The other day I was convinced (readily) to venture out on my mountain bike for the first time in 5 or 6 years. As I pointed my bike down the hill, and took in all the loose gravel, rocks of various sizes and shapes, tree roots, etc., I gripped (ok white knuckled) my handlebars and thought “oh no…what the f*#% am I doing?!” It would seem that my love for adrenaline has turned into fear. There was a time when I couldn’t wait to feel that rush, the buzz, that these types of thrill-seeking behaviours gave me. I can’t tell you when or why it changed, maybe age, maybe partially occupational hazard (as an ER nurse I definitely know what can go wrong), but my appetite for risk has significantly decreased.
A quick scan of the Internet shows a lot of research on thrill-seeking behaviours, risk and reward. The desire behind risk and sensation seeking is all based on specific triggers in the brain which release brain chemicals that leave us feeling happy or high. The prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are responsible for the Fight, Flight or Freeze response. This response is vital to survival. It identifies danger and triggers a physiological response in the brain areas identified above. This response includes the release of brain chemicals such as adrenaline (readies us for action), endorphins (allows for endurance, especially in flight or fight) and dopamine (released when attempting to overcome a challenge, the “happy” or “feel good” chemical). Those who constantly seek out thrill-seeking experiences develop an addiction to dopamine and the subsequent high. Apparently, those addicted to taking risks have fewer dopamine-regulating receptors than others. Therefore, taking big risks means a huge hit of dopamine as the brain does not properly regulate it.
All this research basically says is that in those of us whose brains do not regulate dopamine, there is no brake pedal for the dopamine surge. The thrill-seeking, daredevil behaviour produces an extreme high which is addicting. For those of us whose brains do regulate dopamine, the risk of the behaviour does not necessarily produce as great a high and we decide that the risk is not worth the reward.
These are the same pathways that are activated when falling in love. I first learned of dopamine and the amygdala in one of my favorite Rom Coms “Someone Like You” with Ashley Judd. She wanted to get her amygdala removed after a breakup. I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve and taken risks and jumped in head first, sometimes eyes wide shut, into new romances. The adrenaline, the dopamine, the activation of the risk/reward pathways in my brain cause me to light up. This is a risk/reward that seems worth taking. However, there is the same risk of injury as there is in pointing my bike down the hill. I could even argue that a fall off my mountain bike is less painful and the injury of less duration than a broken heart. Yet, my thrill-seeking behaviour of choice is to believe in, seek out and fall in love.
The mountain biking literature had some good tips for gaining confidence in getting back out there and pointing my bike downhill, I think they also apply to falling in love:
- The more you do something, the less scary it is – fall in love, a lot!
- Prepare yourself – know yourself, learn, explore and go for it!
- Relax and let the bike move – relax…trust the process
- Realize you are not made of glass – you have survived 100% of everything so far, this too shall pass
- Learn from your mistakes
- Wear appropriate protection – no explanation needed!
The research also shows that by participating in thrill-seeking activities together, with a potential partner, those fun loving brain chemicals also create a greater sense of attraction and connection. So point your bike downhill, bring someone along, relax and let the bike move you, enjoy the fall…and wear your helmet!