Adrenaline Addiction

Adrenaline Addiction

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

From climbing Mount Everest to diving with sharks, rope jumping in the Grand Canyon to diving with a shark, the typical ‘adrenaline junkies’ popularized by the media always seem to have a race on for their next ‘fix’. However, the concept of addiction does indeed play out in these individuals, although the root causes are a little deeper.

What is adrenaline addiction?

In order to fully understand the meaning of adrenaline addiction, it is important to first understand what adrenaline is and what its function is in the body. By fostering deeper molecularity learning, experts in the subject have begun to understand why an individual can become addicted.

The human body is a complex and highly organized machine that relies on a fine balance of many different chemicals, one of which is hormones. One hormone in particular, adrenaline, is the messenger substance that transmits signals between different organs. Adrenaline is a hormone released directly into the bloodstream by the adrenal gland.

In times of crisis, adrenaline prepares the body for what has become known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.1 In other words, it prepares mind and body for battle or escape from danger.

Adrenaline rush

The term “adrenaline rush” is used to describe the signs, symptoms and physical effects of an adrenaline pulse through the body.

  • increase heart rate and pressure
  • expansion of airways
  • deep and rapid breathing
  • an enlargement of the pupils
  • sharpening senses
  • oxygen flow to muscles


This is a normal reaction and an important survival mechanism that prepares the body mentally and physically to deal with danger. So, adrenaline plays a key role in coping with stress and danger, but how does one develop an adrenaline addiction?

How does adrenaline work

When people are in stressful or dangerous situations, a series of events occur within the body such as increased pulse and a boost of oxygen to the muscles. If a particular situation could have mortal consequences chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins flood the nervous system to calm the body to prepare for a painless death.

Information about potential hazards is passed on to a part of the brain called the amygdala.2 This structure, which is located deep in the brain, plays an important role in the processing of emotions. The amygdala transmits information to parts of the brain such as the hypothalamus3, a small area responsible for many bodily functions, including the release of hormones.

The hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal gland located in the kidney, and the gland reacts by releasing the hormone adrenaline into the bloodstream.4 This hormone enters various organ systems in the body via the bloodstream and produces the symptoms associated with an adrenaline rush.

Adrenaline addiction

Adrenaline released during a crisis is necessary because it sharpens the senses and prepares the body to deal with danger. However, some people develop an addiction to this hormone. They begin to seek that feeling in the same way that individuals may seek out the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Adrenaline addiction can lead to compulsive participation in dangerous activities such as extreme sports yet there are other, less well documented manifestations of adrenaline addiction such as certain regiments of the armed forces, war correspondents, emergency response units and first responders.

There are many different ways adrenaline addiction can manifest, yet the compulsive participation defines the process addiction. Individuals who repeatedly and consciously seek such experiences are referred to as thrill seekers, daredevils or adrenaline junkies and although adrenaline addiction is a type of behavioral addiction, and there is no evidence that external substances are involved.

Signs of adrenaline addiction

  • Compulsion to participate in a high-risk activity
  • Suffering from withdrawal symptoms such as frustration not participating
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • Continuing to participate despite negative consequences


Addicts are by definition those who continue to engage in dangerous activities despite physical injury or damage to relationships, and whilst DSM 5 has not yet made a specific standalone diagnosis of adrenaline addiction it is the process of seeking out a natural intoxication that can to some extent  compare the experience to substance misuse.

Medical evidence of adrenaline addiction

A recent study of skydivers has found that many addictive traits are strongly associated with their sport. For example, adrenaline dependence in skydivers was found to be low, but as with dependence, the severity correlated with the duration of use. A study of mountaineers found that participants experienced withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and depression when not participating in the sports.

Is it all BASE Jumping and Wing-suiting?

Many of the characteristics of adrenaline addiction are similar to those of substance misuse and addiction is a definition that can be applied to people with adrenaline seeking behavior who continue to engage in dangerous activities despite physical injury or damage to relationships.

There are obvious adrenaline junkies who keep signing up for activities yet this process addiction can manifest in much more subtle ways. The addiction does not have to be extreme to impede an individual’s life.

For example, waiting until the last minute to submit a school assignment, or getting caught doing something illegal, can trigger an adrenaline rush. Some people work best with the energy and excitement generated by the frantic need to finish a project. An adrenaline addiction can even be keeping a jam-packed work or social schedule and never having enough time.5 It has also been observed in people who love to start a conversation about a hotly debated topic, because they enjoy the thrill of picking a fight with others.

Health implications of adrenaline addiction

Adrenaline addiction can manifest in everyday life and result in potentially dangerous situations, for example:


Health implications of adrenaline addiction

A hit of adrenaline causes external and internal changes to the body and its functions, and these responses are designed for flight or fight situations. However, repeated exposure can cause a number of health-related issues such as:

  • damage to blood vessels
  • cardiac issues
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • migraine
  • depression


Treatment for adrenaline addiction

Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, getting enough sleep, and practicing mindfulness and meditation are all useful techniques an individual can start with. An @home recovery program may well be worth exploring. For more advanced stages of adrenaline addiction residential rehab may well help, especially individuals for whom adrenaline addiction or compulsion has had a negative or debilitating impact on their life and those around them.


References: Adrenaline Addiction

1. Aidman E. V., Woollard S. (2003). The influence of self-reported exercise addiction on acute emotional and physiological responses to brief exercise deprivation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 4, 225–236. doi:10.1016/S1469-0292(02)00003-1 []

2. Brymer E., Schweitzer R. (2013). The search for freedom in extreme sports: A phenomenological exploration. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 865–873. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.07.004 []

3. Giannantonia M. D., Martinotti G. (2012). Anhedonia and major depression: The role of agomelatine. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 22, S505–S510. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2012.07.004 [PubMed] []

4. Kozlowski L. T., Wilkinson A. D. (1987). Use and misuse of the concept of craving by alcohol, tobacco, and drug researchers. British Journal of Addiction, 82, 31–36. doi:10.1111/add.1987.82.issue-1 [PubMed] []

5. Price I. R., Bundesen C. (2005). Emotional changes in skydivers in relation to experience. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1203–1211. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2004.08.003 []

6. Weinstein A., Feder L. C., Rosenberg K. P., Dannon P. (2014). Internet addiction disorder: Overview and controversies In Rosenberg K. P., Feder L. C. (Eds.), Behavioural addictions: Criteria, evidence, and treatment (pp. 99–117). London, UK: Academic Press. []

7. Woodman T., Hardy L., Barlow M., Le Scanff C. (2010). Motives for participation in prolonged engagement high-risk sports: An agentic emotion regulation perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 345–352. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2010.04.002 []

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Adrenaline Addiction
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Adrenaline Addiction
Adrenaline addiction can lead to compulsive participation in dangerous activities such as extreme sports yet there are other, less well documented manifestations of adrenaline addiction such as certain regiments of the armed forces, war correspondents, emergency response units and first responders.
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