If you were to look at someone’s bucket list, a bungee jump or skydive are always going to be near the top, but what makes jumping out of a perfectly good plane or off a bridge so appealing? Is it the fear, the adrenalin? And what makes people return for more- where does this addictive nature of adrenaline sports come from?
The Fear Factor
Some people have an innate characteristic; to look for fear, and gravitate to these activities that can deliver adrenalin. Fear has been reported as the key to adrenalin sports. Fear elicits a stress response, and a chain of events in the brain and body that are crucial in the study of adrenalin addiction. Fear is an exceptionally strong emotion; if something scares you the fight or flight response kicks in, breathing ramps up, the body immediately releases endorphins, dopamine and norepinephrine, to get technical, and a state of euphoria or adrenalin high follows. These endorphins inhibit pain, and are performance enhancers. The common thinking is that the more endangering or fearful certain stunts or sports are for you, the greater the release of these neurochemicals, which can in turn lead to gradual addiction-like symptoms(Kotler, 2008)
Looking at the neurochemicals that push these risk takers, it’s interesting to note that cocaine, often considered the most addictive substance on earth simply sends huge amounts of dopamine to the brain not unlike the adrenalin rush in extreme sports. Meanwhile, norepinephrine mimics speed, the second most addictive drug. So it’s fair to say these particular neurochemicals produced when participating in extreme sports are far more potent than any single drug on the ‘market’ and more addictive too. Understandably, no human could possibly consume a mass cocktail of heroin, speed and cocaine without fatal consequences, so extreme adrenalin sports are the only way of reaching this rush, getting such a high. A more natural kind of drug if you will.
But why do extreme sports people have the need to push it further each time? Well it’s down to the law of diminishing returns, reaching the same goal every time de-sensitises them to the rush with less excitement each time compared to the first time. This leads them to push the boat out each time, going harder, higher and faster than before, always looking for the rush. The thing with ‘adrenalin junkies’ as Dr. G. Burns showed, is you need risk to trigger reward, in other words adrenalin, but the body gets used to this risk. So, like drug addicts who need to take more and more of their chosen drug to get the high they desire, extreme sports addicts need to up the danger quotient to achieve the same effect, constantly upping the stakes-the most dangerous aspect of addiction to adrenalin(Kotler,2008). For some people it’s an ‘ordinary’ skydive leading on to base jumping from a building, for others it’s a 10km run, culminating in a gruelling ironman, in order to get that ‘kick’.
A great recent example of this is Felix Baumgartner’s much publicised Red Bull Stratos jump, pushing all boundaries to jump from the earth’s stratosphere, a huge step up from his usual b.a.s.e. jumps. He knew there was a huge risk of death, going somewhere no other had before. Yet this kind of risk taking, searching for that next level, the next rush (sounds like a drug addict doesn’t it?) is a defining characteristic across all extreme sports, whether it’s only a small step up in risk or in Felix’s case 24 miles up.
This addiction to adrenalin and the extreme sports in question can spill across to other spheres of life, with anxiety, stress and anger issues as a knock on effect of trying to get reach that next level of high. So, despite adrenalin being the most natural high, it can have detrimental effects on someone’s life, not just the obvious euphoria experienced.
Needless to say, this craving for an adrenalin rush is a risk, yes, but it’s exactly this need to push the limits that makes an adrenalin junkie what they are, it makes extreme sports this constantly evolving entity and at the same time often poses the dangerous question, can you do better?
Mark Fitzgibbon, B.A., Pg. Dip.