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Ascending Towards Addiction

Stop. Take 30 seconds to count the number of similarities between a drug addict and an extreme sport athlete or what you might consider to be “adrenaline junkies”… How many did you come up with? In many ways this is a challenging task and most people struggle finding similarities between these two seemingly very different groups, but you might be surprised to know that they both experience states of withdrawal and other similar characteristics. Despite common misconception, addiction can take many forms outside of drugs - consider food addiction, sex, gambling, and take a moment to consider being addicted to an extreme sport such as rock climbing.

A research study interviewed two levels of rock climbers: high ability climbers that climb at levels similar to those you may have seen in The Dawn Wall or Oscar winning documentary Free Solo, as well as average-ability climbers. Several parallels became apparent between high-ability climbers and those suffering from addiction. They are shown primarily in response during periods of abstinence (when drug addicts are not using drugs and rock climbers are not climbing), where both drug addicts and rock climbers experience withdrawal, cravings (for their respected activities), and negative mood states.

The results showed that not only top-level climbers showed patterns of withdrawal and cravings, but as did the average climbers. In drug users we also see a variety in craving levels depending on the intensity of addiction. However, the study found that during abstinence high-ability climbers experienced more intense cravings, felt worse overall, and were more unhappy than the average-ability rock climbers.

Both groups of rock climbers also experience negative mood states, which are described similarly to the lows that are experienced by drug users during periods of abstinence. In these negative mood states, both groups of climbers, especially the high-ability climbers, were unfulfilled with many activities outside of climbing. High-ability climbers also had an increased threshold for pleasure, meaning they needed more of the activity to feel pleasure, and activities they previously enjoyed were no longer as enjoyable.

It might seem scary that a rock climber and a drug addict may share many similarities in the ways they experience withdrawal and in how they crave their respected activities. That being said, consider that rock climbing and other extreme sports could actually become a form of “treatment” for drug addicts. Since there are similar experiences in states of withdrawal, rock climbing could provide an alternative to re-direct and potentially begin to alleviate these symptoms of negative mood states for drug addicts. Although rock climbing could still be considered dangerous or adrenaline seeking, it could be a way to redirect this drug taking behavior. Instead of addicts seeking drugs, we could potentially redirect their seeking for this stimulation by getting them to go outdoors and go rock climbing. These findings in similarity of withdrawal characteristics in drug addicts and rock climbers are an ultimately an important step for the future in re-thinking drug addiction programs.

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