The Hazards of Waterparks and the Lizard Brain

Michael Green at Upsplash Hazards of Water Parks and the Lizard Brain

By Angela Noel

March 1, 2018

My lizard brain recently freaked out.

In his 2010 book, Linchpin, Seth Godin writes, “The lizard brain is hungry, scared, angry, and horny. The lizard brain only wants to eat and be safe. The lizard brain will fight (to the death) if it has to, but would rather run away. It likes a vendetta and has no trouble getting angry.” I would not want to meet my lizard brain in a dark alley.

The limbic cortex, aka the lizard brain, is the part of our gray matter responsible for making it very very hard to be our best selves sometimes. It wants to keep us safe, help us survive, even help us win competitions at work or at play. But all it knows is how to react, not how to respond reasonably and in appropriate proportion to a given situation.

And this is where my freaking out begins.

Going to an indoor waterpark in the the frozen Midwest on a holiday weekend sounded perfectly reasonable. So we rented a two-bedroom condo with good friends and prepared for fun.

Once we arrived, we unpacked, threw on some bathings suits and flip-flops, then herded our collective troop towards the chlorine paradise. But the closer we got to the high-ceilinged splash-fest, the more my heart pounded.

People, people everywhere and not a place to sit.
waterpark crowds
Imagine this, but double the people. We didn’t take pictures (I feared a watery grave for my phone). But this one is from the same park.

After we negotiated the slippery stairs, we avoided discarded towels and half-folded t-shirts piled in corners around the steamy room. Strollers and beach bags lined the walls. The lucky few had staked claims on chairs and alcoves, leaving all manner of detritus behind to mark territory as occupied. Our children wanted to jump into the lazy river or head down a slide. We adults just wanted a place to sit down and keep stuff dry.

Many bathing suited-people milled around with enormous plastic chalices covered by red lids with bendy giant straws. I wondered if I should get one just to prove I belonged.

Within a few minutes, we’d found a chair or two. Later, in the wave pool area, a table with enough chairs for us all opened up as if by magic. I credit Dan, our friend and husband to Jayme (my favorite Ironman) with snagging that spot. The people leaving the table had a twin stroller, and because Dan and Jayme have twins, it was easy enough to strike up a conversation. “Oh, are you leaving? Mind if we take your table?” Dan asked, after discussing the merits of a double stroller. “Sure. No problem,” they graciously replied.

Thus situated, we spent an agreeable afternoon trying to keep the children from drowning in the sea of bodies among the artificial waves, and wondering if the people sitting wall to wall for hours by the swim-up bar ever exited to use the bathroom.

By six we trooped back to the condo, tired, but happy with our first day.

Enter the lizard.

The next afternoon, after the arcade for the children (and the dads) and a nice walk and chat for the moms, we headed to the waterpark. We toted bags for clothing and cans of beverages, sandals, water socks, and towels.

Mistakenly, we thought a Sunday afternoon would be quieter. Instead, the swarm of bodies was thicker. People had pushed tables together and heaped pizza boxes and plastic chalices on every surface imaginable. Seemingly, the claim-staking had begun at the ten o’clock hour. We were hours late to the party and our luck of the day before failed us.

While the children and two adults headed for the water, I scoured the landscape for open territory. But an hour later, I was both table-less and forlorn. “Are you leaving?” I’d asked a dozen people as they shifted their configurations or toweled-off children who looked either sleepy or cranky or both. “Nope. Not yet.” I’d hear. My heart pounded each time I passed yet another prospect, hoping for the coveted spot.

Of course, I knew finding a table or a place to sit wasn’t life or death. And yet I felt the desperation rise.

No spot. Damn it. Still, no spot.

Resources were scarce, bodies all around. To make matters worse, the air felt (and was) heavy, sweaty, and wet. My lizard brain took hold. As two young men approached a family I was racing to intercept, I could feel my pulse quicken. “Mind if we grab this?” the one guy asked of the departing dad.

This is me.

“Be my guest,” he replied. I wanted to weep.

“You probably didn’t see me heading this way?” said I, sarcasm dripping from my words. “Thanks a lot.” I hoped the daggers in my eyes would wound him.

The guy stared at me, his shoulders shrugging. He had no response. I turned on my flip-floppy heel and stalked away to prowl the tables some more.

Generally speaking, I am a nice person. I’d like to think I’m above-average nice. But, this poolside petri dish brought out the reptile in me like I haven’t seen in awhile.

