Living On The Edge

Coloradans have long pursued outdoor adventures, usually to satisfy a craving for one thing: Adrenaline. But what’s the real cost of our most feverish obsession?

November 2012

Getting Your Fix

Are adrenaline junkies actual addicts?

Dr. Steven Wright has been practicing addiction medicine and medical pain management in Denver for seven years. He recently chatted with 5280 about the nature of adventure sports and why, in some cases, the need to push one’s physical limits might wander into the same territory as alcohol or drug addiction.

5280: What causes people to become addicted in general?

Wright: The frontal cortex is the judgment area of the brain. A majority of what the brain does is say, “No, don’t do that.” Figuring out why someone needs to do something despite its adverse consequences is the hard part. It probably occurs because of dis-regulation of the prefrontal cortex. There may be excellent reasons, such as bad consequences, to choose not to do something dangerous. But some people are dialed in in such a way that they really need to ramp that up, extraordinarily so, and to do it repeatedly. This puts them at risk for developing a true addiction, and even if they might actually end up with an injury or even death as a result of their behavior, and they know it, they still do it anyway, to ride that edge.

5280: But you’re not saying every extreme athlete is an addict?

Wright: No. The key thing people need to recognize is, are there negative consequences, and do you repeat the activity anyway? Someone who overextends themselves to where they are climbing, for example, at a pace where there is no protection possible, and it’s far too risky for anybody—that certainly is a problem. So they love it, but if they’ve had a history of harm associated with it, it could well be an addiction.

The other thing to remember is that what we think of as “reason” is probably tilted toward one’s own point of view, whatever the addictive activity is. So we collect reasons to support that and discard others, depending on the drive in the nonrational area of the brain that says it’s correct.

5280: Most accomplished adventurers would say the risks they take are thoroughly calculated, and therefore not so risky.

Wright: If something is high-risk and yet truly within your capacity, I don’t think you can quite say it’s addiction. If you do something I would never even consider doing, but you do it very well, that just means you’re able to be on that edge, and I just don’t have the ability to do that. It comes back down to, are there negative consequences of significance, and do you repeat those actions in spite of them? It’s the compulsivity that leads to negative activities over and over again that could lead to addiction. 


The Effects of Adrenaline on the Mind and Body 

Whether a predicament excites or frightens you, your body reads it as stress. Here’s how it responds:

1. BRAIN Releases dopamine as a coping mechanism that affects mood and hunger, and triggers the initial release of adrenaline.

2. MOUTH Nervous system inhibits the production of saliva.

3. HEART/BLOOD/MUSCLES Heart rate increases to bring more oxygen to the muscles while blood vessels constrict to pool more blood around the muscles, which enables the fight-or-flight response.

4. SKIN Turns pale if blood vessels are constricting; turns red if blood vessels are dilating, which causes sweating.

5. LUNGS Breathe faster to inhale oxygen and deliver it more efficiently to the blood and the muscles.

6. ADRENAL GLANDS Release adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) into the blood. Also secrete cortisol, which can provide energy bursts, heightened memory, and lower sensitivity to pain.

7. KIDNEYS Conserve extra cellular fluid volume and temporarily prevent the need to urinate. 

8. BOWELS Can cramp and cause either diarrhea or constipation.



Want to find out if you’re a tortoise or a hare? These sites will help you discover your true calling.

Specifically designed to determine your risk-taking tendencies.

A series of self-tests for everything from exercise IQ to “adventure quotients.”