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The Psychology of Risk-Taking Behavior



We all know someone who is a daredevil. They may love extreme sports like bungee jumping, sky diving, or tombstoning. They may drive a little bit faster than you would like, or be more willing to undertake spontaneous excursions. While most of us find comfort in stability and certainty, these individuals do not fit this mold. Risk-takers are fun but tend to live a bit on the edge. We may envy their bravery or we may shake our heads in disapproval.

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Risk-taking is a part of life and not all risks are bad. If we took no risks at all, we would all sit in our houses and live in fear. Driving, riding in a plane, and even walking alone outside come with risk. Larger endeavors like starting a new business, ending a bad relationship, or moving to a new town are all normal types of risk-taking. We must take some risk to live a fulfilling life, or we risk missing out on everything good.


However, some individuals engage in unnecessary risks that put themselves and others in danger. Read ahead for some more insight into this type of behavior and learn what the risks are in being an excessive risk-taker.


Adrenaline, Dopamine, and Your Brain

In our modern society, adrenaline rushes are available wherever we go. Vacation hot spots are full of exciting ventures such as parasailing or rock climbing. We shouldn’t shy away from all of these endeavors; as a little adrenaline is good for us. It gets us out of our comfort zone, allows us to try something new, and leads to great pictures and memories.


Regular risk-taking, however, creates real changes in the brain. When we do something thrilling, adrenaline is released. This leads to a surge of dopamine, which is what addicts and alcoholics also crave. Dopamine is correlated to feelings of pleasure and may be released after a promotion, a first kiss, or a fun night out with friends. Occasional surges of dopamine are good things because they make us feel happy. However, our brains can become addicted to an unhealthy surge of dopamine. Adrenaline junkies crave this surge and therefore engage in new risk-taking behavior. This not only includes exciting outdoor activities, but shoplifting, drug use, fast driving, or reckless sexual behavior.


Those who struggle with anxiety and depression are more likely to engage in excessive risk-taking. These individuals cannot achieve normal levels of dopamine in a healthy way, so they seek more extreme means to find them. Some patients with impulsive behaviors claim that they engage in risk-taking because they could not experience pleasure through any other activity. They felt “dead” or “numb” inside. Normal things that are supposed to bring joy do not.


Some extreme risk-takers have Impulse Control Disorder. These individuals feel a sense of both anxiety and arousal before they engage in risky behavior. This combination is intoxicating and requires more risk-taking. Learning to overcome this type of emotional disorder requires help from a therapist.


How to Recover from Impulse Control Disorder and Excessive Risk-Taking

If your excessive risk-taking or impulsive behavior is addictive or causing yourself and others harm, it’s time to seek help. Here are some best practices to reduce impulsive tendencies and learn to enjoy life’s safer pleasures.


· Learn About Your Problem – Knowledge is power. It’s easier to avoid your disorder and pretend it doesn’t exist, but this only leads to greater problems. You will feel more empowered once you learn why you are doing what you are doing. You will also be more aware of triggers and will be less tempted to engage in risky behavior.

· Try Habit Reversal – With habit reversal, individuals can identify exactly when they are engaging in risky behavior and consciously replace that negative behavior with something else that is satisfying. This doesn’t require you to abstain when there is an urge, but recognize that there are other options available.

· Keep a Journal – Track all of your urges and impulses to see if there are any patterns to them. Were you feeling stressed? Upset? Angry? This can help you identify triggering feelings that make you more likely to engage in negative behaviors.

· Create a Plan – Having a plan is the best way to beat excessive risk-taking. Write a list of alternative safe and fun activities you can do that will bring you joy. Take it with you, if necessary. You can also let someone else know about your plan. This will help keep you accountable.

· Talk to a Therapist – Therapy is a must for those with Impulse Control Disorder, but it can also be helpful for those who engage in too many risky behaviors. A therapist can prescribe medication and employ cognitive behavioral therapy to help you replace negative habits with good ones.


Do you struggle with excessive risk-taking or impulsive behavior? If so, you are not alone. Please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at straightalkcounseling.org. One of our professional counselors would be happy to set up an appointment with you.

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