A situation involving exposure to danger
Risk is a funny thing. It surrounds us in our every day lives, infused in almost every decision we make both consciously and unconsciously. Risk can be applied to any situation, from business decisions to taking a gamble in the casino. The risk we explore in this article though, is risk of its purest form - the risk of injury or death.
Our evolution as humans has revolved around our ability to survive; by avoiding scenario's and situations which pose a risk to the longevity of our existence. We are genetically programmed through millennia of experience and understanding of what is safe and what isn't.
Why then, is there a growing community of risk takers? Why do many of us seek adrenaline fuelled risks and dangers? Why do we push ourselves to the very brink of what is possible, sometimes facing dire consequences?
Active Elements UK conducted a survey to explore the rationale behind taking risks - the lifeblood of adventure/extreme sport - surveying explorers and adventurers from a range of sports and passions. We set out to answer a few hard set questions we had asked ourselves. Here's what we found.
WHAT IS RISK?
There's no easy answer to that. Risk is one of the most subjective things in life - what one person may say is risky and dangerous, another might consider safe. There is a social acceptance to some risk. Crossing the road for example, always poses an element of risk and yet it is considered normal by society to cross said road. Generally, 'risk' is perceived to be greater in actions that aren't often socially standard. Rock climbing for example is considered dangerous and risky by the majority of society. After all, you don't see everyone in your local town scrambling up rock faces. Why? Because it's risky.
A 'risk taker' then is considered a person who takes these risks, and even relishes in doing so. While some shake their heads in disapproval or disbelief (quite often both) the risk taker grins in the face of risk as they set out on their next venture. Mountains were once considered the home of the holy, or the hostile. Now, they have become the play thing of risk takers, from mountaineers and climbers to skiers, snowboarders and base jumpers.
You don't need to search for long either to find one of these risk takers. The chances are if you're reading this article or have visited ActiveElementsUK.com you are a risk taker yourself.
In fact, of those surveyed 96.4% of participants said that they consider themselves a risk taker.
DO WE REALLY ENJOY RISK?
So if we've been genetically conditioned over thousands of years to avoid dangerous risks, do we actually enjoy going against our better instincts? And if so, why?
Well, according to our study, 100% of participants said that their sport/hobby involved an element of risk. When asked if they enjoyed the element of risk in their sport, only 18.5% answered No, while another 18.5% answered maybe, leaving 63% of participants saying that yes they did enjoy the risk.
We found a correlation between the level of risk taken, and whether the participant enjoyed that risk. It turns out that the higher the degree of risk, the more the risk is enjoyed. Those participants writing that the risks faced involved minor injuries (sprains, muscle injuries & minor damage to bones) seemed less enthusiastic about enjoying it. Meanwhile, those taking on sports where the risk is much higher - often to the degree of death or paralysis - seemed much more excited by the possible risks they faced.
We feel most alive when we are on the brink of death.
Surprisingly, when asked if the participant would like more or less risk in their chosen sport(s), 11% answered that they would like more risk involved. Given that these same participants were the ones that said the risks involved potential death / paralysis, it's hard to imagine what further risk they would like to see. Or perhaps they seek a more obvious 'adrenaline fuelled' risk?
Whether the participants desire more, less or the same level of risk involved, only 3.7% admitted that they would consider giving up their hobby due to its risky nature. That means a staggering 96.3% of participants are happy to accept the risks involved in order to enjoy their sport.
WHY DO WE TAKE ON RISK
So, we know there's often a high level of risk with adventure / extreme sport, and we know that those involved often flourish on the risk, rather than try to avoid it. The term 'Adrenaline Junkie' springs to mind. Why do we seek ever riskier feats? Is it that we become addicted to adrenaline? Or simply going against the grain embedded deep within our DNA.
With a rising death toll on Mt Everest (11 in 2019 alone at the time of publication), countless skiing/snowboarding injuries, climbing related deaths and an increase in scuba related injuries, a non-risk taker would be forced to question the mentality of those that actively seek these dangers. Why do it?
