It’s easy to think of people who take on intensely challenging tasks as not only fearless but reckless. But we've found out there’s more to the mindset than seeking out thrills.
The driving force – a look at the psychology behind why people take on extremes activities
The renowned American poet TS Elliot once said: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
That raises questions about the psychology of people who tackle extremes. What drives a person to want to take risks and challenge themselves in some of the most dangerous ways possible?
Research shows that some people need more than the normal dose of life’s excitement, and to achieve this, they seek out high-risk activities.
According to experts, brain chemistry plays a significant role when it comes to risk-seeking behaviour. Studies suggest that extreme athletes often share a set of traits such as optimism, high energy, originality, high self-confidence and a tendency to want to control their own fate.
“The standard definition of a ‘sensation seeker’ is actually the pursuit of novel and intense experiences without regard for physical, social, legal or financial risk,” says Dr Melanie Schlatter, a health psychologist in Dubai. “People who do extreme sports are not all risk-takers nor are they impulsive, in fact, it has been proposed that they do it to obtain a sense of control. For example, when ascending a steep ice slope, individuals need to be absolutely fastidious with their equipment preparation before a big climb, they need to avoid risk as much as possible and they need to be calm in the face of danger or threat to survival.”
A licensed member of the Dubai Health Authority, Schlatter says thrill-seekers often perceive fear as something positive.
Dubai-based British adventurer, speaker and business coach Adrian Hayes has climbed Mount Everest and K2, completed expeditions to the North and South poles, the length of Greenland by kite-ski, the Arabian Desert by camel and has secured two Guinness World Records.
The internationally acclaimed motivational speaker admits that while there is nothing adrenaline-producing about pulling a sled for 15 hours a day across an ice gap for two months, he has become addicted to the feeling he gets when he achieves a big goal.
“I am a dopamine addict it seems, drawn to the feel-good neurological transmitter that is produced when you achieve big goals.”
Hayes has been a goal-driven person since he started climbing at the age of 17, but doesn’t consider himself particularly fearless. “Courage isn’t the absence of fear, rather a willingness to face it,” he says. “I am driven by a love of physical exertion and getting away from our chaotic, information-driven world into the wilds of the Earth.”
The 56-year-old, who is preparing to tackle Nepal’s Kanchenjunga – the third highest mountain in the world – next April or May, believes there is a big difference between measured risk and the reckless kind. “Some of the things that extreme climbers, base-jumpers and others do – I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.”
In recent years, extreme sports and challenges have gone from being simply a self-gratifying personal experience to something of an awareness-raising tool.
For Maria Conceicao, the founder of the Dubai charity Maria Cristina Foundation, her foray into the “extreme” was not calculated nor expected, it was more a spur-of-the-moment decision aimed at raising the profile of her non-profit organisation, which focuses on educating underprivileged children in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“Many people who undertake extreme challenges in the world are now doing it for a cause – the problem is that these challenges are getting more and more extreme, so to get any real attention you have to be right up there with the most extreme of the extreme,” says Conceicao. “I saw on the news that somebody had trekked to the North Pole and it received a lot of attention, so I thought, why not give it a go?”
And while she admits her first challenge was far from easy, it was her determination that got her through. “The training was really tough and a shock to me as I had never been sporty before, but in the end it was a big success for my foundation, so I started to look for bigger challenges,” she says. “Although I have risked my life on some of my challenges, especially summiting Everest, my level of determination is so high that I feel nothing can stop me.”
Since completing her first challenge in 2010, Conceicao has trekked to the North Pole and has run seven ultramarathons on seven continents in six weeks, seven ultramarathons in seven days and seven marathons on seven continents in 11 days. She has also achieved three Guinness World Records.
As well as experiencing the rush that comes with achieving an extreme goal, it is well-documented that people with extreme tendencies also experience immense lows.
“Once the challenge is complete it can be a difficult time, maybe a bit of an anticlimax,” says Conceicao. “It’s quite common for extreme athletes to have periods of depression after a major challenge and this can be worse if it doesn’t raise the money we had hoped.”
Research by professors Eric Brymer and Lindsay Oades, published in 2008 in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, focused on extreme athletes and found that these people consider their experiences as personal transformations that have the potential to become permanent.
This rings true for Eva Clarke, a fitness instructor at Abu Dhabi’s New York University. The 36-year-old mum of three from Australia holds seven Guinness World Records, including for the most burpees in 24 hours (12,003) and the most knuckle push-ups in one hour (1,206).
“I stay motivated because fitness and movement are so ingrained in my lifestyle that not doing something makes me feel as if something in my life is not right,” says Clarke, adding that her past and what she wants in the future are her driving force and have made her the “extremely normal” personality she is today.
“What life has put me through and challenged me with has enabled my mind to strengthen. My mental strength comes from my rough upbringing, life kept me down for a bit, but once I got myself together, it became my mission to accomplish every task I set my mind to.”
Schlatter says that despite extensive studies, it is difficult to make broad assumptions about the characteristics of an “extreme” individual.
One thing is for certain, people will keep pushing themselves to the limits, and while some will fail and some will succeed, it is exciting to see who will achieve what next.