What is an adrenaline junkie?  In technical terms, this person is one who is addicted to adrenaline.  The term became prevalent in 1993, but was originally used to describe argumentative people who consciously or unconsciously deliberately found ways to get an adrenaline fix.   It was deemed as addicting as any recreational drug such as heroin.

 The Release of Adrenaline

 Adrenaline is not injected from an outside source, but comes from the adrenal gland in the body and certain activities can stimulate the gland to produce more of the hormone. The gland produces a broad spectrum of hormones which cause the “fight-or-flight response,” but adrenaline is the most well-known.

X-GamesCredit: photo by Arthur Mouratidis

 When the hormone is released, the body reacts by increasing blood flow, increasing the pulse rate and increasing overall physical performance. Along with the hormone, there is an increase of endorphins, responsible for a feeling of well-being and pain relief.[7]  Although, the term adrenaline junkie does not implicate a genuine addiction, these folks do enjoy this “rush” and crave it as much as any addict of recreational drugs craves his or her next fix. 

 An increase in endorphin activity creates an increase in endorphin receptor sites. This is due to what is called synaptic plasticity.  Because of the increase in receptor sites, there is a stronger desire for endorphins.  This cycle is widely believed to be how chemical addictions are developed.  Synaptic plasticity is also believed to be involved in reinforcement.[7]

 To stimulate the gland, junkies may engage in various stimulating activities from gambling to shoplifting, running, or excessive exercise.   Some may engage in risk taking activities which have become known as extreme sports.

 Extreme Sports

 What is an extreme sport and how does it differ from typical recreational sports?  All sports involve an element of risk taking; it is part of the nature of sports.  There is always the possibility of injury.  However, extreme sports take it further.  The risk of injury or even death is much greater.  An individual may enjoy skateboarding down the road, but when skateboarding includes tricks on rails, over steps, on ramps and things such as this, it becomes an extreme sport. Snowboarding becomes extreme when pipelines and ramps are added; parachuting becomes extreme when it becomes base jumping.[4]Adrenaline RushCredit: Photo by Ritchy Black

 In the last decade extreme sports have become more and more popular, but the lure of “risk,” high-risk,” or “adventure” activities took off in the 1960s.  More individuals were engaging in activities such as hang gliding, rock climbing, mountaineering, and white-water rafting than ever before. Present day, competition during X Games is televised and top athletes enjoy huge endorsement contracts.  The Olympics added various extreme sports to the list of events, especially in the Winter Games.

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The Psychology of Extreme Sports Athletes

According to Sigmund Freud, anyone who engages in extreme behavior with life threatening risks has a death wish and thus participants of extreme sports are enacting suicidal tendencies.  State this theory to risk-taking athletes and they will probably scoff at the idea.  However, they will also be hard pressed to identify exactly why they do the things they do.  Research of the mental states of these athletes refutes Freud’s theory; results indicate these risk takers have little differences in their mental health from the general population.  

Freud’s theory is vastly different from the theory of addiction to adrenaline and the good feeling dopamine provides.  High sensation seekers appear to have lower levels of circulating dopamine and thus are more likely to take risks to increase the dopamine in the system.

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In addition to the increase in adrenaline during risk taking sports; athletes report a sense of well-being when they are “in the flow.”  They understand their skills and capabilities and for them; engaging in their chosen sport is not so much risk-taking as it is challenging their skills. They take care in weighing the risks against their abilities; they train and prepare for the challenges they face.

In the early days of these sports, the attitude of most saw the risk-takers as rebels.  Early participants of these sports often expressed their need to go against the current social values and constraints they felt society placed on them.  In Fletcher’s study, he summarizes the athletes in fact display many of the social values they claim to reject. He further explains this has most likely helped the media shift its views of these athletes from the “rebellious” to the “heroic,” as it portray the athletes as embodying key American values such as individualism, progress, self-reliance, and risk-taking.[1]  Indeed, the shift has expanded to the corporate world as many athletes become motivational speakers.

Extreme sports

Adrenaline junkies in action


Health Issues for High-Risk Sports Athletes

Professionals of high-risk sports train hours and hours and monitor their bodies and health accordingly.  Amateurs may not be as diligent about taking care of their bodies.  While adrenaline and dopamine are naturally occurring hormones in the body; extended or chronic stimulation of the body to increase output of the hormones can have long-term negative effects.

Amateurs as well as professionals need to monitor their health.  The chronic or extended stimulation of the adrenal glands can damage the glands and eventually lead to high blood pressure and heart disease or other stress-related diseases.


The copyright of the article The Phenomenon of the Adrenaline Junkie is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.