At its highest point, the Kingda Ka roller coaster is 456 feet (138 meters) tall, equivalent to 45 stories off the ground. A terrifying prospect for many, this immense drop is nonetheless tantalizing for people who enjoy a good endorphin rush. Which makes us wonder, can you be addicted to endorphins?
Before we dive into that, it's important to note that endorphins aren't the only feel-good chemicals our bodies produce. Serotonin production helps us feel important and worthy, and the hormone oxytocin helps people build trust and loving relationships. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter released when our brain experiences pleasure — whether from food, drugs or video games.
Endorphins, meanwhile, interact with your brain receptors to lessen your perception of pain. Although endorphins perform many roles within the human body, like regulating thirst, blood pressure, appetite and even sexual behavior, the powerful neurotransmitters also clock in when it's time to handle pain and stress (the latter of which can certainly occur when plunging multiple stories on a terrifying ride).
"Research shows that sexual activity and playing competitive sports produces the highest level of endorphins in our body," emails Dr. Damian Jacob Sendler, chief of sexology and clinical research at the Felnett Health Research Foundation in New York. "You could think of it as a form of defense mechanism — when we anticipate strenuous exercise, or really want to excel at an activity, the body releases endorphins to help us accomplish this goal."
He notes that it is possible to get addicted to endorphins. "On a basic chemical level, endorphins have very similar properties to opiates that we use to treat pain. This is, in fact, one of the reasons why there is an opioid epidemic going on — we get easily "hooked" on their analgesic effect. The same happens with endorphins and their particular ability to influence our sensation of pleasure."
If people can get addicted to risky sports just for the thrills they provide, they can also get addicted to painful activities where endorphins provide relief, "despite the harm to self and/or others," says Dr. Anna Lembke, chief of addiction medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in an email interview. "For example, someone who compulsively cuts herself for the endorphin release is causing self-harm. Someone who compulsively runs, even to the point of causing musculoskeletal injury, is causing self-harm."
So how do you wean yourself off this addiction to endorphins? Surprisingly, roller coasters can help.
"This is actually the safest way of quenching our thirst for endorphins," says Sadler. "While riding a roller coaster, our body experiences excitement and fear, prompting release not only of endorphins but also adrenaline."
He adds that the ride itself, "creates a cycle of fear, excitement, euphoria, all in a controlled environment and happening within a span of just a few minutes. Therefore, for most people, a day spent at places like Six Flags is more than enough to give them so much rush of endorphins that they are calmed for an extended time."
He adds that whatever thrill-seeking sport you like to do, you should "try to space it out so you can maintain a healthy addiction to your activities. When you begin to break down barriers of fear too fast, at some point, you might start engaging in activities that are truly unsafe and dangerous for health."
Of course, if you're engaging in self-destructive behavior, like cutting, you may need professional help to learn how to resist those urges as well as alternative coping strategies.