Apr. 18, 2012 - Issue #861: The Long Game
The science of adrenaline
A look at the neurochemical reasoning behind why we take risks
Adrenaline, the culprit of this natural high, possesses an enticing allure reserved not only for the so-called junkies, but for people of all walks of life who are seeking an escape from the norm. However, the appeal might not be apparent to everyone. Some may think it's absolutely insane to jump out of, say, a perfectly good airplane to plummet thousands of feet in the name of fun. Some may give in just to cross an item off their bucket list, while others get completely hooked.
Al Christou, drop zone operator and president of the Edmonton Skydive Centre—who currently sits somewhere between 1600 and 2000 jumps—took his first dive eight years ago at 23, when the opportunity was presented to him as a birthday gift. He recalls feeling nervous, doing a risk analysis in his head and weighing out whether or not he really needed to do something as crazy as jump out of an airplane.
"The most terrifying part is prior to getting out of the airplane," he says, adding that watching people jump before him only amped up his nerves. "You watch them climb out and when it's your turn, you have this blank feeling, just sensory overload. You kind of have to tell the brain to take a break and you're going to get through this."
Launching into the unknown was terrifying because, as Christou puts it, you don't trust the system yet. It's hard to fathom that a piece of nylon suspended over your head will guide you safely back to solid ground. This fear subsided for Christou as the parachute opened and he began to remember the classroom drills, which had a relaxing effect, since he began to feel more in control.
Once it's all said and done, reality sinks in.
"Then you're really amped up and that stays with you. The amount of money the RCMP make giving people speeding tickets once they leave here I'm sure is exponential," he jokes. "Everyone is jacked and we always have to remind people to slow down."
Nicole Bradfield, a power engineer who recently became a certified skydiving coach and has completed 160 jumps, can relate to the amped-up feeling left behind by adrenaline sports. As she puts it, she was high on life for three days after her first tandem jump at 23, and it wasn't long before she took the necessary training to start jumping solo.
Contrary to Christou, Bradfield says reaching the threshold before leaving the plane is her favourite part of the experience.
"You go through feeling kind of big in a small plane to feeling so damn tiny in the sky. You feel like you can do anything," she recalls.
The appeal of adrenaline and reasons for participating in such sports are different for everyone, but Billy Strean, a professor in the Faculty of Physical Education at the University of Alberta who specializes in sports psychology, says when adrenaline is considered in terms of arousal, whether that's through neuropsychological or simply life experiences, individuals who tend to be chronically on the lower end of the scale seek out ways to substantially heighten this state.
"There's some research that suggests the profile of people that do high-risk sports is somewhat similar to people who engage in things like vandalism, theft and other sorts of crimes," he says. "It kind of makes sense. You're seeking stimulation, and you could find it in something that's more socially sanctioned versus something that's not."
Strean also recognizes that in situations that someone doesn't understand from an outside perspective, it's easy to cast stereotypes and assume everyone participating behaves a certain way, which he does not believe is the case.
"People who engage in skydiving or other things that are even more deviant or less normative, often they're perfectly healthy people. They're not in any way dangerous or anti-social or crazy," Strean adds. "Anything that has some form of appeal, you're gong to have people that get addicted or find some way to be abusive to themselves within it, but I think with a lot of these things, if you take any level of scrutiny, these are reasonable, good people."
Kevin Olsen, who studied under Strean while obtaining his master's degree in sports psychology, completed his thesis on skydiving and went on to receive his jump master certification in 2007. He doesn't believe there's a certain personality that's synonymous with seeking out adrenaline-rush-inducing situations.
"There's researchers who like to categorize and label, but I've seen people of all different shapes and sizes ... I've seen people who are super conservative and soft spoken and reserved. I've seen welders and lawyers and doctors and construction workers ... all kinds of people, so it's really hard to say it's one kind of personality," Olsen says, admitting he tends to be more introverted and wouldn't be someone who people expect to participate in something as "crazy" as skydiving. "Within all personality types there's a certain number of people who like adventure more than others."
