- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

CANTON, Ohio (AP) - Cedar Point’s Power Tower became Rachel Burr’s bogeyman.

The University of Mount Union junior could ride any other thrill ride without much anxiety, but just a photo of the 300-foot-tall free-fall drop began to create images in her mind of snapping cables, unlocked harnesses and fiery crashes.

The more she thought about it, the more her fear grew.

“It was only that specific (ride),” she said. “That was my monster.”

Kevin Meyer, an assistant professor of psychology at Mount Union, began the “Face Your Fear” project five years ago to help such Mount Union students overcome their fears, namely their fear of roller coasters.

“If you have one anxiety disorder, it’s very likely that you have another,” said Meyer, who also is a therapist in private practice. “Anxiety doesn’t really take just one form in an individual, it takes all sorts of forms.”

This semester, the self-professed former roller-coaster-phobic-turned-aficionado welcomed 28 students to his Abnormal Psychology class. An initial anxiety assessment revealed that 12 of the students, including Burr, had an intense fear of roller coasters.

Throughout the six-week course, Meyer presented four techniques that he believes can be applied to conquer any phobia or fear.

“These are tried and true techniques, it’s not hocus-pocus,” he said.

Step 1: Psychoeducation, which is learning about anxiety and recognizing that you can control your level of anxiety.

“When we feel anxiety or fear, it feels like it’s out of our control,” Meyer said. “It feels like an automatic reaction, but it’s not. That’s an illusion.”

Step 2: Relaxation. Meyer asks his students to practice deep breathing exercises for 15 to 20 minutes a day and to focus on the moment during the exercise.

“Your mind’s natural state is not in the moment,” Meyer said. “It likes to wander, so it’s actually work to say in the moment.”

He said studies have shown that people can desensitize the area of the brain that triggers anxiety by consistently doing the relaxation exercise.

Step 3: Cognitive restructuring, which is thinking of a situation that makes you anxious, writing down all of the irrational and anxious thoughts you have and then beginning to write counter statements to each of those thoughts.

“Fear spreads like wildfire in your brain …,” Meyer said. “If you don’t do a counter statement, it won’t stop.”

For Burr’s fear of the Power Tower, her anxious thoughts included “cables will snap” and “the harness will open.”

To help Burr write her counter statements, Meyer provided information about the ride, telling her that Cedar Point’s Power Tower doesn’t rely on cables such as similar rides at other amusement parks. It relies on compressed air, with the cables acting as backups.

“I think that might have been the most powerful,” Burr said, “because it gives you the ability to realize that you can control your anxiety and kind of retrain your brain.”

Step 4: Exposure, gradually encountering the target of the fear. Meyer said exposure is an important part of the process, but it also is important that it comes after the other steps.

“There’s a misunderstanding (by people who hear of his class) that I pick a day and I put them on a roller coaster and they get over their fears,” Meyer said. “You see parents do it to their 10 year olds and it doesn’t work.”

Burr’s first exposure to the Power Tower was through photos and a video shot from the perspective of a rider. Then it was a face-to-face encounter with a class field trip to Cedar Point recently.

Flanked by group of student supporters and Meyer, Burr and the coaster phobic students started on the amusement park’s more docile coasters and gradually progressed to roller coasters that were taller and faster.

Still, as Burr approached the Power Tower, she was nervous, rapidly asking questions about its safety measures. For every negative thought she had, she, or one of the students in her support group, offered a counter statement.

Afterward, she even admitted that the ride was fun.

“It definitely was a powerful experience,” she said.

All 12 of Meyer’s students with a coaster phobia rode at least one roller coaster that day - extending Meyer’s five-year perfect streak to 67-0.

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Information from: The Repository, http://www.cantonrep.com

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