Why We Love Rollercoasters: The Power of Adrenaline

Why We Love Rollercoasters: The Power of Adrenaline

In April, with a long weekend on my hands and a desperate need to get out of the city, I bought myself an Amtrak ticket to Hershey, PA for a little “me” time.  The last time I visited had been more than twenty years ago, so while I was prepared to overdose on chocolate, the intensity of HersheyPark’s rollercoasters caught me off-guard.  I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of their thrill rides; for the first time in years, I found a ride that genuinely scared me, and as the blood rushed through my veins, I experienced a perfect moment of awareness of being completely, unabashedly alive 

I have a confession: I’m a thrill junkie.  It probably goes back to my childhood, which I spent partaking on and off in circus performing. (I first went on the high-flying trapeze when I was just five years old and fell in love. A story for another time, perhaps.)  Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to zipline over the rainforests of Costa Rica, gorge swing across Victoria Falls, ATV through the sand dunes of Inner Mongolia, and parasail over the mountains of Queenstown.  I love inversions and big drops and high speeds.  I’ve yet to meet an extreme sport or thrill ride that I haven’t loved.

What is about living on the edge that appeals to us so strongly?  The search for novelty plays a big part.  Humans get bored.  We need new stimulus to keep us entertained.  But it must go beyond the joy of a new experience; that can be accomplished by binging a new show on Netflix from the comfort of our living rooms.  No, there’s something more going on here, something physical.  Putting ourselves through unnatural motions activates our fight-or-flight response.  The activities that thrill seekers enjoy the most put them in situations where they unconsciously experience the fear of mortal threat, while consciously knowing they are in a safe and monitored environment.  Basically, thrill rides and adventures let us experience the rush of chemicals associated with being in danger, without forcing us to actually endanger ourselves.  After all, what can make you feel more alive than being made to feel like you’re dying?

Fight-or-flight activates a number of chemical changes in your brain and body, but probably the most important (and certainly the best known) of these is the adrenaline rush.  It’s no wonder--adrenaline has the power to make us temporary superheroes.  Mentally and physically, adrenaline pushes us to our limits for incredible, if fleeting, moments of wonder.  Here are just a few ways a boost of adrenaline can make us all into supersoldiers--no serum required. 

Dilates Your Blood Cells

            Adrenaline hits your blood in a matter of moments.  When put under stressful situations, adrenaline causes blood cells to dilate, which means they can take in more oxygen.  The cells then take this extra oxygen to the most important muscle groups and fuel them.  It’s what lets mothers pick cars up off of pinned children and gives cops the extra burst of speed they need to catch a criminal on the run.[1]

            It should be noted that these feats frequently push our bodies past their normal limits.  There’s a reason we don’t see people breaking through windows or catching up to cars on foot on a regular basis.  The potential for doing serious, long-term damage to your body by performing these superhuman feats while under the influence of adrenaline is quite real, so it only pushes us that far as a last resort, but in the right moment, that boost can mean the difference between life and death.

Improves Your Vision

            Blood cells aren’t the only part of your body to dilate when adrenaline hits.  Good vision is a vital part of being able to escape dangerous situations, so your pupils widen to take in more light.  In fact, the effect of adrenaline on the eyes is so impactful that doctors have used it medically.

            The most common eye issue to be treated by adrenaline is glaucoma, which is the deterioration of the optic nerve resulting in the buildup of pressure inside the eye. Although no longer as popular as it once was, a solution combining guanethine and adrenaline as active ingredients has shown proven results when it comes to relieving the pressure of open-angle glaucoma.[2]

Resists Pain

            In a life-or-death situation, you don’t have time to be dragged down by a serious injury.  Luckily, adrenaline has your back.  With a proper rush of adrenaline rushing through your veins, you’ll find your ability to feel pain is much diminished.

            There are pros and cons to this kind of pain resistance.  We feel pain for a reason; it tells us where our body has been damaged, and the extent of that damage.   A broken foot, for example, would seriously inhibit your ability to survive against a long-term threat, but if you find yourself eye-to-eye with a hungry lion, being able to run away on that broken foot means that you get to live another day.

            Adrenaline is so effective at numbing pain that doctors use it in combination with other anesthetics to provide relief to some patients post-surgery.[3]

Stops Allergic Reactions

            Most people know that EpiPens are used to stop serious allergic reactions in their tracks, but did you know that the active ingredient them, epinephrine, is another name for adrenaline?

            Anaphylaxis is probably the most dangerous result of an allergy.  Potentially life-threatening, anaphylaxis restricts breathing and stresses the heart.  Adrenaline relieves the stress of the allergic reaction by reducing swelling, unclogging breathing paths, and maintaining a stable blood pressure and heartbeat.[4] 

Increases Your Ability to Make Quick Decisions

            It’s not all about the physical benefits.  Adrenaline also pushes your brain to be the best it can be.

            Because adrenaline rushes only happen in circumstances when the body believes it is under threat, the chemical is designed to help you make the best decisions for your survival, and to make them fast--but not in the way you might think.  It’s actually a feedback loop that is started by the introduction of adrenaline that makes for better decision making.

            Here’s how it works: you get put in a stressful situation.  Adrenaline, one of the three main stress hormones, floods your system to deal with it.  To balance that, neuropeptide Y (NPY), an amino acid that tranquilizes and sedates, heads to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where your decision-making abilities are, to keep it working over a continued period of stress.  This is the money shot.

            Studies have shown that people with greater amounts of NPY in their system stay calmer longer and make their decisions with clearer heads.[5] It may seem counterintuitive--since NPY is produced to counter the effects of adrenaline--but a rush of adrenaline is the only way to jumpstart the production of more NPY in response.  Hopefully, we will one day figure out a way to harness the power of NPY and have it at our fingertips, instead of just while we’re under unfortunate levels of stress.  In the meantime, having it as a reaction to adrenaline in our system means that we can reap all of the benefits of adrenaline and escape a bad situation, while being secure in the knowledge that once we are out of dangers, we have safeguards in place that will calm us down and restore our systems to equilibrium.

On Being a Junkie

            It’s important to remember that adrenaline is a “stress hormone”; its presence usually means that something has gone sideways.  But what compares to the pounding of your heart and the trembling of your hands when you push your limits to the extreme?  Thrill seekers are called junkies for a reason.  The search for adrenaline is an addiction all of its own.  In this case, it’s definitely possible to have too much of a good thing, but in moderation, a good shot of adrenaline can help you climb to new heights (and help you survive if you fall).

 

[1] Kowtaluk, Helen, et al. Discovering Nutrition. Glencoe, 1986.

[2] Mills, K B, and A E Ridgway. “A Double Blind Comparison of Guanethidine-and-Adrenaline Drops with 1% Adrenaline Alone in Chronic Simple Glaucoma.” British Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 62, no. 5, 1978, pp. 320–323., doi:10.1136/bjo.62.5.320.

[3] “Epidural Analgesia.” Encyclopedia of Pain, 2013, pp. 1158–1158., doi:10.1007/978-3-642-28753-4_200724.

[4] Mclean-Tooke, A. P C. “Adrenaline in the Treatment of Anaphylaxis: What Is the Evidence?” Bmj, vol. 327, no. 7427, 2003, pp. 1332–1335., doi:10.1136/bmj.327.7427.1332.

[5] “Adrenaline Rushes: Can They Help Us Deal with a Real Crisis?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/threat-management/201001/adrenaline-rushes-can-they-help-us-deal-real-crisis.

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