Why do people crave adrenaline? I’ll tell you straight away that I am not one of those people. I like safe, predictable activities rather than ones during which your life hangs in the balance. But some of us truly desire that thrill they get when they do something dangerous. That ‘thrill’ is adrenaline and in many ways it is addictive. Not only do people chase that sensation in the future but they often strive to do bigger, bolder and more dangerous activities to get a bigger adrenaline hit. It’s a drug, effectively, and one which makes some people incredibly happy and most parents incredibly worried.
Adrenaline is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It is also a neurotransmitter and is most closely related to our nervous system’s inbuilt ‘fight or flight’ reactions. When our body finds itself in a dangerous situation, it has two basic instincts; fight or flight. This is borne out of evolution and was something that served our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors very well. Even today, humans recognise danger and are able to react in a way which will prevent them getting injured or killed. In the event of a natural disaster like an earthquake, tsunami or forest fire, most of us instinctively run in the opposite direction. It’s only brave firefighters, medical staff, policemen and aid workers who run towards danger. And they’re probably all adrenaline junkies.
When our body identify a high-stress or dangerous situation, it released adrenaline. The adrenaline is designed to improve the way our body is operating to make us better able to cope, escape and survive. Our heart beat increases, we produce more blood glucose and fatty acids which create energy, our blood vessels contract and our air passages dilate. We are primed, in other words, to move quickly and powerfully.
5000 years ago, the appearance of a wolf in a cave would have produce this reaction within our ancestors. They would then have successfully fought off the threat and been safe once more thanks to their ‘fight or flight’ instinct and the adrenaline their body produced. But hours later, long after the wolf had disappeared, their bodies would still be processing the increased amount of adrenaline which had been dumped into their systems. Rather than saving their lives, however, the excess energy, increased oxygen and blood flow and the faster heart rate actually leads to a euphoric feeling. And it is this sensation which adrenaline junkies chase.
It is not only a wolf attack or an earthquake or a fire which causes a spink in our body’s adrenaline. We can prompt its release by doing something physically exhilarating. Enter cliff jumping, rock climbing, paragliding, diving with sharks, bungee jumping and parachuting. Perhaps it’s the fact that I suffer from vertigo which means this list is filled with activities which take place at great heights or near ledges. Or perhaps that as babies we are born with very few innate fears, of which height is one. An experiment in 1960 involving two tables, separated by a sheet of Plexiglas, proved that almost all babies are scared of heights and would refuse to crawl from table to table, unable to identify that the Plexiglas would keep them safe. Fair enough, in my opinion. More recent experiments suggest in fact that younger crawlers will step into the ‘abyss’ and that as we learn to move, our sense of danger increases. As far as I know, however, no baby has started crawling off the edge of things just to get an adrenaline kick. That addiction appears to develop later in life.
Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would want to hurl themselves off a cliff into the sea, no matter how beautiful the water looks below. Nor would I ever want to limbo under a flaming rope at a full moon party (yes, I’ve seen it done). I’m not a fearful person but I do dislike certain activities; some rationally some irrationally. I don’t enjoy flying, for example, which is a common enough fear but unfortunate since I live in Asia and must therefore travel home to the UK once a year via a plane. I also hate boats. Small, unsteady, rocking boats. This might sound rational until you learn that I’m a very strong swimmer and then it’s just a bit strange. I accompanied a friend of mine to a charity skydive a few years ago. I was by far more nervous than she was and had to distract myself from the fact that she was throwing herself out of a plane high above me by taking photos of the entire event. I came away with about 200 photos of tiny dots in the sky and a year taken off my life. She loved it. Clearly, she’s an adrenaline junkie.
Are you an adrenaline junkie too? What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done which chasing ‘the rush’?