anxiety at bay, including breathing and focusing on the present, harnessing their inner strength with positive affirmation and watching point-of-view videos.
“It does not stop the irrational thought from forming...it gives their brain another option,” Meyer said of the point-of-view videos.
These meditative techniques may sound simple but Meyer says it takes mindful practice to make them work, so he spends the majority of the course having his students go through the motions.
At the end of the eight-week session, Bushee felt that she had achieved what Meyer’s techniques were designed to do.
“I think the breathing exercises that we have been doing have been working more than I thought. They are finally slowing my thoughts down,” she said.
Zach Irwin had new found determination to conquer his fears too, but Mary Tout was still filled with apprehension.
When the day came to ride the roller coasters and other thrill rides, the students all rode a bus together to Cedar Point amusement park. Meyer gave them a pep-talk along the way.
“Remember what to expect, you're going to be pushed out of your comfort zone…so prepare yourselves,” he reminded them. “Take some deep breaths, say your mantras, distract yourselves. It is going to be fun. But it's going to be an experience.”
When it came time to put his lessons to the test, Irwin and Bushee climbed aboard the front train car of a ride called Millennium Force and mustered the courage to strap in. After the 93-mile-per-hour ride returned to the platform, both shared a deep sense of accomplishment. “Looking at it is worse than being on it I think,” Irwin said.
The ride for Tout that began in tears quickly turned into cheers as Top Thrill Dragster reached a height of 420 feet and plummeted back to earth at 120 miles per hour.
“I’m so happy it’s over with. I actually had fun,” she said. “I was able to just push through it and know that I was confident enough to do it.”