Expert climbers say the worst thing you can do while scaling a precarious mountain slope is to look down. You’ve spent hours not only training but preparing your gear, and once you find yourself 60 feet above the ground, it begins. Your heart races and you question what to do next. Your breathing increases but you suddenly feel stronger, fiercer. These reactions are some of the things that make climbing — or any risky activity — appealing.
Think of it this way. Risk taking is like spending countless hours studying for an extremely important test only to have your mind go into overdrive once it’s finally time to take the test. You know the information but your mind goes a mile a minute and your palms get sweaty. Some people thrive on those things that excite them, test them, finding that thrill seeking is an important part of who they are.
Junior Roxanne Waggoner was just 12 when she went zip lining for the first time. She said the terrifying part was that it was 40 feet off the ground and you had to climb around obstacles to maneuver yourself. And while it could be described as a terrifying adventure, to her it was an awesome and exhilarating one.
While that was the first of her risk-taking adventures, since then Waggoner has found a multitude of activities that some would say are way too over-the-top, not to mention dangerous. While admitting that the adrenaline rush is rather addicting, she sees it differently, doing these spine-tingling activities mostly for the experience.
“I do it for that moment when I can look back at it and be like, ‘I’m risking my life for fun,’” Waggoner said. “You have that ‘am I safe?’ feeling. But you get to look back and be like ‘I can’t believe I did that.’” But as an avid thrill seeker, who has traveled extensively and completed a number of death-defying adventures, including scuba diving in Hawaii and snowboarding in Norway, Waggoner is not alone in her love for risky fun.
Freshman Case Farney has been rock climbing since seventh grade. While he usually climbs at indoor facilities, he has also done some outside climbing in Canada — mostly in places he said he probably shouldn’t have.
Those who take risks mostly do it for the physical benefits — the adrenaline rush — that sudden increase in the secretion of adrenaline, or epinephrine, from the adrenal glands, a stress hormone. When you perceive something as threatening or exciting, the hypothalamus in the brain signals to the adrenal glands that it’s time to produce adrenaline and other stress hormones, hence the rush.
Once that happens, it results in a variety of physical feelings — your strength seems to increase, your senses heighten, you have sudden boosts of energy, your heart rate and breathing speed up and pain is kept to a minimum.
“It’s a sensational thing,” Felton said. “[Risk-takers] seek that stimulation, that high.” Waggoner said there are varying levels of an adrenaline rush. She said for her, snowboarding and ghyll scrambling (ascending or descending a stream) resulted in an exciting, fun and moderate adrenaline rush, but skydiving and cliff jumping resulted in a much more intense level.
“When you’re done, you’re just hyped on the adrenaline for the first 15 minutes and then you crash,” she said. While the rush is what gets most people involved in what they perceive as thrilling physical activity, risk-takers also do it to feel proud. Felton said the sense of accomplishment, of being able to say they’ve done something like that, is an added bonus.
The fear of failure is too big of a risk for some people. But if a risk leads to success, then that person can feel proud of him or herself and even earn some bragging rights.
“The biggest benefit is that it satisfies their need for excitement and then they have something they can feel proud about,” Felton said. “People want to have an interesting story to tell.”
Since everybody is different, there are those we know who love taking risks and others who would never even consider it. And it is no surprise that thrill seekers tend to be more extroverted.
“They accept a higher level of risk,” Felton said. “They certainly aren’t safety seekers, they’re the opposite.” The possibility of things going wrong does not weigh heavily on the minds of thrill seekers. Despite the possible moment of uncertainty, they opt to take the risk and seize the opportunity to create lasting memories.
“I really love going out of my comfort zone no matter what.,” Hurlburt said. “[My friends] would say I’m a little crazy. I commit myself 110 percent to everything I do. I’m a little out there.” Learning also plays a part in our willingness to take risks. Felton said if someone associates with risk-takers, they tend to be like the group since people gravitate toward others who are like them and have the same need for stimulation.
And while some need a lot of stimulation, others do not because the fear of failure hangs too heavy in their minds and they do not want to fail or feel badly about themselves.
“We in clinical psychology deal with people who are too afraid to take risks, which lowers your growth potential,” he said. “You hate to see people that limit themselves because they are too afraid.”
Andreas Wilke, an associate professor of psychology at Clarkson (N.Y.) University, wrote in a Live Science article that when people are optimistic about the outcome of their behavior, they don’t perceive it as risky. They even feel like they are totally in control and are immune to the rules.
“I want to do everything that seems crazy or on the edge,” Hurlbert said. “I’m always looking to be risky or different.” And Psychology Today reported in “Are You a Risk Taker?” that taking positive risks can promote healthy neurological growth. It can also boost self-confidence.
“If you don’t take risks, you’ll never grow as a person, you would just stay where you are,” Waggoner said. “If you don’t reach toward something, you can never know your true potential in life.”
Farney views rock climbing as one of the only things that brings him a feeling of accomplishment. He said he will continue to rock climb simply because of the opportunity to improve and the good feelings keep him climbing.
“It feels really great,” he said. “You feel like you’ve really done something.” But Forbes reported in a 2013 article titled “Take a Risk: The Odds Are Better Than You Think” that humans are neurologically wired to exaggerate how bad things could be if a risk does not pay off. It is simply easier to not take a chance and stick with the status quo.
“I think we have a problem with people who don’t want to take risks, who want to be safe,” Felton said. The risks we take — no matter how big or small — give us the chance to grow.
Risk-taking is the price people pay for taking part in certain activities that satisfy their need for excitement, change and living a fulfilling life. “If you’re not willing to try something new,” Waggoner said, “then your whole life will be the same story.”