Shortly after the incident, I confessed my sins to Dan and my husband, Paul. “I think I just lost my nice-human card,” I said.

“They have those?” Dan replied. I smiled.

Jayme came over minutes later, she’d found a chair. Just one. But it was enough. We moved the mountains of towels and clothes to the one chair. And soon after, the couple next to us departed. We had chairs. We had territory. It was ours. We had conquered. My lizard brain calmed.

Next, I took my turn in the wave pool monitoring the water intake and buoyancy of children. I let the waves soothe me. I held the hand of one of the little girls and tossed my son in the air just to hear him giggle. Soon, I was having fun.

I tried not to blame myself for being such a shrew to the boys who won the table-lottery. As Jayme pointed out, maybe yesterday in our table-triumph someone else was cursing us under his or her breath?

Practice and more practice.

Clearly, the lizard brain holds sway over us. It has a purpose, but it also holds us back. As aware as I am, as much as I KNEW I shouldn’t take my frustration out on these strangers, I couldn’t stop the words from falling out of my face.

The neuroanatomists who, in 1954, described the limbic system may not have had a Wisconsin poolside adventure in mind. But, addictive behaviors and certain emotions are the purview of the lizard brain. “If one were to poll individuals about “unexplainable” behaviors, there would be a lot of stories. . . ,”writes Dr. Joseph Troncale in Psychology Today. “How many times have we done something that we said we would not do, eaten something that we said we would not eat, and said something that we said we would not say?”

But, Dr. Troncale points out,”Understanding this automatic behavior allows us to surrender to what we cannot control. It frees us to do the next right thing by staying in the present rather than worrying about the future or being shamed and experience guilt about the past. It takes practice. And more practice.”

Perhaps there’s a chance I can get my nice-human card back after all.

Your turn: What kinds of situations bring out your lizard brain? How do you deal with it?

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

32 thoughts on “The Hazards of Waterparks and the Lizard Brain”

  1. Ah, what I wouldn’t do for a limbic system blocker. It would be empowering to control impulses without effort… to a degree. Incidentally, you’re lizard brain is weak compared to my wife’s in the confines of an indoor waterpark. She can’t even deal with the stress of a forty acre outdoor park.

    1. I don’t blame your wife one bit! Even when everyone is in a great mood and focused on being kind to their fellow park-goer its a stress ball of a situation. That is an interesting product idea though–a limbic system blocker. 🙂

  2. Drs surgery, waiting for prescription. They lose it every time, and I am convinced they have marked my card and do it on purpose. Turn into lizard as I walk through those automatic doors.

    1. Maybe that’s just a funny image you can amuse yourself with when you walk in!! That does sort of stink though–I don’t know why you’d work in health care if it was so hard to keep a cheerful smile. And yet–I have no idea how challenging their work is.
      You deserve a really nice greeting though–I hope they read this post and stop being so lizard-y!

  3. Oh I don’t think you lost your nice-human card in the first place. This kind of thing happens to the best of us. Even me haha. Also, that water park sounds like my idea of a nightmare. I think it’s only natural that the lizard brain would make an appearance there. I try to keep my cool and be rational, but I’ve still had several arguments with strangers or muttered passive aggressive comments under my breath. Let’s not beat ourselves up about it. We are only human after all.

    1. Honestly, I’m so glad to know others lose their you-know-what sometimes. Though I must admit, I accidentally bumped a lady’s foot at the airport with my suitcase recently and she gave me a look of death. I did remember this whole “lizard brain” thing and tried not to let it get me down. We all have our moments right? On both sides of the equation. And you’re absolutely right, we get to hit the reset button the moment we stop obsessing and try again.

  4. I can relate to this story, and I feel your “pain.” That said, I sure enjoyed chuckling through it. Lizard brain seems to pop up when there are too many people who want to have the same fun-day experience as I do, and I resent that these “others” are spoiling my fun. And why are they all so pushy?!!! Guess I should be looking in the mirror when these “not-so-nice-human” thoughts shred my overly considerate, kind and generous “nice-human card.” Alas, humanity, and lizard brain. “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” Mahatma Gandhi

    1. Love that Ghandi quote! I don’t think I’ve heard that one before. I think we all have these moments, but its particularly startling when one thinks, as I do, that I ought to be somehow “beyond” getting so frustrated. But that too is a self-defeating thought. What makes me so special? And isn’t it lovely to discover the truth: pretty much nothing! I’m as good or as wacky as the next person. So when the lizard brain does its thing, it’s okay to forgive myself for it. 🙂

  5. Oh my goodness, thank you for the enlightenment. My outdoor-loving, quiet-nature-trails-loving, give-me-my-own-space-loving brain would go ultra-lizard-like if I were where you were. Unfortunately for my children, I won’t be going to an indoor water park soon – or maybe ever. I have to admit, I laughed when I heard your reaction to the two men who snagged the table. I still think you deserve your nice human card. Great post!

