Thrill-seekers skate on danger's edge

December 04, 1992|By Orange County Register

Mark Thomas has never been one to shy away from injury or the possibility of death. He is one of those rare people who deliberately hurl themselves into the face of danger -- for fun.

Mr. Thomas is a thrill-seeker. He snowboards down incredibly steep mountains, goes bungee-jumping, rides mountain bikes along precipitous cliffs, surfs 10-foot waves, climbs mountains and occasionally hurls himself out of an airplane with other sky-divers.

Why does he do it?

"I don't do drugs, but there's a tremendous rush of adrenalin I get when I'm out on the edge that I can't do without," Mr. Thomas says matter-of-factly.

Risk-takers are rare, says Michael Birnbaum, professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton. "I'm not sure if you can say there's any certain percentage of the populace who fall into the category of risk-takers, but I think it's safe to say that risk-averse people -- those who shy away from risks -- are far and away in the majority."

Thrill-seekers go about their business in a variety of ways, Mr. Birnbaum says. For one, it may be gambling; for another it might be jumping from an airplane.

Whether it's called thrill-seeking, risk-taking or sensation-seeking, there's been a great deal of research done on it. In their book, "Perspectives on Personality" (Simon & Schuster, 1988), authors Charles S. Carver and Michael F. Scheier wrote: " . . . sensation-seekers are continually in search of new, varied and exciting experiences. . . . Sensation-seeking [also] involves a tendency to seek out the new and different."

The writer also say sensation-seekers are often faster drivers and more likely to engage in high-risk sports, such as sky-diving. They cite the physical or biological aspects of sensation-seeking as being a prime motivator.

According to the authors, endorphins, which act like morphine, are produced by the body during sensation-seeking physical acts. Patients with low levels of endorphins, part of the body's protection against pain and excessive stimulation, were considered greater sensation-seekers, the authors claim.

Mr. Thomas, 34, uses sports -- particularly outdoor sports -- to inject that rush of adrenalin. The garage of his San Clemente, Calif., home is testimony to the variety of sports he pursues. It is crammed with 11 surfboards, two mountain bikes, a 16-foot ski boat with a 115-hp outboard motor, two sets of snow skis and so much other sports equipment there his no room for his Chevy Blazer.

"See that one really bent metal ski over there?" Mr. Thomas asks as he points to a faded red ski whose curled front point has been twisted horribly. "I got impaled on it a few years ago. Went right through my thigh.

"One of the ways I used to judge how good a year I had was to count the number of scars I got that year. One year I had arthroscopic surgery, a total of 85 stitches and two concussions. Over the years I've cracked my skull and had so many other injuries I don't even remember them."

"Some people really are into such sports for the adrenalin," according to John Fry, a psychologist with a private practice in Costa Mesa, Calif. "They're usually referred to as adrenalin junkies, though I'm not sure that's fair to them."

For athletes or anyone else who experiences this rush of adrenalin and finds it so pleasing they duplicate the type of activity that produces adrenalin, it is possible that their efforts center on a physiological reason for doing it, Dr. Fry says, though there may be other reasons.

Participation in dangerous sports is an extreme way some people relieve stress, although Dr. Fry is not sure it's necessarily the best way.

"A lot of people simply enjoy doing things like this, and it's not due to an adrenalin rush or an attempt to relieve stress," he says. "Some reasons may relate back to their childhood where they tried to emulate or relate to their mother or father. They may be very reckless with their bodies because they're rebelling against their parents or someone."

Participation in dangerous sports may be unrelated to childhood, Dr. Fry says. A reason adults take up such activity is it gives them a sense of fulfillment, of self-satisfaction, he says.

dTC "They get a sense that 'If I can climb this mountain, if I can jump from this airplane or whatever, I can do anything.' "

But Dr. Fry warns against trying to make someone's reason for participating in dangerous sports fit into any particular category.

"Some people do these things simply for the enjoyment of it," he says.

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