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What Does Thrill-Seeking Say About a Person’s Mental Health?

A CU Anschutz expert dives into what drives people to brave high-stakes adventures

minute read

Written by Laura Kelley on April 29, 2024
What You Need To Know

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, the CU Anschutz newsroom is highlighting some of the ways our campus faculty conduct research, provide patient care and extend support around mental health.

We take our extreme sports seriously in Colorado. From skydiving and whitewater rafting to ATVs and climbing, activities abound for the adventure seeker. But what drives a thrill-seeker? Can it go too far? Is social media fueling a dangerous game of competition?

Recently coming off of her own skydiving adventure, media relations professional in the CU Anschutz Office of Communications Laura Kelley sought out those answers and more.

Kelley spoke with Emily Hemendinger, MPH, LCSW, clinical director of the OCD Program and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, about the mental health benefits, drawbacks and risks when we participate in these breathtaking activities.

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Speaking from personal experience, and I know you can relate to this as well as an avid mountain climber, participating in extreme sports seems to give us a massive high followed a few hours later by a significant low. What’s going on here mentally?

The lows may come from the aftermath of doing an exciting activity. If you’re planning something and looking forward to it for so long, you experience it and feel the high, and when it’s over, that may lead to a low. If the experience didn’t go exactly how you wanted it to, you might also feel that low and a sense of disappointment.

There are people who do this professionally or as a weekend hobby. What drives people to do this on a consistent basis?

Number one, the adrenaline rush …  which creates feelings of excitement in us. These sports may also increase the release of dopamine and serotonin. They may provide a sense of freedom, exploration and purpose for some people. There’s also the sense of accomplishment. The rush people get from these activities can also help with emotional regulation and stress management. People may feel more connected to nature and even gain a sense of peace.

Is there a certain psychological profile?

Some research suggests thrill-seekers may experience lower levels of dopamine and serotonin. The resulting constant search for these chemical surges makes sense. These individuals may be more genetically predisposed to have underlying psychiatric disorders, higher levels of impulsivity and lower tolerances to boredom. They may be more likely to be impatient, self-preoccupied and have difficulty accepting and dealing with failure. 


Laura Kelley and her skydiving instructor freefall from a plane over Weld County, Colorado. Photos by Orange Skies Freefall Center.

However, not all thrill-seekers are impulsive. Research has shown that some people engaging in extreme sports are well-trained and well-prepared. Some people who engage in extreme sports may be careful and measured in the risks they take, bordering on being more harm avoidant than novelty seeking. I, myself fall into this camp. They are more interested in trying to control the risk rather than the risk itself. In fact, it’s much more common for adventure seekers to be tedious planners, detail oriented and people who like to be in control. These traits can be quite beneficial in the wilderness and when engaging in extreme sports.

When it comes to mental health, is there a downside to these activities?

While participating in extreme sports can help some people with emotional regulation and fear management, this may also lead to an increased tolerance or almost numbness to fear and danger. It may impact someone’s ability to fully recognize risk involved in the sport and life in general and can also lead to the desire to seek higher and higher levels of risk after each objective. When not kept in check, these activities can be used the same way as someone would use drugs and alcohol. While exercise and sports can be adaptive ways to navigate stress and difficult emotions, if this is your only way of coping, it can become addictive and used as a means of avoidance. Additionally, if someone’s entire self-worth is wrapped up in this lifestyle, if they get injured this can lead to immense depression, anxiety and distress. 

It would be remiss not to acknowledge the role social media plays in these “dangerous trends.” What impact has it had on extreme sports?

Doing it for the ’gram is still alive and well. People may participate in extreme sports for the photo opportunity or for clout. Social media allows others’ adventures to be posted in real time, which allows for real-time comparisons and competition. It can lead to a constant desire to “out-do” one another, continuing to up the ante, which can be quite dangerous. Increasing one’s social status and gaining acceptance in an extreme sports community can play a role in one-upping as well.

For example, footage of Colorado’s famous Capitol Peak and its “knife edge” frequently gets posted on social media. While some folks will do the necessary research on the dangers as well as the way to climb it safely, others will see it as something accessible and “cool” without doing the prep work, which can lead to life-threatening situations.

How does being a thrill-seeker impact relationships and how can someone manage concerns expressed by family and friends with their own need to live life a little on the edge?

A thrill-seeker can sometimes have tunnel vision when it comes to their sport of choice – only focusing on whatever the next objective is and how to reach it. As a result, loved ones may see this as the thrill-seeker being selfish or uncaring. This can lead to arguments or isolation from loved ones. Balance is important, but understanding from loved ones needs to be there too. The thrill-seeker needs to recognize that while they are free to live their life on the edge, they don’t live in a vacuum. Their desires to push it may come with serious consequences that impact not only them, but their loved ones. I think it’s a balance and it’s important to be able to hold space for their passions and the perspective of their loved ones.

How should family/friends approach a thrill-seeker about their reservations?

I think friends and family can express concerns. They have every right to do that. However, it’s important to do this in an empathetic way that can invite discussion vs. encourage the thrill-seeker to become more stubbornly resolved to engage in the activity. Don’t demean the person or the extreme sport that they engage in. That sport brings the person joy and pleasure; ridiculing the person or the sport will push the thrill-seeker away and cause disconnection.

Anything else that is important for thrill-seekers to remember?

After these experiences, the “what’s next” mentality can be dangerous. In those moments, I like to check in to see if I’m in a striving mentality or if the activity I’m doing is in line with my values. Am I taking it too far, or am I still able to be flexible and engaged in my regular life and activities?

Topics: Mental Health,

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Emily Hemendinger, MPH, LCSW