- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

Tracey Eckersley is high on life 14,000 feet above the ground. As an assistant manager at Skydive Delmarva in Laurel, Del., she frequently finds herself hurtling toward the ground at 120 miles per hour. After about 65 seconds of free falling, she releases her parachute for a four-minute ride back to Earth.

While some people would never consider participating in such an activity, Ms. Eckersley thrives on the excitement. Since 1986, she has done 9,200 parachute jumps.

“Every single time you jump out of the airplane, you have a shot of adrenaline,” she says. “It’s kind of a buzz. … There would be a void if I didn’t do this anymore. … It becomes a way of life.”

Thrill seekers, adrenaline junkies, risk takers — whatever the classification — certain people are drawn to adventuresome activities. While some people take part in these events in moderation, medical experts suggest the pursuits can become addictive.

Flight or fight hormones such as adrenaline — also known as epinephrine — are released whenever someone takes part in hazardous activities, says Dr. Stephen Clement, associate professor of endocrinology at Georgetown University Hospital in Northwest. These natural chemicals make the senses keener and tell the body to wake up whenever it feels threatened.

The high created through adrenaline should not be confused with a “runner’s high,” however, which is created by the release of endorphins when someone experiences pain during strenuous exercise. Adrenaline is not created as a pain killer. Its effects, which are short-lived, are produced during stressful situations, which often causes people to keep repeating the activity that gave their bodies the initial boost.

“After going on a roller coaster at King’s Dominion, you are rattled and shook up for a few minutes,” Dr. Clement says. “After 10 minutes, it’s all over, and you get back in line again.”

Society’s fascination with adrenaline is even seen in advertisements, he says. For instance, many commercials imply that if someone buys an off-road vehicle, he will be able to climb a perilous mountain.

“They cater to an emotion,” he says. “It’s a quick adrenaline high.”

Living on the edge has kept Don Barrack, an instructor at Summit Point Motor Sports Park in Summit Point, W.Va., involved in race-car driving for 25 years. He says maintaining control in a stressful situation feels rewarding.

“The speed thrills me,” he says. “When it’s done well, it’s almost an art form. You’re door handle to door handle with people at over 100 miles per hour. At any point in time, it might send you careening off somewhere, but you’ll also be collecting four or five other cars.”

Although participating in thrill-seeking activities can be fun, it’s not always healthy, says Desi Griffin, an administrator at the outpatient behavioral health service at the Washington Hospital Center in Northwest.

“They aren’t used to functioning without it,” she says. “It’s attached to their identity and the way they see themselves.”

Certain personality types, such as someone who is an accountant or radiologist, who is methodological, probably would not be found engaging in risky behavior. Interestingly, the same types of personalities who seek out adventure through activities such as bungee jumping and rock climbing often can be drawn to activities such as excessive gambling or outrageous stock-market investments, she says.

“They’d like to beat the odds,” she says. “It gives them a sense of invulnerability. Then, they like to up the ante. After they jump out of an airplane, then they like to do it with their hands tied behind their backs.”

Unfortunately, many adrenaline junkies base their self-esteem on their latest stunts, whether it’s on a race track or playing the stock market from behind a computer, says Ms. Griffin, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. Therefore, these individuals have large fluctuations in their moods. The thrill-seeking may even affect their personal relationships.

“They could be involved in affairs,” she says. “Or they don’t get serious and have multiple relationships at a time. The risk-taking behavior helps them feel rejuvenated.”

However, Ms. Griffin cautions that taking certain risks is part of living a balanced life. Otherwise, people may not attempt to do simple things, such as learning to ride a bike or having a conversation with a new person. Potentially dangerous situations need to be experienced in moderation for people to grow and develop.

“There is a person who can have a glass of wine once a week and not be addicted to it,” she says. “Someone else, … because of personality and genetics, is predisposed to excess.”

Sometimes, people don’t realize they are using their adrenaline without restraint. Many not-so-obvious bad habits are based on the fact that people use their adrenaline unconsciously, says Larry M, a member of Adrenaline Addicts Anonymous in Reno, Nev. Because of the anonymous nature of the group, Mr. M requested that his last name not be used. He became addicted to the adrenaline produced in the body through workaholism.

“You need adrenaline to pump enough energy to work excessively,” he says. “A lot of alcoholics become workaholics when they get sober. Work is a problem in your life when it causes a problem in your life, like the executive who works and works and neglects his family as much as he did when he was drinking.”

Other negative actions, such as road rage and fights between spouses, also produce adrenaline. Therefore, people may thrive on these interactions and not realize it, he says. To overcome this problem, Mr. M suggests keeping a daily log describing what activities cause an adrenaline boost and working with a mentor who understands the addiction. He says living on adrenaline was his way of avoiding the difficult situations in his life.

“Intensity in any form covers emptiness,” he says. “If you have hurt, you go to some form to cover it up.”

While recovering from his adrenaline addiction, Mr. M says he doesn’t want to eliminate all adrenaline from his life, but limit it to acceptable amounts.

“Adrenaline is the spice of life,” he says. “We don’t want to get rid of it. We just want to be able to use it when we want to, not reactively.”

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