Wednesday 12 December 2018

Licence to thrill seek

As Ophelia raged, we watched aghast as some defied warnings and headed out into the wild weather. But, as psychotherapist Stella O'Malley explains, we are actually hardwired to take risks

Pier pressure: A windsurfer battles the waves off the Kerry coast on Monday
Pier pressure: A windsurfer battles the waves off the Kerry coast on Monday
People on Howth pier

So how was Ophelia for you? Did you decide to go for a nice walk on the pier as the waves crashed around you? Or perhaps you decided to go swimming in the sea or even, just for the hell of it, you thought you'd take in a spot of kite-surfing?

When we look at the behaviour of some people over the last few days, some of us wonder are we even the same species as these reckless thrill seekers? What on earth has got into them, we wonder as we look at social media and see clip after clip of outrageously dangerous behaviour. Are they selfish attention seekers or are they just completely mad?

Changes in barometric pressure might be one of the reasons many people behave bizarrely during a storm - and it's not just us, a change of pressure can affect animals' behaviour too. When the air pressure drops, so does our blood pressure and with that all sorts of consequences unfold; migraines, aching joints and low blood sugar.

For the more emotionally sensitive among us, our behaviour changes too - as the pressure drops, we might become more emotional or more intense, while others search for random thrills. But it's not just changes in air pressure that propels people to act like dangerous fools. Studies of the brain show us that when we act automatically and can't really explain our actions, we are responding to our limbic brain.

The limbic cortex is the oldest, most primal and least intelligent part of the brain - it acts with speed and power but isn't madly concerned with reason, logic or rationality. It is the seat of emotion, addiction and mood in the brain and is responsible for a whole range of mental and emotional processes. The problem with our primal, limbic brain is that it is faster and more powerful than other parts of our brain. How many times have we eaten something we said we wouldn't eat; said something we said we wouldn't say; done something we said we wouldn't do? Well, we can blame the primal brain for all of that.

The primal brain is fast and furious and this is why experts advise us to take a few breaths, count to 10 or do anything that allows the more logical part of the brain some vital time to catch up with the powerful primal brain.

People on Howth pier
People on Howth pier

Some people have a strong urge to test their limits, to check out how much they can endure so that they can feel satisfied they are able for life's challenges and, just for the record, research tells us that it is males more than females who prefer to test themselves during threatening situations.

Whether it is going for a swim in the Forty Foot while the waves crashed all around them or hanging out the window to get a 'great shot' of the storm for social media, many people feel propelled to behave dangerously so they can experience the gratifying feeling they can conquer and master threatening situations.

Putting their own lives and the lives of their rescuers in jeopardy just for a few thrills certainly seems selfish and egotistical, but many of these reckless thrill seekers are acting on autopilot - their limbic brain is in command and they aren't considering their actions at all. Indeed, they feel strangely compelled to carry out these self-made challenges.

We were all prepped for this storm and our brain was all ready for action and geared up to be tested and so, when the test never arrived to our own front door - although it arrived for many others - then lots of people felt deflated and uneasy.

The adrenalin high we expected didn't arrive, nor did the expected challenge and then, in a bid to work out this restless energy, many people created randomly dangerous situations in search of the adrenalin high and the accompanying sense of relief afterwards, while others just stayed home and had a pointless argument with their spouse.

One of the most interesting aspects of the human brain is the way we are made to push the envelope - we take risks, we innovate, we push the boundaries of our limits, and if we didn't, we would still be living in caves.

Without risk, scientists wouldn't experiment and discover; inventors wouldn't create innovative products and great pieces of art; literature and music would never get off the ground.

This is why humans need risk - it often creates a better life in the long run. But when we behave in a pointlessly dangerous way and we realise there was no point to our risky behaviour, then we know it was the stupid, primal part of the brain taking over.

That's when we need to bring in some prompts for us to conquer this sort of irrational behaviour in the future.

Some people, after reflecting on their behaviour during the storm, need to learn they should really listen to their friends and family more, and if people say a situation is dangerous, then it probably is.

If you behaved dangerously during the storm, then you really need to begin to use prompts such as counting backwards, breathing deeply or simply stopping for a few moments so your intelligent brain can catch up with your caveman brain.

Putting it simply, proving to yourself that you can handle a needlessly dangerous situation is all a bit self-regarding and pointless.

If you really want to test yourself, well then go join the Red Cross and go to Somalia and volunteer your services for a few weeks. There, you'll really be tested beyond your limits and endurance, and it will be for a good cause too.

Irish Independent

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