As a child, Olsen was terrified of roller coasters and even simply meeting new people, but he says that through sports like Tae Kwon Do and skydiving, he's made a lifetime pursuit of facing fear and putting his fears in perspective.
Achieving an adrenaline rush may sound simple, but it's the result of a carefully orchestrated process within the body. Adrenaline, or epinephrine as it's known in scientific terms, is essentially a neurotransmitter that drives the body's fight-or-flight response.
"It is released with any stimulation of stress of any kind," explains Dr David Lau, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine, biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Calgary.
"Basically what it does is it enables the organism to mobilize very quickly in terms of locomotion or whatever's associated with it. What that really means is the heart rate will go up, the blood vessels will constrict peripherally so the blood is pooling into the muscle, where you need it to exercise."
Epinephrine's sister stress hormone norepinephrine is also an integral part of the fight-or-flight response. It has similar effects, such as increased heart rate, but when it is released in the body it causes glucose to be released as energy, an integral requirement to fuel the body. Norepinephrine activates the central and sympathetic nervous system in the fight-or-flight response and aids in increased attention and more efficient reaction time.
When these chemicals are released, there's also a cross-talk with dopamine that happens, explains Lau. Stress hormones are released in stages and dopamine, which is another intracranial neurotransmitter, can affect mood, as well as hunger and satiety.
"What that means is that when a person is in fight-or-flight mode, they may feel the need to eat, so they may feel like there's hunger pangs and those are some of the results of adrenaline acting on the dopamine," Lau says. "When you're running, or in the midst of the activity, you don't feel the hunger pangs, but as soon as you stop, then you feel the effect."
Cortisol, which is also secreted from the adrenal glands and is released at higher levels during fight-or-flight situations, can have positive effects such as a quick burst of energy, heightened memory functions and lower sensitivity to pain, Lau adds.
While there is generally no physical danger of feeling an "adrenaline rush," Lau says if a person is not in good health, a sudden surge of adrenaline-related stress hormones can cause lack of oxygen to the heart muscles, which can trigger heart attacks. When the adrenaline rush subsides, people can also pass out, which Lau says is due to blood being redistributed throughout the body as vessels relax.
It has been argued that purposely putting your body through these stressful situations is reckless, but Christou says even though the risk factor doesn't phase him anymore, and while he participates in more challenging aspects of the sport, he's not about to take chances and start behaving recklessly in the name of a bigger thrill.
"If you want to go out there and do something ridiculous, it'll humble you," he says, adding that the sport has become much more professional and the amount of knowledge skydivers have about airspace and aircraft regulations will astound most people, since its perception is that it requires little more skill than simply jumping out of an airplane.
"If I thought it was reckless I probably wouldn't do it," Olsen says, admitting that he'd like to try base jumping someday, which is considered one of the pinnacles of adrenaline sports, but adding, "I think you have a responsibility when you engage in these sports to have a certain amount of respect for the risk ... if you don't then you start falling into the category of people that are just needlessly hurting others, whether it's with their own close calls, or their own injuries or their own death."
Olsen, Christou and Bradfield all say that the majority of people they've encountered in skydiving respect the risks, but there will always be those who insist on pushing the limits, and that's where the danger lies. They have all become comfortable with the sport and experiment with new ways to make it exciting, but this is done out of a love for the sport, not seeking a bigger rush.
"When I'm climbing the altitude, there's never a time when I'm not a little bit scared, when I'm not in touch with the reality of what I'm about to do," Olsen says. "I don't think it's necessarily a need to have more risk to get 'the rush.' The fact is, the emotions get more stable, you don't get the same spike because there's not that same element of the unknown or surprise."
As with most things, Bradfield says the feeling wears off a little, and she's started looking at new ways to step it up a notch, but remains aware of her limits at this point.
"It's like a progression. Some people just like to do their two-way belly flying kind of stuff, but I can see myself getting into base jumping one day," she says. "Right now, it's one step at a time."
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