Adrenaline: The science behind the thrill

We’ve all felt it. The racing pulse when we hear approaching footsteps in the middle of the night, the sensation of superhuman ability during a chase, or the pounding of blood in the ears when faced with the unknown. But what exactly is adrenaline? And why do we find it so addictive?

The Oxford Dictionary defines adrenaline as ‘a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands that increases rates of blood circulation, breathing and carbohydrate metabolism and prepares muscles for exertion.’ A strong emotional reaction such as fear or anger causes adrenaline to be released into the bloodstream by the adrenal glands, which causes an increase in heart rate, muscle strength, blood pressure, and sugar metabolism – leading to the state of ‘fight or flight’.

Would you consider yourself an adrenaline junkie? If so, do you remember your first hit? Ironically, school is often the first place we experience the rush. When procrastinating over an assignment and leaving it until the very last minute, the surge of adrenaline fuels the student to complete the work, and the sense of achievement from the success of achieving a grade against the odds teaches us that using adrenaline to get things done is okay.

In adult life, we tend to avoid uncertainty, opting for a steady and predictable life to remove the threat of unnecessary stress. But there are some surprising health benefits of adrenaline. Research carried out around the motives of adults who participate in high-risk adrenaline sports, such as BASE jumping, found that they seek more than temporary excitement. The activities spur them on to achieve goals, overcome fear, escape boredom and expand personal boundaries. The research also highlighted that adrenaline activities tend to utilise underused muscles and can reduce the risk of numerous chronic conditions. But perhaps the most interesting finding was that if we can train ourselves to respond proportionately in adrenaline-fuelled situations, our body will learn a form of muscle memory and will be able to respond in a similar fashion. So, the more practice you have in an adrenaline situation, the better prepared you will be for the next.