I’m in the home stretch of the usual impatient wait; counting down the final days before our vacation. I’ve reached the part where the impatience has turned in to a haze of ‘how did that time go so fast’ with last-minute visa applications and confirmations taking up most of my available brain space. My sister may tell you there wasn’t much brain activity available to begin with however none the less it is significantly reduced a handful of weeks away from our departure.
Today I found myself enjoying a moment of relief, the mundane activity of grocery shopping with my daughter was surprisingly relaxing. Given I was physically denied access to my computer for the entire hour and even more restraining, this particular supermarket where we occasionally shop has abysmal mobile phone reception as well making the whole experience a rare disconnect from the digital world we otherwise are confined by.
So there I was strolling down the cereal aisle, listening to my eleven-year-old chirp happily about whatever stream of consciousness ran through her head and directly out of her mouth when it happened. Something invisibly gripped my chest with an aggression that sent a wave of alarm throughout my entire being. I felt my body change in temperature, tensing up as what felt like all the blood rushed away from my head. My pulse quickened, and my knees felt the overwhelming desire to buckle under the shock of this physiological response I was having to seemingly nothing.
My daughter passed on by, still chattering about whatever random thought was occurring to her at the time. I tightened my grip on the shopping trolley, trying to put one foot in front of the other, desperately hoping it would soon pass. Despite the chest pain, lightheadedness, as well as a sudden feeling of confusion and paralysis, I tried to remind myself I was not dying of some fast-striking medical condition. I had felt all these things before.
I was having a panic attack.
Many years ago I was diagnosed with PTSD, and sadly the increasingly difficult circumstances I have found myself in lately are proving to be quite destructive to the progress I have made over the years in managing my anxiety. I take a moment and let my daughter know what is happening. As a child with ASD and anxiety herself, she has experienced this heart-stopping feeling and had always been taught that staying calm is the key. This is where I benefit from my own teachings as she rubs my back and tells me everything is going to be ok and then calmly collects a bottle of water from the drink fridge close by. She is playing the role I usually do for her and the mere sight of her taking it in her stride, and the feeling of pride that came in observing her ability to be on the other end of this situation was enough to help me turn the corner. My pulse started to settle and the feeling of poison slowly infecting the entirety of my body began to retreat.
So why am I sharing this with you? Because anxiety and panic attacks can strike at any time; they don’t make sense or announce their arrival, they just hit. There is no good time to have a panic attack or a bout of uncontrollable anxiety, and quite frankly it is a discussion that we as a society aren’t talking enough about.
They say that the average person will experience a brush with anxiety or panic at least once in their lives, what they don’t tell you is how to cope with it when it brings you to your knees. Just because you are on the vacation of a lifetime doesn’t mean that your subconscious has your back. Actually, you might find that when there is a change in routine and environment you are more susceptible to those feelings being able to creep back in when you least expect it. Anxiety doesn’t require a plane ticket, and it certainly doesn’t wait for an invitation. It is just lurking in the back of your mind, waiting for a moment to spring out and turn your emotional and physical state upside down.
So today we are going to run through some of the things to keep in mind if you are deep within the glorious arms of Disney property only to have this crippling feeling take hold. Even if you are one of the lucky ones that have never felt the effects of panic or anxiety, that doesn’t mean someone else in your party won’t.
Here are some of the factors that can unexpectedly spark your anxiety when visiting Disney theme parks.
- The Rush of People. Most of us in our daily lives are not used to a sea of people moving around you, rushing up behind you or quickly cutting in front of you. If your anxiety is tied to the sudden movement of things around you, try to prepare yourself for it as Disney is never short on crowds. Be aware that you might be unnerved by the feeling of people coming at you from all directions.
- Energetic Music. Some of us find the fast-paced accompanying music of Space Mountain or Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster adds to the thrill of the experience. For others, this can send your blood pressure soaring when the unexpected surge of an action-packed soundtrack blasts in.
