Death by Fanny Pack
So there I was, being spoken to by animatronic Barack Obama, hands clenched into the tightest fists I had the strength to accomplish, heart beating so fast I started feeling woozy, my life flashing before my eyes in Disney World.
I might need to back up.
Ever since I entered high school, I have suffered from a type of anxiety that is triggered by fear. Everyday situations such as flying on an airplane or standing in a crowded space can catapult my body into a physical reaction that irrationally convinces my brain that I am going to die. In the moment, nothing can convince my brain that I am not taking my final breathes. I engage in a war against myself where my fear leaves me lightheaded, nauseous, panicked, and debilitated. It can happen anywhere, at any time… including the Hall of Presidents in Walt Disney World.
Looking back, this was the most comical instance of this fear anxiety. It was during a Spring Break trip to Orlando’s Magic Kingdom two years ago. I had been to this theme park more times than I could count, but as we scanned our tickets to enter, I coincidentally thought to myself I feel like Disney World would be a prime target for psychopaths to open fire. Little did I know, I was about to test that theory.
On this particular day, my mom and I decided to check out one of the most underrated and underappreciated attractions, The Hall of Presidents. We were leaning against a white column under the rotunda waiting for the doors to the theater to open when I noticed an uncomfortable looking man with an intent gaze planted on us. He was wearing a bright red fanny pack around his high waisted dad jeans under a grease stained Mickey Mouse t-shirt. I did not think too much of him at first as I was fairly confident he was harmless and would leave us alone once we could go pick our seats. But as my mother and I dodged large families and old people with walkers to enter the theater and find two seats on the opposite side of the entrance, he made the same path and chose the seat directly next to us.
I pulled my dress over my knees and waited for the lights to dim. My mind began to wander as I tried making inconspicuous glances in his direction. Beginning to correlate all of the facial similarities he had to all of the other deranged, white men who open fire in crowded spaces, I was 100% sure that he had a gun in his fanny pack and might point it at my mother during Morgan Freeman’s heroic voiceover.
Coincidentally, the presidential presentation began just as my body was setting the stage for a full on panic attack. It was a one woman show featuring guest appearances from the majority of my body parts and organs.
Cue the amygdala in my brain which fires an all-systems alert alarm to the rest of my body followed by the hypothalamus to wake up my organs and nervous system. While I was trying to take deep breaths to steady myself as the show began to start, my brain was actively working against me, sending signals that everything was not okay and that this man was a potential threat.
All of a sudden, I could not focus my eyes directly on the screen as my pupils began to dilate in the dark and take in every possible threat from my peripheral vision. The hairs on my arm began to stand on end, not because of the air conditioning, but because when humans were much hairier versions of what they are today- goosebumps would help fake size to potential predators. And while the tiny bumps on my arm would suggest otherwise, the vessels in my skin were contracting and causing me to sweat.
Deep breaths, deep breaths, everything is going to be okay I kept repeating in my head. And while my brain was not calming down, my body was helping me out on this front. When prompted by fear, the bronchioles in my lungs begin to dilate, allowing my body to take in more oxygen.
But the things that were holding me back the most were my heart and my pituitary gland. The pressure in my heart was starting to build, sending it into overdrive, beating at what seemed like the speed of light while my pituitary gland was sending my body into fight or flight mode. Okay, Sarah, if he were to pull a gun out of his fanny pack and shoot your mother in the head, you need to run for it. If he shoots her anywhere else, prepare to save her were actual thoughts that were running through my mind. The extra oxygen and the overwhelming signals in my brain were not allowing me to realize how crazy those ideas really seemed.
Behind the scenes, my spleen, liver, bladder, colon, and digestive tract were also preparing for a battle of sorts- but nothing that was causing me any physical changes I could notice. Or if they were, the sound of my pulse was enough to drown it out.
All of my fear came to a complete climax when the man decided to unzip one of the pockets on his fanny pack. I could not avert my gaze as I was expecting to be confronted with the weapon of my demise. This is it, body, it is time, you have been trained for this.
Turns out, he just pulled out a tube of chapstick and all of the tension in my body released with such a force that I blacked out. I literally could not tell you what animatronic Barack Obama’s final speech was about, but apparently it was really inspiring according to what my mom told me later on.
Whether your body’s fear response is initiated by clowns or spiders or thunderstorms, everyone experiences the same bodily functions. Countless amounts of research has been done to analyze exactly what happens in the brain and the organs during a moment of fear. So much research, in fact, that the physical manifestation of fear has been solidified as fact.
Therefore, while my fears might have seemed abnormal, my body was in fact responding in the “proper” way. It is hardwired to send my body into overdrive, I just felt unlucky with the frequency with which it was happening.
I feel fortunate to be able to tell and joke about the tale of the red fanny pack man, but what was happening within my body that was causing this reaction to take over my entire mindset? And was this reaction, the one I felt so imprisoned and unfairly afflicted by, the same one that people line up for scary movies to achieve?
The adrenaline rush of it all is what is addicting to some people as the downhill crash from all of those bodily reactions can feel euphoric. The closest comparisons to the release are the feeling in your stomach when shooting down a roller coaster or sexual climax. It is exciting, temporary, natural, and something you can easily reproduce. But the interesting part is that our body can differentiate from real and perceived fear triggers. When watching a scary movie, the reason our breathing does not become strained and instead our heart rates increase slightly or we get jumpy is because our brain knows it is not happening directly to us. That is why some people are addicted to jumping out of airplanes, bungee jumping, and watching Halloween movie marathons- because the fear is not as genuine as say, having a gun pointed in your face.
So this had me wondering- what about my irrational fears? The fact that I need to take a Xanax before getting on an airplane is much more common than a fear of middle aged men in fanny packs. Were my fears getting worse as I got older and experienced more things?
Simply put, the answer is yes.
I realized that I only began to fear the power of humans as I got old enough to digest the news and piece together the repetition of psychotic white men purchasing mass amounts of firearms and utilizing them in public. As a child, my fears were short-lived and easily forgotten. They were things like the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz and playground slides that looked too tall for me and dropping my ice cream on the pavement. But now as an adult, I wish my fears were still that simple.
As it turns out, this is the case for everyone. Children experience fears, adults experience phobias. Childhood fears are predictable and not logically based- things that elicit a physical jump response but not much else. On the flip side, phobias are disproportionate responses to specific objects or situations that you do not outgrow and occur as your brain develops.
Your own biggest enemy, your hippocampus, remembers what has previously triggered your fear response and cements it into your mind. That means every time you experience that situation again, you will be scared. That explains why I was not afraid of airplanes until that one specific trip the turbulence was so terrible my butt jumped out of the seat a few times. It also foreshadows that men with fanny packs will always make me uneasy.
What is happening in my body when triggered by uneasiness is a sensation I live to avoid. Rather than being addicted to the rush of it all, I am left physically uncomfortable and unable to function. As is the case with most anxieties, I cannot explain why I react the way I do and I cannot stop myself from behaving irrationally. I can laugh at my faults after the fact, but in the moment I am fully convinced of my untimely death.
However, I can find comfort in knowing I am not “abnormal” and that the science of my body is spot on. Instead of hating myself for being scared, I can appreciate that my body is preparing to fight the good fight for me. It may not be solid armor, but it is better than nothing.