Many people become addicted to substances or practices that have a negative impact on normal biological functioning. Illegal drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin, as well as the mind-altering chemicals found in bath salts or inhalants, are examples of substances that begin to cause damage to the human organism immediately after they are consumed, even before an addiction has the chance to develop.
However, it is also possible to become addicted to substances, activities and practices that do not have deleterious effects on the mind/body system, and are therefore not inherently dangerous in and of themselves.
In fact, in some instances these potential sources of addiction can actually promote good health if they are used or performed in moderation. Exercise is an excellent example of an activity that is immensely beneficial in most cases but can cause more harm than good if practiced obsessively or without restraint. The pathways through which normal or benign behaviors turn into compulsions that can no longer be effectively controlled are apparently a built-in aspect of human nature, and what the existence of these pathways means is that almost any activity that at first can seem fun, exciting, or interesting can over time change into a life-disrupting obsession or addiction.
Extreme sports addictions represent an interesting case because they involve activities that fall somewhere in between the two types of addictions just described. On the one hand, activities such as skydiving, surfing, base jumping, whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, etc. do not have negative effects on biological functioning. But on the other hand, extreme sports are inherently risky and do present a real threat to life and limb. In fact, most who are drawn to these activities admit that the risk of injury and death is a part of what makes extreme sports so stimulating. When interviewed about their passion for risk-taking, what extreme sport practitioners mention again and again is the incredible adrenaline rush they feel when pursuing these dangerous activities, and they acknowledge that it is this high risk/high reward dichotomy that always brings them back for more.
Extreme genetics and brain chemistry
It was over 30 years ago that University of Delaware Professor Marvin Zuckerman first developed the concept of risk addiction, or what he referred to as “sensation seeking.” In the time since the existence of this phenomenon was first recognized, attempts to explore the question of risk addiction more deeply have focused on brain chemistry. Substances or activities that cause people to experience the types of highs associated with addiction are believed to be related to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can cause feelings of sudden and intense pleasure if present in higher-than-normal concentrations (dopamine is a precursor to adrenaline, so when people speak of ‘adrenaline rushes’ they are really talking about the effects of dopamine). For a long time, the most popular theory asserted that extreme sports enthusiasts and other risk takers were suffering from a shortage of dopamine, and that participating in dangerous but thrilling behaviors was essentially a coping strategy designed to stimulate the production of this missing chemical.
While this idea has not been abandoned, as past research seems to indicate that at least some compulsive risk takers do suffer from dopamine deficiencies, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience presented evidence in support of a different theory. Researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City looked more closely at what was going on inside the brains of the sensation seekers participating in their study, and they discovered that people who love to take risks appear to be suffering from a deficiency of dopamine-inhibiting receptors in their brains. It is speculated that people without the ability to regulate dopamine release properly may actually experience a more intense high while putting their life and health at risk, as their brains may become flooded with high concentrations of this pleasure-producing chemical. Even more so than alleviating possible dopamine shortages, it could be the exaggerated nature of this reaction that makes extreme sports so appealing to so many people.
When extreme fun turns to addiction
Whether or not the risk is really worth the reward is a question each extreme sports enthusiast must answer for him or herself. But when interest gradually transforms into obsession, to the point that family and work responsibilities are being neglected, and financial problems are being incurred because so much money is being spent in support of an extreme sport hobby, these are strong indicators that calculated thrill seeking has changed into addiction.
Wanting to do something and needing to do it are two different things entirely, and those who find themselves so consumed by a formerly pleasurable activity that it is adversely affecting other parts of their lives may need to seek professional help in order to get their behavior back under control. Addiction counselors or psychotherapists who specialize in obsessive-compulsive disorders will be able to help extreme sports addicts gain new insight into their personalities while showing them how to reorient their lives so that their hobbies are no longer the primary focus of their existence.
Like any other pleasurable pursuit, extreme sports can add spice and enjoyment to a person’s life. But if they become a source of obsession or addiction, they can also cause an enormous amount of physical and emotional damage and pain, for addicts and their loved ones alike. And if extreme sports addiction drives adventurers to try more and more dangerous stunts to increase the intensity of the high, they may end up paying the ultimate price.