The Science Behind Adrenaline, Your Secret Survival Weapon

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Even though you can prepare for the worst-case scenario in the backcountry with equipment, training, and a mindset, you can’t know how your body will react until something happens. goes really bad, like when Mariella Colvin and Will Toor set out for what they thought would be a moderate day of mountaineering in Rocky Mountain National Park this summer.

The experienced husband-and-wife mountaineers were approaching the top of a couloir when they suddenly found themselves plummeting 900 feet into the snow. Once they stopped, Will, who had broken his femur, was shocked and confused while Mariella, who did a quick assessment of his body and determined it was mobile, quickly moved on ‘stock. Unaware of the extent of her internal injuries, she began to walk in search of help.

In this scenario, and many others like it, we see someone’s fierce will to survive entirely nullify and delay the pain. Mariella had nine broken ribs, three fractured vertebrae, a broken wrist and a broken sternum, but she barely noticed her injuries at the time. This extended time frame of physical suffering—enough for Mariella to enjoy the scenery and walk more than a mile off-road to a campground—is a classic example of how important adrenaline is when we find ourselves in life or death scenarios. Time and time again, we hear adrenaline referred to as a “fight or flight” response, or a feeling of addiction for people who identify as “adrenaline junkies”.

To better understand adrenaline, we asked a few experts how it works, how it can save us, and ultimately why it appears in so many of the stories we cover on Hiker.

What is adrenaline?

Medically speaking, adrenaline is not a single hormone, but the colloquial name for a series of hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine released by the adrenal gland, says Dr. Elena Christofides, an endocrinologist specializing in diabetes, hypertension, thyroid disorders, and more.. the adrenal gland produces critical hormones as part of the sympathetic nervous system, an overall neurological part of the body that helps you regulate things like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and sweating.

Adrenaline is triggered when the amygdala – a part of the brain that processes frightening and stressful stimuli – senses danger and communicates with the hypothalamus, a region of your forebrain that controls homeostasis. As part of our “fight or flight” system, cortisol is the “fight” hormone, allowing us to store more energy, while adrenaline is the “flight” hormone.

Scenarios that can trigger adrenaline while hiking range from minor stressors like running out of daylight to pitch your tent to more extreme like falling down a hallway.

“It’s not real stress, it’s perceived stress,” says Christofides. “It’s simply a marker that appears when your body should be in primary action mode.”

How adrenaline can save us

When adrenaline floods our system from our nerve endings, our body’s response is physically apparent, says Christofides. First, our heart rate increases to improve the oxygenation of our tissues. Our blood vessels shrink and constrict in the upper body, digestive system, and genitals to preserve blood for our largest muscles. Blood rushes to our heart, lungs, shoulders, buttocks, and back—muscle groups that help us escape danger.

Our pupils also constrict to focus our attention directly in front of us, and blood flows to the central part of our brain responsible for integrating environmental cues that might help us flee or act. Fine motor skills become difficult and rational thinking disappears.

Adrenaline also releases some “superhuman” qualities, says Christofides. The large energy blast can increase speed, strength and endurance. It can also increase pain tolerance or suppress it completely.

Christofides says adrenaline and cortisol were likely on the line for Toor and Colvin. “He got in a fight, she flew away,” she says, adding that testosterone is another adrenal hormone that’s often associated with cortisol. Given Will’s fractured femur, his body froze in place to prevent further injury. But because Mariella was still mobile, she was able to ask for help.

The importance of adrenaline in adventure stories

In stories of outdoor adventure, adrenaline is often linked to risk, especially when the term “adrenaline junkie” appears. We each have a different risk threshold and similarly, we each perceive stress differently.

Kristin Jacobson, a professor of American literature at the University of Stockton in New Jersey, has researched the cultural implications of adrenaline, which she details in her 2020 book The American Story of Adrenaline. In her research, she discovered two trends in athletes and authors in terms of adrenaline. Some really bought into the idea of ​​chasing an adrenaline rush, while others rejected the term and preferred to control the risk. “Why do people like to take this risk? ” she says. “It’s not for failing usually, but it’s that sense of accomplishment.” This, in turn, can fuel our production of dopamine and adrenaline.

At the same time, even people who prefer to control risks may not assess them correctly. Jacobson fears that adventurers do not consider the worsening climate crisis as an additional risk factor in their decisions. Nature today is much more unpredictable than it was in decades past. And in the end, even the biggest rush of adrenaline can do little to help keep us alive.

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