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  • Writer's pictureJohn Reilly

The Roller Coaster and The Lazy River: An Analogy for Life’s Challenges

When people come to therapy, they are often dealing with some aspect of anxiety in their lives. After working together and an eventual reduction in their anxiety, often my patients tell me they are experiencing difficulty with their newfound calm. For some, the difficulty is mild, and for others it is more severe. Over time, I have come to suggest a visual of this struggle.

Most amusement parks have roller coasters, (the joy of which I don’t personally understand), and a more mild ride ”The Lazy River”. For those into roller coasters, there are options in which the rider can climb high and then face huge, fast descents and for the more thrill-seeking, there are coasters that have the rider dangling from an open seat and they are subjected to twists and turns that go forward, backwards, sideways and even upside down. In contrast, The Lazy River is more tranquil, offering a relaxing ride down a waterway with gradual turns and some mild rapids, (my preference). Roller coasters can be fun and exhilarating and the draw, of course, is the fear and rush of adrenaline that ensues. Some people live their lives on a roller coaster, pushing the limits, rushing here and there, taking on too much, and rarely leaving any margin for the unexpected. This lifestyle fuels anxiety, but is also the solution some people create in order to deal with underlying conflicts of which they may not be aware.

I had a patient put into words the conflict that kept her on the roller coaster and off the lazy river which she, in fact, wanted to enjoy. Whenever she would relax and find time to reflect on her life or get close to another person, she would unconsciously do something to disrupt her life and throw it into chaos. I used the roller coaster/lazy river analogy - and asked her why she wasn’t able to enjoy the slower paced lifestyle. What she imagined on the lazy river was not the calm but someone up on the banks of the river getting ready to shoot water at her. Interestingly enough, when I had imagined this analogy, I had forgotten about the element of “surprise” or “attack” on The Lazy River. But with my patient’s help, I had a fresh perspective. I thought about how on the roller coaster, a person would be a more difficult target, while on the lazy river there is more exposure and vulnerability.

Being in a “passive” position, does open one up to vulnerability. With this particular patient, during our therapy sessions, we were able to discern how many times in her life that when things were calm she would unconsciously do something to launch her life into chaos; the chaos was familiar. While she previously thought that this would just happen, she came to realize this was actually her self-defense against vulnerability; she sabotaged her own calm before it could happen without her control.

She made herself the equivalent of a moving target, constantly looking for that person or element that would disrupt her calm, which often led to feelings of exhaustion and being overwhelmed. She couldn’t enjoy the calm of life without worrying about what issues might be in her future, all of these feelings were the result of her past.

While this patient’s response was severe, others react to calm in more mild forms; not being able to relax and figuratively “smell the roses.”. Although there can potentially be anxiety that some associate with The Lazy River, living life on a roller coaster will most likely disrupt a person’s ability to be in the moment, reflect on their lives and ultimately feel calm.

Therapy is a place where unconscious feelings are explored, understood and can lead to people taking more control of their lives. With more insight into one’s internal life there can be a conscious choice about what ride to get on. Sometimes the excitement of a roller coaster lifestyle is what is needed, but alternatively being able to let go and experience the calm of The Lazy River can also be a nice space to relax, reflect and slowly experience life in a new way, (knowing full well that there may be a few bumps along the way).

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