QuestionCan you be addicted to adrenaline?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. Today, we ask addiction professors and adventure junkies if an adrenaline "habit" is a real thing.
You’ve heard about adrenaline junkies: chasing one extreme after another, defying reason and death. You’ve heard about the thrill of the high. But is adrenaline addiction a real thing? Can you form a chemical or psychological dependence on adrenaline, the way that you can be addicted to a substance? To find out, we asked two professors specializing in addiction and two adventure freaks (including one who performed a Suspension BASE jump with the parachute directly attached to metal hooks on his back).
Mark Griffiths, PhD
Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University
Conceptualizing addiction has been a matter of great debate for decades. For many people, the concept of addiction involves the taking of drugs. However, there's a growing movement that views a number of behaviors as potentially addictive, including those that do not involve the ingestion of a drug. These include behaviors diverse as gambling, eating, sex, exercise, video game playing, love, shopping, internet use, social networking, and work.
The term "adrenaline junkie" has now passed into popular usage and usually refers to potentially dangerous activities such as bungee jumping, sky diving, BASE jumping, etc.
My own view is that any activity that features continuous rewards (i.e., constant reinforcement) could be potentially addictive. I've argued in many of my papers that all addictions—irrespective of whether they are chemical or behavioral–comprise six components:
If any "adrenaline junkies" fulfilled all my six criteria I would classify them as an addict. However, I have come across very few adrenaline junkies that exhibit all of my six criteria. My position is that it is theoretically possible for individuals to become addicted to adrenaline producing activities but in reality, very few actually are.
Shahram Heshmat, PhD
Associate Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois at Springfieldl Specialist, Health Economics of Addiction and Obesity
The Hurt Locker (2009) begins with this quotation from war correspondent Chris Hedges: "We imagine war is tough. We know it puts great strain on soldiers. But is war a drug?" The film focuses on the guys whose daily job is to disarm the homemade bombs that have accounted for most U.S. casualties in Iraq. One in particular, the supremely resourceful staff sergeant played by Jeremy Renner, is addicted to the almost nonstop adrenaline rush and the opportunity to express his esoteric skill.
Adrenaline is a substance that is released in the body of a person who is feeling a strong emotion, such as excitement, fear or anger. The adrenaline rush usually occurs when the body senses danger—the "fight or flight" moment. The adrenaline high can last for hours. Some people, known as sensation-seekers, are drawn this sort of intensity and thrill. Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman defines sensation-seeking behavior as the pursuit of novel and intense experiences without regard for physical, social, legal or financial risk.1 People who seek high-sensation experiences are more vulnerable to substance abuse.
Scientists have discovered some similarities between the brains of drug users and high sensation-seeking athletes.2 The connection is dopamine, a chemical associated with the brain's pleasure reward system. High sensation-seekers may be overstimulated by novel experiences because their brains release more dopamine during these events than those of low sensation-seekers. The feeling of pleasure and satisfaction leads to the sensation-seeker coming back for more. The sensory cues and actions that precede and occur with those pleasurable experiences will be remembered.
1. Zuckerman, Marvin, Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2007.
2. Joseph, J.E., X. Liu, Y. Jiang, D. Lynam, T.H. Kelly TH, "Neural correlates of emotional reactivity in sensation seeking," Psychological Science, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2008): 215-223.
Co-founder, Extremity Project; software engineer; adventure sports enthusiast.
An interesting topic, and certainly something I've spent a lot of time thinking about. Adrenaline certainly plays a role in why I do the things I do. But I really feel that's just a part of what motivates me. Here's a post I wrote about my motivations for BASE jumping (the meat of it is half way down the page after I've described the dangers of BASE).
I wrote in another post about why I did a suspension jump, and an adrenaline kick was the primary reason. In it, I say:
"I was motivated by trying something entirely new and different, far beyond both my understanding and my definition of normal. I didn't have any experience that prepared me for the mental unfamiliarity of piercing my back, attaching a canopy and jumping from a cliff. It's not often that you're presented with an opportunity to experience something completely unique and unfamiliar. I wanted to prove to myself that I am the type of person that will tackle the unknown head-on, without fear.
I had no answer to the question 'Why?', before I jumped. Suspension BASE embodies something much more important than the activity itself. It’s an affirmation that there is value in pushing far beyond your own self-defined limits. It's a stark reminder, that mental barriers are malleable."
Just a note on the suspension jump, I am not a masochist. I do not like pain. Getting pierced did hurt, but there was no pain when I jumped. However I did not know any of this before I tried it. I didn't know what would or would not hurt. I know I'm not a fan of pain, but not letting fear force my decisions in life is paramount to me.
I've rock climbed, whitewater kayaked, done kiteboarding and snowboarding since I was young. Honestly, most of them are not adrenaline producing for me. (I also do free solo rock climbing and more BASE jumping, which are exciting—but those aren't top motivations for doing sports.) I do them because they allow me to interact with nature and get into great shape, and each has a strong community around them of people I relate with. If you frame the question "Does an adrenaline addict’s pursuit of the next adrenaline kick have negative effects?," I'm probably not be the best person to answer that.
I knew some guys that always kept pushing the limits in BASE jumping, and they're dead. So it can certainly be an unforgiving place to explore. I'm willing to risk my life, but for bigger reasons than just the next adrenaline rush.
BASE jumping is like skydiving, but from much lower altitudes, using a parachute or a wingsuit. Jumps launch from man-made structures (such as a building or antenna) or natural projections (like a cliff). It’s considered an extreme fringe sport, and is illegal in most cities and national parks in the nation.
Suspension BASE jumping takes the extreme sport even further: jumpers attach parachutes directly to metal bolts that pierce their backs.
— Since April 1981, there have been 256 recorded deaths that occurred from BASE Jumping.
— Compared to skydiving, BASE jumping holds a five to eightfold increased risk of injury or death.
Author, The Great Book of BASE; Skier, Wingsuit BASE jumper, paraglider, mountain climber
I'm not a biochemist or a doctor, and cannot answer technical questions about chemical addiction. Anecdotally, I can tell you my experience is that adrenaline production and the resulting sensations are not the desired outcome of a wingsuit jump or flight.
I'm addicted to the fun, not the fear and stress, that adrenaline tends to create. If you progress in our sport at a responsible speed and don't "skip steps," then wingsuit flying can be experienced with maximum fun and minimum adrenaline.
Nearly one in ten Americans is said to be addicted to something, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or a behavior (like gambling)
Source: Medicine Plus
ILLUSTRATION: Yulia Goldman