- Plans that change suddenly. For some, anxiety is triggered when our plans are disrupted sending our minds and bodies into a disorganized state. Theme parks are places where virtually anything can happen. Perhaps the attraction you are waiting for breaks down or even something as simple as the path to your next destination being temporarily blocked by a parade. Whatever causes your movements to change can be unsettling. Expecting this in advance can be a very helpful tool as you make your way around theme parks.
Now let’s talk about some of the things you can do in advance to help you if panic sets in.
- Tell your travel family about your anxiety. It might feel embarrassing, but in truth, it isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Anxiety is real and hiding it will only amplify its intensity. Let everyone you are traveling with know what you are dealing with. Face it head on and take away any power it has over you by not holding it back. You will more likely than not find that someone else close to you struggles with the same thing. Make jokes about it if it helps, trivialize it until the mention of it doesn’t sound scary anymore because the people you are with have the best chance of keeping you calm and drawing you back up from that slippery slope. Let them know what it looks like and what triggers it if you can. Let your people be part of the solution not left feeling like part of the problem when they don’t know how to help.
- Have a plan. It’s easy to think you won’t be bothered because you will be too busy having a fabulous time and that might be true. But, in line with the philosophy that if you take an umbrella, it won’t ever rain, make a plan anyway. Make a note of what works for you and different techniques to try then keep it in your wallet; just something small to remind you of the basics when your head is racing into a meltdown. Talk to your medical professional and see what they can suggest for you.
The worst is happening and panic sets in, how can you help settle that stomach-churning feeling of doom?
- Recognize what is happening. For the more experienced anxiety suffers, it is essential to be able to recognize what is happening to overcome it. For instance, when mine sets in, so do the sharp chest pains. Now I can tell you after several ER visits in fear of a heart attack, I know that this particular sensation is actually the initial onset of my panic. As I begin to feel like I am about to drop dead from heart complications, I remind myself that it isn’t that. I consider the logical steps that I have taken to eliminate that as a potentially related problem, and I go over them in my head. I then start to bring my physiological symptoms back into mind and combat them one at a time. To alleviate my chest pains, I might shift my clothing or undergarments to release any pressure. I might remove my cross body bag to release that pulling sensation around my neck. I do these things while paying attention to the effect each one has; reminding myself that I can feel in control of each feeling. This is my process, and everyone’s will be different, but the steps to understand what you are feeling are important, no matter what they are.
- Talk about it. As soon as the words come out of your mouth, there is a small release of tension, just a little one, but it can bring with it a flood of relief. Saying the words can bring your worries out of hiding. They can no longer fester in the shadowy corners of your mind and instead are brought to light where it can be seen that they are nothing to fear. Don’t let your silence fuel your mind’s ability to create a tornado of emotions, whipping up at a faster speed with every moment.
- Feel something else. This one might not work for everyone, but it is an essential part of how I cope with anxiety. I need to feel something on the outside to compensate for the overwhelming flood of emotions I am feeling on the inside. It can be simple like running some ice over your forehead or shoulders. It could be going out and standing in the wind or the rain for a moment and concentrating on how each droplet or gust feels against your skin. Whatever brings you to a place of peace, find a way to make it happen.
So why have I brought all this up? Well, because between my sarcastic commentary and seemingly meaningless ramblings, I am a person who has been through a lot and I believe in the importance of talking about our struggles in a way that allows us all to unite and overcome each obstacle. I believe in a stronger collective, one that isn’t afraid of the stigma of having feelings but embraces what they are and how to get around them. I believe that together we stand and divided we may fall. So let’s not fall. Let’s stand up, speak our truth and tell people how they can help us. If everyone can be a part of the next person’s solution, we may find we all have fewer problems.
If you have a loved one that struggles with anxiety, ask them about it. Give them that power to own it, slap it in that face and say ‘you can’t control me anymore you little punk.’
If you suffer from bouts of doubt, panic or anxiety yourself, tell the people who love you how they can help you. Maybe you will shine a light on something they couldn’t face themselves.
Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.
Join Zoë as she lets you in on all the tips, tricks, anecdotes, and embarrassments that arise from her family adventures.