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Why Do Some People Pass Out on Roller Coasters?

The Sensory Roller Coasters
Roller coasters can be super exciting and thrilling to some people… and they can be super scary to others.

Most people have at least one person in their lives that makes them laugh by being clumsy. I happen to be that person in my own life. A little on the clumsy side, poor coordination and lack of balance. Individuals like me may be afraid of heights or afraid of movement. They may not like going on fast on activities such as roller coasters, nor enjoy the height or rapid changes. Other more common examples of motion sickness can be experienced in a car or airplane.

How does it feel to have different levels of sensory processing while on a roller coaster?

People who regulate sensory information well on a roller coaster can map the speed and direction while moving, so that the sensation is not extreme. This person may think to themselves “I’m going up on the track, left on the track, down on the track, speeding up!” They enjoy the fast movement and think it is exciting and fun.

I’m in the sky! WOOHOO

For people who struggle with movement sensation, the same experience is not regulated and feels extreme. For example, speeding up on a roller coaster may feel like being thrown up into the sky, with extreme anxiety or worst-case-scenario thinking. (Ex: I’m in the sky, I’m going to die!). This triggers our fight and flight response. This will feel like our heart is racing, blood pressure rises, and the breathing becomes rapid. Other mental and physical responses can be anxiety, panic, shock, and…passing out.

Did you know that all of these responses are related to our sensory integration system?

Sensory integration is the process by which our brain receives, organizes, and responds to the sensory information from the environment. Sensory processing disorder, formerly referred to as sensory integration dysfunction, is a condition where a person has difficulty regulating the information received from the senses and responding to that information.

The 8 senses in Occupational Therapy

  1. Taste

  2. Smell

  3. Hearing

  4. Touch

  5. vision

  6. Interoception

  7. Body awareness (proprioception)

  8. Balance (vestibular)

Sensory processing disorder can affect all of your senses, or just one. People with sensory processing disorder may be oversensitive or undersensitive to senses.

People who have sensory processing disorders related to body awareness and balance may be afraid of activities related to height or movement (ex: cars, airplanes, boats)

What causes Sensory Processing Disorders?

Sensory processing disorders are often genetically related. It is common for people with sensory processing disorders have a family member with one as well.

How can I overcome a Sensory Processing Disorder? Is it treatable?

Sensory issues are lifetime issues. This means they are often not fixable but they are treatable.

We can implement some strategies and techniques to help us improve our sensory regulation and tolerance.

For example, exercise can help to improve our body awareness and balance in order to improve our sensory regulation.

Everyone will respond differently to treatment strategies. Please consult your Occupational Therapy (OT) to find what works best for you. For extreme anxiety, please reach out to mental health professional. If implementing incorrectly, usage of sensory strategies that have not been properly taught could lead to negative experiences or trauma.

I am proud to be an occupational therapist. Ella Wu, OTD, OTR/L Doctor of Occupational Therapy
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