"Those who dance are considered mad by those that can't hear the music" - Friedrich Nietzche
Often, those who take the biggest risks face the greatest reward. In the case of rock climbing, the most famous name in the sport is undoubtedly Alex Honnold, who shot to mainstream fame following the feat of 'Free Solo' whereby he climbed El Capitan (United States) without any protective gear whatsoever. With the climb scaling over 3000ft tall, a single mistake would have resulted in almost certain death. What's more, he went on to solo El Cap for a second time begging the question - why?
Fame is obviously a motivating factor for the big names in any sport, whether its Honnold, Herbert Nitsch, or any other big name. But what about those of us that don't receive a pay check for taking the risk, or an award of some sort?
Adrenaline has a lot to answer for in the world of an adventure sport enthusiast. Adrenaline is a chemical hormone created by our bodies by the adrenal glands in order to regulate or visceral functions such as breathing. It also plays a huge part in the flight/fight response, by increasing the output of our hearts to increase blood flow to muscles, higher blood sugar levels and a more focused line of sight. Many adrenaline junkies also report that they experience a clearer mind, and a sense of euphoria when they feel the adrenaline seep in. Is it a chemical addiction then that drives us to push ourselves to the edge of death?
The answer is both yes and no (sadly it's never straight forward!). In the same way a drug addict becomes addicted to the effects the drug has on their body, the same thing happens with adrenaline. Many adrenaline junkies crave the euphoric, focused feeling that is all-consuming, and feel that when they aren't experiencing it, their lives are uneventful and underwhelming.
Science however suggests that the presence of adrenaline in our bodies is not a physical addiction and more of a mental one. The occurrence of the adrenaline hormone can increase for all manner of reasons besides placing oneself in a life-or-death situation. Seeing your ex in the street, or facing a tough business decision can both also result in an increase in adrenaline in the body.
POSSIBLE LINKS TO MENTAL WELFARE
As mentioned a few moments ago, adrenaline junkies often report that they experience a 'clearer and more focused head space' while undertaking the risks of their sports. Is it possible that we take on these risks in order to clear our mind, or in an attempt to improve our mental welfare?
From the same survey as above, 74.1% of participants admitted that they had used their sport(s) as a coping mechanism to overcome mental wellness challenges such as stress, depression and anxiety. A further 11.1% stated that mental challenges may have been a factor in undertaking the sport at one time or another.
Surprisingly, 73.1% of those that answered 'yes' to using their sport(s) as a coping mechanism said that doing so helped to noticeably improve their mental state, whilst a further 15.4% stated that it had some positive effect on their mental state. Is this the result of the 'clear' and 'focused' mindset that adrenaline junkies report? More and more in recent years, adventure sports are being prescribed to those suffering mental health challenges, so the experts seem to think so!
For a more in-depth look into the impact of adventure sport on mental state, head over to our first Insight Article - 'Therapeutic Wilderness'.
So are we really addicted to risk? Do we enjoy taking ourselves to the edge of what is seen as possible? Are we driven by our own hormones in search of a more intriguing life? The results seem to suggest yes to all of these questions!
It's become apparent that in a world where we are programmed, conditioned and told to avoid unnecessary risks, there is a group of us, scattered around the globe, that contravene the 'standard' mentality. We may all have our own personal reasons, but we seem to be united by a common addiction - risk.
Have you ever used an adventure/extreme sport to cope with mental illness or every day stresses? We'd love to hear your story and how your journey is going. Please let us know in the comments section below!
These results are based on a survey conducted by Active Elements UK between July 1st and August 6th 2019 and is based on a sample of 74 participants from a range of backgrounds and lifestyles. For participant privacy, all submissions were submitted anonymously and no personal details were provided to Active Elements UK during this survey.
Have you got a story to share with us? Please feel free to get in touch, we would love to hear from you!