Dr. Gregory Jantz

When Risk-Seeking Crosses the Line

June 28, 2018

Risk-seekers can become addicted to much more than gambling. Risk-seeking becomes addictive when the risk behaviors cross the line into danger or obsession. Helping a person understand a risk-seeking addiction can be difficult because people have such different ways of evaluating risk.

One person I counseled was a mountain climber. We have some beautiful mountains in the Pacific Northwest, and mountain climbing in and of itself isn’t pathological. However, mountain climbing, for him, became an addiction and was interfering with his life. The key to him understanding how this hobby had become an obsession was in tracing the progression. He first started climbing mountains with a group of college friends. They’d go out a couple of times a year whenever the weather was right. They had as much fun in the preparation, the drive up, the camaraderie on the slopes, and the ride home as they did summiting the peak of whatever mountain they were climbing.

Over the course of the next ten or so years, things changed. For this man I counseled, the peaks became too routine, the routes too well traveled. The laughing and joking of the others started to be irritating, distracting him from the true goal of pushing himself, besting himself, and testing himself against the odds. On the trips, he became intense, moody, rigid.

His buddies started to find reasons to avoid these excursions until he was accomplishing the climbs alone—and glad to be doing so. He went from making these solitary climbs a couple of times a year to as many weekends as he could manage. If the weather was lousy, he’d rage. When he fell on a climb and broke an ankle, he fumed and felt terrible about himself. The day came when he realized the only time he truly felt alive was when he was risking his life on a mountain. He knew he’d crossed a line but wasn’t sure where or why.

Risk has been called an adrenaline rush. Here is how the website LiveStrong.com defines what happens in an adrenaline rush:

When you perceive something as threatening or exciting, the hypo- thalamus in the brain signals to the adrenal glands that it’s time to produce adrenaline and other stress hormones. The adrenal glands produce adrenaline by transforming the amino acid tyrosine into dopamine. Oxygenation of dopamine yields noradrenaline, which is then converted into adrenaline. Adrenaline binds to receptors on the heart, arteries, pancreas, liver, muscles and fatty tissue. By binding to receptors on the heart and arteries, adrenaline increases heart rate and respiration, and by binding to receptors on the pancreas, liver, muscle and fatty tissue, it inhibits the production of insulin and stimulates the synthesis of sugar and fat, which the body can use as a fuel in fight-or-flight situations.[1]

Risk is a compelling emotional and physical experience capable of inducing addictive responses.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 37 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.

[1] Berit Brogaard, “What Happens during an Adrenaline Rush?” LiveStrong .com, April 16, 2015, http://www.livestrong.com/article/203790-what-happens -during-an-adrenaline-rush/.