A Perilous Relief – Conventional Wisdom About Risk-Taking/Danger-Seeking Behavior

Risk-taking or danger-seeking behavior, especially in teenagers or at-risk individuals, has intrigued, worried, and frustrated scientists and mental health professionals for aeons — perhaps as long as humans have walked the earth, and there were friends, family and/or hunting party members to be concerned about the welfare of “crazy bastards” who took more risks than most.

In the past, actions like walking up to a mastodon and launching your spear at it point-blank, scaling the face of El Capitan without ropes, or putting every penny you own on the line for a long-shot bet or a chancy investment, were equated with a sort of “death wish” or the desire to do self-injury. Such behavior was (for good reason) considered illogical, even pathological. That professional view has changed, but some residue of it remains, culturally speaking.

I’ve also heard risk-taking behavior explained as a form of self-sabotage or a kind of self-abuse, based in an individual’s general lack of understanding about (and/or desire to flee) deep-seated emotional issues. Surely, the person who races funny cars in their off-hours must be running from something. Smokers and heavy drinkers who cannot help but be well-aware of the dangers of their habits must be in denial. And surfers who court their own destruction in 30-foot waves above razor-sharp volcanic rocks that are just beneath the surface of the boiling sea certainly must have “unresolved issues.”

On the other hand, I’ve heard danger-seeking described as a form of self-aggrandizement, as a way to prove one’s evolutionary superiority over social/biological competitors. Whether it’s competing in freestyle skiing… or “playing chicken” in speeding cars on a pitch black night… or jumping from skyscrapers with a parachute, you’re essentially “showing off” to “get girls” or prove to the world that you’re the superior specimen. And dude, on a certain level, it tends to work.

At a basic, physiological level, I’ve heard risk-taking described as a form of addiction to adrenaline highs, which arises from the brain’s continued experience of adrenaline rushes in the face of extreme danger. It’s a conditioned activity, I’m told — one that arises from the complex biochemical cascade of stress hormones and bodily “cowboying up” which happens over and over and over again… until the body, mind, and spirit just can’t live without the high.

Now, I myself, have a history of danger-seeking and risk-taking behavior, in both my personal and professional life. I’m not one for extreme sports; in fact, few things entice me less than bungee jumping or skydiving. The idea of stock car racing appeals to me… until I calculate the likelihood of getting into a fiery crash, whereupon my enthusiasm dissipates considerably. But in my own unique way(s), I have courted danger and taken risks that others considered foolhardy, and I have done so with gusto and glee. In some cases, the chances I took worked out well for me, resulting in either professional and personal financial advancement or the increased esteem of my peers — or both. In other cases, I narrowly escaped possible disaster, and I was lucky to get out of the situation(s) in one piece. In still other cases, I fell flat on my face — sometimes hard — and lost a great deal in the process.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents


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A Perilous Relief – Introduction

Risk-taking or danger-seeking behavior has been a puzzle of human experience for generations. Certain individuals repeatedly tempt fate with foolhardy and clearly risky behaviors. They make seemingly rash choices that endanger everything they hold most dear, including life and limb, friends and family, and future prospects for survival. But why?

Explanations by scientists and mental health professionals have often been psychological in nature, and recently with increased understanding of genetics and neuro-chemical processes, additional biological explanations have emerged.

While these new developments shed new light and add more facets and texture to our understanding of why some people actively choose to endanger their own survival, it’s my belief that yet another oft-ignored aspect of human experience plays into the risk-taking behavior equation: namely, painful sensory overwhelm. Further, it is my own belief (and experience, based on personal practice) that the use of “analgesic fear” can be used to control and manage pain and other sorts of sensory overwhelm.

Drawing on my own life experiences with chronic pain, sensory overwhelm, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, fear, and verifiable threats to my personal/professional survival, in this paper I will illustrate how I have repeatedly used risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior as a way to not only minimize my own physical/mental/emotional experiences of pain and sensory overload, but also optimize my personal and professional performance in the process.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents


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A New Paper – A Perilous Relief

I’ve been head-down for the past several days, working on a paper called “A Perilous ReliefOn the physiological foundation(s) of risk-taking / danger-seeking behavior“. It’s an offshoot of my recent readings about how fear and anxiety have different effects on the body (especially on pain), how self-induced stress can have an analgesic effect, and how this research of mine can explain some pretty puzzling and problematic behaviors I exhibited over the past couple of weeks. I think I’m onto something here — if only for my own edification.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the paper, as I complete them. I wrote about 50 pages, in the past several days (I probably should have gone for a walk on Sunday, but I got to writing, and I got carried away). Eventually, when the work is finished, I’ll make it available for download and/or in print format. I will probably charge something for it, in hopes of getting some financial support for this blog and my research. It’s an ongoing project, but I’m hoping to have it finished within the next few weeks.

About “A Perilous Relief

This paper is a personal study in my own risk-taking and danger-seeking behaviors from a physiological standpoint. It explores my individual history of risky and dangerous choices not only as a way to pursue an “adrenaline high” or avoid emotional pain and dampen the effects of post-traumatic stress, but also as a highly effective way of coping with and mitigating my lifelong chronic pain and sensory issues and enabling me to function more effectively in the demanding world around me. It details:

  • select instances of my past and present personal/professional risk-taking (some of which had near-disastrous consequences),
    the often painful “sensory backdrop” which lay(s) the contextual foundation for my impaired choice-making,
  • the role that anxiety has played in the things I do and the choices I make and my overall physical experience,
  • how deliberately entering into fear-inducing, high-stakes situations not only cuts the pain that is my constant companion, but also helps me think better, perform better, be better... thus not only easing my discomfort but bolstering my self-esteem and enhancing my overall life, and
  • how continued cycles of anxiety–pain–fear–pain–anxiety–pain–fear–pain can create a feedback loop that systematically drains my personal resources and feeds into a downward spiral of diminishing returns, even as I am convinced that my performance is improving.

One of the important pieces of my own puzzle, is that I am a “high functioning” multiple mild traumatic brain injury survivor. Since the age of 7, through the past 35 years, I have sustained at least five (possibly more) head injuries which have had a noticeable impact on my physical, cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and social landscape. Nevertheless, neuropsychological testing has shown that I score around the 99th percentile of the WAIS-III verbal comprehension index. My intention is to use the heightened abilities I have been given to explore and explain the deep limitations I experience and describe my coping strategies and their outcomes, for the benefit of myself and others.

It is my hope that in reading this paper, individuals, health care providers, mental health practitioners, authority figures, and law enforcers of all kinds may come to a broader understanding and appreciation of why some of us take risks (and take them so frequently without apparent regard for our own well-being) and develop more productive ways of managing potentially damaging behaviors — behaviors which in fact provide experiences that are essential to the peak performance of certain highly sensitive individuals.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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