Many people become engaged in high-risk behaviors. Positive high-risk behaviors could be dangerous but are meant for sport or recreation and are not illegal. Negative high-risk behaviors can lead to physical harm or suffering consequences of the behavior such as involvement in the judicial system or suspension from school. Negative risk taking activities include:
- Drinking or drug use
- Unprotected sex
- Carrying a weapon
- Driving without a license
- Ignoring curfews
- Dealing drugs
- Driving while drunk or high
- Resisting arrest
- Having sex as part of gang initiation
- Gang banging
- Messing around with someone else’s boyfriend or girlfriend
It is the negative risk taking behaviors that need controlling and this can be accomplished through our own personal power.
Why do We Engage in Taking Risks?
The main reason we take a risk is because we get something out of it. That something can be very complicated. High-risk behavior can make us feel euphoric and when that feeling goes away, the desire for it again can be overwhelming. Kids report feeling more alive, a sense of control and power, of being on top of the world. They can view risk taking as the opportunity to belong to a group, of being heard and not ignored, of being noticed.
Consequences can bring us back down to earth, and the craving for that “good” feeling throws us into the risky behavior again. It does not take long to get sucked into the cycle of risk taking. This happens as we grow older as well, especially if we are already in the cycle during our youth.
The Cycle of Risk Taking
Before the risk we often feel bored, scared, sad, lonely, depressed, betrayed, edgy, nervous, or high. These feelings are not easily handled and lead to the risky behavior in order to “get rid” of those feelings.
During the risky behavior, we feel in the zone, hyped up, paranoid, tough, large and in charge and alive. These are feelings that make us feel good and feelings we want to continue. But eventually the risk is over and the feelings go away.
After the risk, feelings of loneliness come back and along with them, feelings of being scared, worried, regretful, stupid, or tense. We may feel we’ve let ourselves and our families down and the feelings of paranoia may linger.
The feelings before and after the risky behavior are similar—mostly negative. These negative feelings keep the cycle going around and around. When we become aware of the triggers to the risky behavior, we are able to choose how to respond and stop the cycle.
The Impact of the Family of Origin
Many people have gone through or are going through trauma at the hands of their family. Many people who engage in risk-taking behaviors are influenced by family events that have scarred them emotionally. This includes physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; abandonment or neglect; drug abuse or alcoholism; and tragedies such as deaths.
While all of these things shape who we are; they do not have to define who we are. Inner strength can help us make healthy choices regarding how to cope with these situations. We do not have to choose jail as a means of getting out of an abusive household. We can choose a group other than gangs to help us belong.
The pain from any trauma is difficult to relieve. People are individuals and the healing process is personal and must be dealt with it at the individual’s own pace. Sometimes it takes a professional to help you deal with the issues. Some of you may feel more comfortable talking to a trusted teacher or other adult in your lives.
The Influence of Friends in Risk Taking Behaviors
Once we become teenagers, our friends influence us way more than our parents. We strive to belong to a peer group and here again is where choice plays a huge role. While we cannot choose our biological families, we can choose our friends.
For many of us it is difficult to trust and a key component of true friendship is the ability to trust your friend. Of course there are levels of trust and that is why we generally trust those closest to us more than we trust others.
The power of choice enables us to learn more about ourselves and gain greater power over our lives. Learning who to trust enables us to make choices in friends who will not bring us down. Choosing our friends carefully allows us to keep those at bay who would be a threat to us. Friends and acquaintances who involve us in high-risk behaviors with negative consequences are a threat to us.
Choosing to be a gang member puts you at risk. It is a myth that gangs can protect you. When you enter a gang, you have allowed more violence to enter your life, more threats that are out of your control. You may be a target for something that happened before you even joined the gang. There’s no safety in that. Any power gained comes with an extremely high price tag.
Stopping the Cycle Using Personal Power and Meditation
One feeling that “umbrellas” many other feelings is anger. Many situations and circumstances can cause anger and stress. When we get angry or feel stress, we have a choice regarding how to respond to the situation. Personal power gives us that choice.
Relaxation techniques are useful in helping reduce the stress in our lives and can help with anger issues as well. Most of us are quite familiar with the technique of “counting to ten” when we become angry. While doing so, it is also important to breathe deeply. When we become stressed or angry, our breathing usually becomes shallow and rapid. Taking slow deep breaths while counting can help reduce the stress by relaxing the muscles.
Another variation of counting to ten is to repeat a word or phrase as you breathe. Saying something such as “I am…” while breathing in, and “…staying calm” while breathing out is an example. You can also count as you breathe in and out to make sure you are slowly breathing. As you inhale count to 10 and as you exhale count to ten.
Yet another variation of the breathing relaxation technique is to visualize a peaceful calming place or scene. Imagine yourself someplace that you find very peaceful. Maybe it is a park or on the beach. See yourself walking there, sitting there calmly as you breathe slowly in and out.
Forgiveness of Self and Others
Most acts of high-risk behavior have victims other than us. No matter what we do, there is always someone that is affected by it. In the cycle, we often feel regret that we’ve done something but we choose to keep that feeling inside and do nothing to make amends.
The feelings of regret can cause us to feel guilt over our actions. To move beyond these feelings and stop the cycle of risk we need to do three things. Acknowledging what we did is the first thing we must do. The second thing is to take responsibility for our actions and the third thing is to apologize to those we have victimized by our actions. In following the three “A” words we will help stop the cycle of risk.
When we have completed the three “A” words it is now time to exercise forgiveness of self. Self-forgiveness does not mean the act was acceptable. It does not mean you stop paying attention to the triggers of your high-risk behavior; nor does it mean you can avoid feeling guilty after you have done something wrong. In other words, you are not forgiving the act; you are forgiving yourself.
Two aspects of self-forgiveness need to be accomplished. The first step is to look at the mistakes you have made and learn from them. This is accomplished by completing the three “A”s. The second step is really understanding and accepting that you are a good person no matter what you have done or what has been done to you.
Forgiving others is another task. Forgiving others does not mean that what they do is acceptable. We forgive the person not the act; the same as we did with ourselves. We can do this by looking at the bigger picture of a situation. Look at the bully and see beyond the surface; see the loneliness and sadness that must be his life.
When we have forgiveness for others it gives us three major things:
- We feel less anger
- Because we feel less anger we are less likely to strike out at someone
- We are able to see a situation more clearly and keep control of ourselves. We maintain our power.
Meditation can Help Break the Risk Cycle
Meditation has many forms but the core part of all of them is focusing your attention and awareness. Meditation helps you become less impulsive. The more you meditate, the more likely you will think before you act. When you first start to meditate, start slowly, five to ten minutes at a time.
The simple directions of meditating are:
- Sit or lay down. It is better to sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
- Close your eyes and be quiet. If closing your eyes is uncomfortable, focus your vision on a specific point nearby.
- Pay attention to your breathing. Feel the rise and fall of your stomach as you breathe in and out.
- Become aware of the changing sensations in your body.
Do this for 15-20 minutes everyday. At first your mind will try to wander from focus on your breathing. When this happens, simply nudge your mind back on track.
Negative risk taking can cause many negative consequences. It is easy to get stuck in the cycle of taking risks, but using personal power can help you stop the cycle and live a healthier and safer life. Using the three “A”s of forgiveness, a good anger management plan and practicing meditation can help ease the difficulty of healing from the hurts of our past and subsequently the consequences of our high-risk actions.
Casarjian, Bethany and Casarjian, Robin. Power Source Taking Charge of Your Life. Boston: Lionheart Press, 2003.
The copyright of the article “Controlling Risk Taking Behaviors with Personal Power” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.