    1. It definitely was not my finest moment! I think I knew on some level that these kinds of places are great in one way and just plain awful in the personal space category. Overall it was fun, and the kids had a blast. But it was a great lesson in self-awareness. Even if it was after the fact. Thank you, for voting for me to keep my nice-human card! Maybe I should have some made up and hand them out to nice people. 🙂

      1. I love that idea of having cards printed! Its a great affirmation to others, and they can then pass it on.

      2. Yes, I think you’re onto something. I could completely see you handing our nice-human cards – and, I think people would really appreciate it. 🙂

  6. Interesting self reflective post. I had a lizard moment recently and kicked open a door like a child, occasionally so hard to keep your better self around you. Thanks for sharing. Great writing, by the way.

  7. How do you come up with so many interesting topics?

    Loved this post. This quote was brill ‘Clearly, the lizard brain holds sway over us. It has a purpose, but it also holds us back’.

  8. Dude….WATERPARKS ARE A NIGHTMARE! I don’t care if by some miracle your brain is made of puppies, bunnies and babies, a waterpark will bring out the worst in all of us. I hate them so much. We went to Kallahari a year ago for P’s 12th birthday and hated ever minute of it (except happy hour). I wrote about it, especially the human toilet bowl I went down.

    1. Haha! I’ll have to look up that post. I did have fun, but it was definitely not the place I’d go for a relaxing vacation. Did your kids have fun?

      1. They had a blast! Here is the first post:

  9. I’ve been to water parks when it has been that crowded and I have to admit my lizard brain rears its ugly head at that time, too. It’s hard to keep your cool when there are so many humans packed into that space. I’d rather go to one outside because I don’t feel so claustrophobic. 🙂

    1. Absolutely! I don’t think crowds are fun in almost any situation. It takes so much energy to be a nice person. I can’t decide if it’s good they have plenty of alcohol in these places, or if that adds to the problem!

  10. Nooooooo my aim in life is never ever to visit another water park or the ilk…Lizard brain..I don’t apologise or feel bad I just move on and vow never, ever to visit again 🙂

    1. Ha! I hear you! I think the challenge of sparse resources–whether it’s chairs in a waterpark or jostling each other in line waiting for a churro, it’s hard to keep our cool. Thanks so much for reading, Carol!

  11. I think my lizard brain pops out when people can’t queue properly. I get incredibly stressed and pissed off when people cut in line. Those are the times when I am far meaner than normal me thinks I am! 🙁

    p.s. that sounds like great fun for the kids, but sooo hard work for you all!!

    1. That line thing is definitely a stressor! When everyone is waiting and someone doesn’t follow the rules, I definitely don’t love that. I didn’t mention it in the post, but while we were walking through the many bodies in the waterpark this family right in front of us and right in the walkway decided it was the perfect place to gather and put on their shoes–forcing everyone else to go around them. I couldn’t help myself–I said, “Probably not the BEST place to do that.” I have no idea what I hoped to accomplish with that. What did I hope they’d say, “Oh, thank you, Angela. You’re so wise.” More likely I’d get a dirty look! My lizard had a field day at the waterpark for sure. Best to avoid them in future methinks. 🙂

  12. I went to Noah’s Ark at Wisconsin Dells this past summer with my oldest – this whole experience definitely resonated with me!

    Generally what brings out my lizard brain are situations that crop up regularly in a concentrated amount of time. Toddler has 3 accidents in 1 morning, I find myself calling the same medical billing office to get them to do their jobs every month for almost 2 years, or the 4th person cuts me off on my 15 minute commute.

    1. Oh man–those are definitely Lizard Brain worthy. Excellent examples. I wonder if I could figure out who to short-circuit those moments so I don’t lose it. Any strategies that have worked for you?

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  15. I think so long as your lizard brain doesn’t bring out your inner Dexter you’re probably fine.

  16. I confess (admit?) I dislike crowds to the point of avoiding films I’d like to see just so I’m not trapped in a room full of noisy people. I’ll wait until the film is in the second-run theater at the end of its run. Yes, I’ve missed a lot of films that way!

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