How to Tell If You're an Adrenaline Junkie

woman rock climbing

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Have you ever been called an "adrenaline junkie"? The term was first popularly used in the 1991 movie Point Break in reference to people who favor high-risk activities for the rush that accompanies them. Related to this phenomenon, many people seek out high sensation experiences for the neurophysiological effects they confer. When dependence on these experiences is created as a way of managing stressful situations, however, it might be time to seek treatment.

What Is an "Adrenaline Junkie?"

Physiological mechanisms underlying temperament lead people to seek what feels to them like just the right amount of stimulation in a given situation. This experience of "just the right amount" of stimulation or sensation is deeply interconnected with psychological mechanisms of motivation and varies across people with different personality traits.

A 2016 study of parachute jumpers found that personality is the greatest predictor of whether an individual is likely to undertake risky behavior. High anxiety sensation seeking may characterize the so-called "adrenaline junkie".

The Science Behind the Need for Stimulation

Capacity for cognitive control is impaired or enhanced depending on whether a given task requires suppression of or attention to various motivational cues, according to a 2010 study.

The neurobiology behind these processes is complicated and many brain areas are implicated. Activation of the stress response is thought to drive compulsive behavior through negative reinforcement mechanisms.

Release of norepinephrine in the amygdala, a brain area activated during the stress response, may represent a key component of the transition to dependence, according to 2009 study. A 2018 animal study found that stimulation of the amygdala leads to a decrease in avoidance behaviors.

The term "adrenaline junkie" may have you thinking that the noradrenergic system alone is implicated in sensation-seeking behavior. A 2017 review explores how the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin also have a huge impact on the ability to regulate impulsivity and risk-taking, and how the systems which involve these neurotransmitters are dysregulated in people with substance use disorders.

A study of so-called adrenaline junkies such as rock climbers found that regular climbers experienced frequent and intense craving states and negative affect when they stopped climbing, similar to individuals with substance use disorders.

Everyday Sensation-Seeking

You don’t have to be a bank robber, skydiver, or another obvious type of danger-seeker to be hooked on the rush that comes from a little stress. In fact, you could be somewhat hooked on stimulation in your everyday life and not realize it. An unconscious need for stimulation may influence the way you manage your schedule, the people you spend time with, and even the way you approach a deadline.

A 2010 study suggests that neurotic individuals may create drama and crises in their lives to trigger the body’s stress response and get the rush that comes with the excitement and attenuate their negative mood. Extroverted individuals may take risks to reinforce positive experiences.

Addiction to stimulation is not currently classified as a disorder in the DSM, however, impulsivity risk-taking behavior is relevant to a number of mental health conditions that may warrant additional treatment, such as ADHD, PTSD, and substance use disorder. Behavioral addictions are also newly becoming recognized as valid psychiatric disorders, with pathological gambling earning a spot in the DSM-5, as explored by a 2015 journal article.

Treating Compulsive Risk-Taking Behavior

While leading an exciting life in and of itself isn’t a problem, unwittingly creating crises for yourself or becoming needlessly engulfed in stressful situations can take its toll. If you tend to create more drama in your life than is necessary, the benefit of becoming aware of it is twofold:

  1. You can begin to keep things exciting but take the ‘crisis edge’ off, paring down unnecessarily stressful activities and distinguishing the subtle difference between a true crisis and a somewhat overblown situation.
  2. You can practice relaxation techniques to reverse your body’s stress response when you find yourself overwhelmed so you don’t experience the full negative effects of chronic stress.

Learn more about stress and stress management with these ongoing stress management resources, and take the quiz to find out if you're an adrenaline junkie.

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