Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Does one form of sensation-seeking substitute for another?

In the last post Ruth, a mental health nurse, discussed how she had been more willing to participate in risky activities such as bungy jumping while she was working in prisons. This led to a discussion of changes in perception of identity that may be associated with drug taking by young people who are seeking to escape from emotional pain. Ruth discussed how mental health patients with a history of drug use could be helped to perceive a wider set of possibilities for their future lives.

This post explores implications of evidence that some adolescents take drugs as a form of sensation seeking. A literature review by Jonathan Roberti notes that sensation seeking individuals tend to engage in behaviours that increase the amount of stimulation they experience. Sensation seeking is more common among young males than other groups. While risk-taking is involved it is not a primary motive – high sensation seekers tend to appraise risky and stressful situations as less threatening than do low sensation seekers.

Sensation-seeking is associated with stimulating occupational choices e.g. a desire for greater novelty and flexibility in work and with choice of risky vocations such as fire fighting. It is also associated with a preference for arousing music e.g. hard rock; travel to less familiar places; participation in relatively risky sports e.g. bungy jumping, white water rafting, surfing, snow boarding, scuba diving and parachute jumping; gambling; crime; impulsive behaviour; and health risk behaviours e.g. unsafe sex, unsafe driving, binge drinking and use of illicit drugs (‘A review of behavioral and biological correlates of sensation seeking’, Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 2004).

Roberti has high hopes that adverse consequences of sensation seeking traits could be reduced by substituting sensations with low health risks for sensations with high health risks:

‘Early identification of risky behaviors, attitudes, and preferences in young adults, such as engaging in promiscuous sexual activities, reckless drinking habits, use of illicit drugs, gambling, and high-risk sports and replacing those with non-risky options is essential in reducing negative health consequences. Recommending appealing, non-risky forms of sensation seeking to individuals that once engaged in risky behaviors is one way of reducing negative health consequences. The effectiveness of using alternative arousal sources that are non-risky but are equally stimulating has yet to be determined and would be a fruitful line of research’ (p 274).

When I consider this from an economics perspective, it is not entirely clear whether, or to what extent, sensation seekers would view such activities as substitutes. It would be nice to think that an afternoon engaging in an extreme sport would satisfy a sensation seeker’s desire for thrills until the following week - and that the culture associated with all extreme sports would tend to encourage healthy living. It might be possible, however, for a sensation seeker to spend an afternoon engaging in an extreme sport, followed by an evening of illicit drug use and gambling, and then to end the day participating in a sex orgy (although I can’t verify this from personal experience). More research may be required. (Perhaps I should clarify that I am suggesting surveys of the lifestyles of people who engage in various extreme sports.)

Jonathan Roberti draws attention to research suggesting that sensation seekers prefer certain types of friends and tend to surround themselves with others who have similar sensation seeking characteristics. I expect that the behaviour of sensation seekers in this respect would be strongly influenced by their own sense of identity.

How can parents ensure that children with sensation seeking tendencies develop a sense of identity consistent with adopting healthy lifestyles? My previous consideration of this question suggests that the main environmental shaper of personality is a child’s peer group. Parents may not be able to choose their children’s friends for them, but parents do make decisions about where they live and what schools their children attend.

There seems to be increasing evidence linking cannabis use among young people to mental illness. Some recent research is reported here. That suggests that it is stupid for young people to use cannabis. However, that does not provide sufficient reason for cannabis use to be illegal.


Thought Bubble Ten said...

Hi, this is my first visit to your blog via BC :)

My experience and observation are that the greater the accumulated stress (whatever form it takes and whatever its contributing factors are), the more extreme is the form of 'sensation' required to counter it. Most thrill seeking is triggered by a need to offset stress. The result is that we, adolescents etc get caught in this ongoing swing from one extreme state to another.

So, it would be really useful to explore how extreme states ( emotional/physical/mental) can be minimized and how we can keep ourselves increasingly in a state of equanimity.

Replacing one form of (extreme) activity with another does sometimes help in the short term but it isn't sufficient. The mind and body need to be habituated into states of equanimity. This is where the practice of meditation can help.

With practice, the extreme states/feelings of anger, anxiety, worthlessness, fear etc (which trigger the need for extreme forms of compensation) are tempered while the natural states of joy, peace, expansiveness, creativity etc are allowed to once again find their natural level.

Consequently, the need for extreme forms of compensation is greatly reduced without diluting the ability to experience great joy, peace etc.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

PS Love your photographs in the sidebar :)

Winton Bates said...

Thought Bubble:
I think your comment is very perceptive. My own experience with meditation suggests to me that it can help people deal with their cravings for thrills as well as their fears. It requires a lot of practice.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

Yep, daily and ongoing practice i.e. maintaining a gentle watchfulness of the mind (mindfulness) and recognizing/observing that all emotions, good and bad, rise and fall and that mindful/loving choice can intercept our habitual reactions to negative feelings.