Drawing on Disney Experiences to Cope with Anxiety


Last week I had to have an MRI scan of my brain; don’t worry, I’m sure I am fine, and yes, it turns out I do, in fact, have one. As I laid down on the table, a fancy face harness locked in to place eerily close to my skin, and the technician doing my scan said, okay, now just stay entirely still; it will only take 30 minutes. Naturally, everything in my body started to feel twitchy.

As a foreign-sounding sequence of banging, ticking, clicking, and pounding began, I tried to calm myself down by closing my eyes and going to my happy place. Before long, I had attributed each sound swirling around my head to an attraction from the Disney parks that I love. I didn’t set out to do this; it wasn’t a part of some clever staying calm plan that I wasn’t smart enough to come up with beforehand, something in my consciousness found comfort in attributing the gear-like clicking to the incline in Splash Mountain seconds before you drop. The hollow rushing sounds had me revisiting those first moments through the tunnels on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad; even the more aggressive pounding noise took me back to the special effects in Fantasmic.

Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I rely on those fond memories and sensory details, deeply embedded into my being, to help me cope with the everyday stress of life. Ever since I was a child, my mother would have me sing Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah to myself whenever I was scared or nervous about something. Usually at the top of a steep ski run that I was probably too young to be heading down. Through the years, it stuck with me as I still find myself humming Disney tunes to lessen my anxiety.

But it doesn’t stop there. When I can’t sleep, I close my eyes and step foot into my home park in Disneyland, pacing out each step to one attraction or another, taking note of all the details in between. I force myself to commit to a specific path, taking each purposeful action along the way. Before I know it, my mind has run away with the idea, rarely reaching my destination and instead setting out on a Disney-themed dream that saves me from insomnia.

Back to my scan, in those 30 minutes, I was reminded that the imprint that Disney vacations make on your soul could last decades longer than the experience itself. I started to realize just how heavily I rely on my Disney time. Not unlike when my children were little, and I would hope that the Mickey Mouse face on their bandaid would distract them from the wound underneath. While the practice is much less physical for me and more of a sensory regulation, I use those moments, the sights, sounds, and smells, to tap into a better place whenever I feel overwhelmed.

You might be thinking I am crazy at this point. Perhaps my scan results will reflect that later this week, but the more I discovered this truth about myself, the more it became clear that Disney is not only my happy place on vacation but also my coping mechanism for just about every stressful situation — and it works. I constantly keep my mind busy with thoughts and lists when I need to control anxiety or racing thoughts. Anything from trying to list all of the represented countries of It’s A Small World (in order) to slowly moving through the queueing area of The Haunted Mansion, trying to remember each of the embellishments along the way.

I’ve often written to you about the value of Disney being in the lasting impression it has on you, not just in the time you spend in the parks, and this past week has cemented that opinion for me even more. There is a pleasure in it that begins the moment you start planning and never leaves you; for me, it serves as a floatation device when some of life’s most challenging moments are pulling me under.

Photo by Dylan Bman on Unsplash

You might be wondering why I decided to share this with you, and there are a few answers to that. The main reason is that I feel very strongly about sharing our experiences when it comes to mental health. Even though there is one, there shouldn’t be a stigma attached to emotional wellbeing, and we can only remove it by normalizing our challenges as a community. More so, when we find successful ways of dealing with these struggles, those strategies should be shared because you never know who you might help by doing so.

If you struggle with anxiety or high-stress levels and you’re a Disney fan like me, give some of my go-to moves mentioned above a try and see if they help lessen that overwhelmed feeling. In some ways, it has become almost a meditation of sorts for me, even though I didn’t realize it until a few days ago. I’m no trained professional, but from personal experience, I can tell you that it certainly works for my children and me.

Shall we practice now? You’re standing at the gates of your favorite Disney park; where are you headed to?

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