Each spring thousands of storm chasers turn themselves into human lightning rods while chasing storms across Tornado Alley. The task is tedious. It starts with a forecast, requires hundreds of miles of driving and may end with sunny skies. But for some, the day will end with a successful interception of the holy grail of storm chasing, a tornado.
Storm chasers are many things, ranging from meteorologists to photographers. Others chase for the mere curiosity of validating their own forecasts. Some are tourists on storm chasing tours. But all often earn the title of “Adrenaline Junkie” in the media.
The term “Adrenaline Junkie” is a colloquialism describing someone who has an addiction to a natural high from adrenaline. Adrenaline isn’t classified as an addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, studies have shown that adrenaline can be as addictive as synthetic drugs. As a result, addicts of adrenaline behave similarly to addicts of such synthetic drugs.1
Adrenaline junkies participate in activities that stimulate the adrenaline glands. The glands are responsible for a broad sense of hormones that cause Acute Stress Response. This is also known as the “fight-or-flight response,” first identified in 1929 by Walter Cannon.2
Cannon’s theory states that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system that primes the animal with fighting or fleeing. This response was later identified as the first stage of a general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebras and other organisms.
Normally, when a person is in a serene, non-stimulated state, the “firing” of neurons in the nucleus of the brain stem responsible for physiological responses to stress and panic (locus ceruleus) is minimal.
Storm Chasers Spend a lot of Time Driving
A novel stimulus (which could include a perception of danger or an environmental stress signal such as elevated sound levels or over-illumination), once perceived, is relayed from the sensory cortex of the brain to the brain stem. That route of signaling increases the rate of noradrenergic activity in the locus ceruleus, and the person becomes alert and attentive to the environment.
If a stimulus is perceived as a threat, a more intense and prolonged discharge of the locus ceruleus activates the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system.3 This activation is associated with specific physiological actions in the system, both directly and indirectly through the release of epinephrine (adrenaline). And, to a lesser extent, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) from the adrenal glands.
Adrenaline is the most well-known hormone in this family, although each of the hormones, including noradrenaline, cortisol, and various other catecholamines and corticosteroids, plays a part in the stress response. The effects include hyperarousal, increased blood flow, heightened pulse rate, and increased physical performance, in which adrenaline junkies find an enjoyable and invigorating state of mind and body.
If there is not enough balance in other areas, the positive effects associated with adrenaline can give way too many of the key elements of addiction:
- An altered state of consciousness (in this case called an “adrenaline rush”) causes desirable physiological and psychological effects.
- The altered state eventually disappears, leaving a “crash” in its wake, usually involving feelings of disappointment and depression.
- During the crash phase, craving for another rush manifests itself, prompting a search for a new rush. This creates a pattern that is reminiscent of the classical addiction cycle.
Storm Chasers Spend a lot of Time Analyzing Data
Over the short term, this may lead some people to pursue activities of increasing danger in order to achieve a heightened level of excitement. This can include anything from bungee jumping to entering a box of rattlesnakes or running through the streets of Pamplona with a herd of bulls. And possibly even storm chasing for the purpose of becoming dangerously close to high wind speeds and flying debris.
An adrenaline junkie is always looking for the next fix or natural high. This is not a common practice of storm chasers. Adrenaline junkies, for example, might go skydiving on one day and white water rafting the next day. Or attempt to conquer the fastest roller coaster on the planet.
Storm chasers, on the other hand, spend their downtime doing less adventurous activities. During periods between chase days, storm chasers typically don’t seek out other activities to provide them with an adrenaline rush. Instead, most chasers analyze data that may better prepare them for the next storm chase. Additionally, many spend time keeping up with maintenance on their vehicles. Or, spending hours behind a computer while editing old photos from a prior storm chase.
There are signs however that storm chasing might be addictive. In 1997, Texas-based storm chaser Steve Miller first coined “Supercell Deprivation Syndrome (SDS)” as an intermediate joke and the term caught on, spreading quickly throughout the ranks of storm chasers. Miller states that SDS is a form of depression a storm chaser might experience during periods of no thunderstorm activity.
So….SDS is hitting hard…I'm thinking of revisiting old unprocessed storm pics…going into an old chase day pic folder and ramdomly picking one and processing it…bear with me while I wait for ⛈⚡🌪! 😁 pic.twitter.com/v5MIF93hri— Shannon Bileski☈ (@shannbil) January 17, 2020
Went through some of my old storm photos and did some re-editing. Nothing like ramping up your SDS when there are no storms in sight for weeks…. #tornado #stormchasing #weather pic.twitter.com/bXW6K25w4f— Mike Prendergast (@MPrendergastTX) January 6, 2018
The term SDS is the result of a humorous quip. However, its effects are real amongst “bored” storm chasers. While there is an indication of addiction, it doesn’t appear to be associated with the addictive effects of adrenaline.
Chasing Isn’t Just About Tornadoes
Storm chasing is mainly a hobby activity. As a result, the addictiveness is comparable to the same addiction that one gets with other hobbies. A stamp collector, for example, spends a lot of time looking for rare stamps. A person who spends a great deal of time collecting stamps might also have an addiction. The same is true with storm chasers who spend a great amount of time advancing their hobby skills.
Adrenaline junkies typically do not become bored. Instead, they look for their next fix and challenge their addiction with an experience to provide a natural high. This is unlike storm chasers who spend their time reviewing remote sensing data between storms. However, it is possible that some Adrenaline junkies have also tried storm chasing.
Because storm chasing does involve an element of danger at times. Those situations could trigger a sympathetic impulse on the nervous system. As a result, storm chasing may be an activity pursued by an adrenaline junkie. This is not to say however that storm chasers participate in their beloved activity for these same reasons.
However, if an adrenaline junkie did attempt storm chasing they would first have to find a storm. That’s not such an easy task. Most storm chasers spend countless hours learning how to forecast. Once they’re able to make fairly competent forecasts, they then spend hours driving to their target area.
It’s safe to conclude someone labeled an adrenaline junkie probably wouldn’t engage in storm chasing more than once. Or possibly twice due to a probable high-rate of failure involved if such a person actively trying to witness tornadoes.
Most Chasers Stay a Safe Distance
As stated, there is a high degree of forecasting skill involved. A person with no meteorological knowledge would have extremely limited chances of validating a forecast. Second, there is a high degree of failure for those who lack experience in planning storm interceptions. And third, storm chasing can even be boring at times due to the hours spent driving or riding in a vehicle.
This may not be how Hollywood interprets storm chasing. But, storm chasing is as far from its on-screen interpretations as Tornado Alley is from Hollywood itself.
In any event, we can conclude that a person seeking a quick-fix of adrenaline would not enjoy storm chasing. Therefore, it is the conclusion of this storm chaser that most chasers are not, in fact, “Adrenaline Junkies”. Regardless of what various journalists may decide to call them.
Now, excuse me while I go rig my parachute.
- Franken, I., Zijlstra, C., & Muris, P. (2006). Are nonpharmacological induced rewards related to anhedonia? A study among skydivers. Progress in Neuro Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 30, 297–300
- Walter Bradford Cannon (1929). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear, and rage. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts
- Thase, M. E., & Howland, R. H. (1995). Biological processes in depression: An updated review and integration. In E. E. Beckham & W. R. Leber (Eds.), Handbook of depression (p. 213–279). Guilford Press.