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THE RISKS OF ADVENTURE SPORTS/PEOPLE
An interesting observation of serious risk-taking sports people is that despite frequent near misses and accidents, they continue to participate in adventure sports. This persistence in the face of trauma is in my view quite unique. Average people who experience or witness trauma to the levels found in my studies would be expected to develop psychological complications, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other mood or anxiety problems. In the studies however participants appeared to be immune to these reactions. Researchers in Switzerland who studied a large number of professional mountain guides also found that they had unusually low levels of trauma-related psychological complications. The researchers commented that the level of trauma experienced by the mountaineers was similar to that experienced by fire-fighter and army personnel, yet they had only 10-20% the rate of psychological disturbance. Only 3% of mountaineers developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, whereas rates in firefighters are up to 20%.
The mountaineers in that study were also found to have low levels of Harm-Avoidance. What emerges as an interesting possibility is that risk-taking sports people may be protected from the psychological complications that generally accompany serious trauma. This could explain why accidents don't put them off adventure sports and low Harm-Avoidance may account for this immunity. At a community level, psychological complications from trauma are relatively common and it is estimated that at least 5% of the population will suffer from these debilitating problems at some point in their lives. A major difficulty for health workers following traumatic events such as natural disasters or terror attacks is identifying which people are at risk or are protected from these conditions. If a link between Harm-Avoidance and a lower incidence in these conditions is established, then it may eventually help to identify vulnerable individuals and offer early interventions. Further studies of risk-taking sports people could therefore have important public health benefits.
The study of risk-taking sports people yields interesting results. Not surprisingly sports such as mountaineering and base jumping are associated with significant risk of accidents and fatalities. People who choose to take up these sports appear to have a biological make-up which is different to that of average people in the community and these differences in brain chemistry help to explain why they put themselves in perilous situations.
Biological correlations however must not be taken too far. In my view adventure sports are rewarding and exhilarating for reasons that go beyond the explanation of biology. A very significant number of participants in these studies pointed out that their involvement in risk-taking sports were richly rewarding for reasons far more profound than the simple thrill of risk-taking. They often described a connectedness to nature and respect for the natural environment. Others spoke of the special relationships that eventuates from trusting partners in challenging times. Ultimately however, whatever the reasons behind risk-taking sports, participants will be judged not so much by their achievements, but by their response to the needs of others at times of crisis and need. The risk that personal ambitions and economic pressures erode acceptable standards of behavior and moral values are sadly as present in adventure sports as in any other human endeavor.