In an effort to bring some variety and vitality back into my life, I took a couple of trips with my daughter earlier this year – one for her birthday and one for mine. We both share a passion for roller coasters, so the trips were Theme Park, ahem, themed. Without them I think the monotony of the zombified state I’ve been in would have got the better of me some months ago. As it is, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Like the ride itself, each roller-coaster provided a noticeable spike up in mood.
It’s perhaps obvious if you think about it – after all, that’s why people go on thrill rides in the first place – the cue is in the name. I’d just never experienced it so profoundly, perhaps because I’ve never been quite as down when I went to theme parks in my youth as I was this year. The peaceful, serene, euphoric happiness I felt after each ride (and especially the most white knuckled of them) was truly profound. It provided what my medication had been failing to. My daughter and I bounced off each ride together, faces flushed, grinning toothily at each other as we decided which one to go for next. (There were necessary breaks in-between though, as I was still pretty unwell and unfit, especially earlier in the year, so had to give myself time to physically recover between rides.)
Is this the reason I grew up loving thrill rides so much, from the time I was finally tall enough to experience them? (I’m still only 4’9 1/2″, so this took longer than you might think!) Given that I now know I’ve always had depressive and melancholic tendencies, and always been anxious, that makes a certain amount of sense. I did wonder also why my extreme anxiety didn’t seem to factor in when going on rides though – I would get nervous, sure, but it was an excited nervous rather than an ‘oh, God, I need to get out of this situation NOW’ nervous, akin to the delicious anticipation I’ve always felt just before stage performances. Scary, but ‘good scary’, and manageable. However, I know plenty of people for whom day-to-day anxiety levels are fairly neurotypical, but they cannot cope with a roller coaster, and find it too high, fast, threatening, frightening etc. This seems counter-intuitive, and I’m interested in the correlation of people like me and tendencies towards thrill-seeking.
A little research into adrenaline and stress indicated that these can have both beneficial and detrimental effects on the body and mind, depending on context, circumstance and quantity. An adrenaline rush, which roller coasters are known to trigger, provides a rush of blood to the muscles and a sense of clarity as your body prepares for fight, flight or freeze. Your heart races, your airways relax (to allow more oxygen into your blood to fuel those muscles should you need to start running), and you see more clearly as your pupils dilate. Time appears to slow down as your responses sharpen. In short, it provides a sense of really feeling alive, and this is something which is notably lacking in someone severely depressed.
In addition, roller coaster rides are known to provide a particularly beneficial form of stress response, known as eustress. This means that the stress response from a rollercoaster ride provides positive effects on your body rather than the negative long-term effects associated with prolonged life/work stress.
If you’re constantly low on serotonin and dopamine (the ‘happy’ chemicals – yes I know I’m oversimplifying but still), the effect of an adrenaline rush can mimic the feeling of being positive and excited – something a depressed individual finds hard to achieve in everyday life. It also provides a nice comforting flood of endorphins; therefore killing pain, and further enhancing the feel-good feely feels. Small wonder, then, that I loved the exhilaration. It’s so unusual for me that it was literally a drug-like high. Those moments just after a ride I was mesmerised by the calmness and joy flooding my system; it was a sensation that had been elusive to me recently, to the point that it seemed entirely alien and new. I can see how it could get addictive.
So obviously I’m definitely not advocating you go on roller coasters everyday to treat your mood. Apart from the ridiculous expense this would incur (I mean – theme parks are sooooo damn pricey), it would be dangerous to physically put yourself through the effects of an adrenaline rush on a regular basis. But I am suggesting that a weekend trip to a theme parks, provided you are fit and healthy enough to ride, might help just a little, and give a small moment of relief from the black cloud. It did for me, anyway. I must be off now, feeling the urge to start booking a few more white knuckle experiences for next year…and I haven’t ridden The Smiler nearly enough times yet.
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