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General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

Extreme athletes gain control through fear – and sometimes pay the price

Extreme athletes gain control through fear – and sometimes pay the price.


From the 22 May 2015 post at Bangor University

Originally published on The Conversation by Tim Woodman, Professor and Head of the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences at Bangor University, Lew Hardy, Emeritus Professor, Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance at Bangor University and Matthew Barlow, Post-Doc Researcher in Sport Psychology at Bangor University. Read the original article.

The death of famed “daredevil” climber and base jumper Dean Potter has once again raised the idea that all high-risk sportspeople are hedonistic thrill seekers. Our research into extreme athletes shows this view is simplistic and wrong.

It’s about attitudes to risk. In his famous Moon speech in 1962, John F Kennedy said:

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked [by a New York Times journalist] why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there …

Humans have evolved through taking risks. In fact, most human actions can be conceptualised as containing an element of risk: as we take our first step, we risk falling down; as we try a new food, we risk being disgusted; as we ride a bicycle, we risk falling over; as we go on a date, we risk being rejected; and as we travel to the moon, we risk not coming back.

Human endeavour and risk are intertwined. So it is not surprising that despite the increasingly risk-averse society that we live in, many people crave danger and risk – a life less sanitised.

Dean Potter exemplified that craving. He was a pioneering climber and base jumper, well known for scaling huge vertical rock faces without ropes and with only a parachute for protection. On May 16 Potter and fellow climber Graham Hunt died in Yosemite National Park after attempting a dangerous wingsuit flight, where base jumpers wear a special suit that enables them to “fly” forwards and control their fall.

Potter’s endeavours and those of George Mallory seem motivated by something very different from hedonistic thrill. Over the past ten years we have interviewed dozens of high-risk sports people and studied their profiles in detail with a view to trying to find out what that “something different” is. Our findings are surprising.

For example, it is now clear that sensation-seeking explains very little about the motive for many of these people. Many high-risk sportspeople do not crave excitement at all – yes they seek out risky environments, but only with a view to minimising any additional risk so that they can remain in control despite the apparent danger of dangling off cliffs or jumping out of planes.

But there are two more striking features of our recent risk-taking research.

From pawns to players

The first is something we call “agentic emotion regulation”. Feeling agency is similar to feeling in control, but more akin to the feeling “I want to be the person who decides how my life pans out”. Some high-risk sportspeople purposefully seek out danger in order to make some sense of their feelings of lack of agency. In other words, in everyday life they do not feel like the chess player of their life but more like the pawn on the chessboard – they feel emotionally constrained and passive.

Legendary climber Patrick Berhault, who later died traversing a steep face of Switzerland’s highest mountain without a safety rope, once said he didn’t think he’d do it if there wasn’t the notion of risk. “Ordinary life lacks intensity and attraction for me”, he said, “I can’t stand it; I believe we should live!”

The fascinating feature of this finding is that the lowest sense of agency is in relationships that are the most emotional: with loving partners. This feeling of low agency is made worse by the difficulty with expressing their emotions.

In this way, the relationship with risk serves as a proxy for the relationship with a loving partner, except that the risk-taker is rewarded – rather than penalised – for not expressing emotion.

July 22, 2015 Posted by | Psychology | , , | Leave a comment

The stigma experienced by patients with psychiatric disorders

From the 24 July 2013 post at

“It don’t matter how many men you shot in Memphis,” the saying goes, “if your name is Sierra or Sequoia, you can’t sing the blues”. In a sense, this adage reworks an older, more bitter joke from the civil rights era, the one that begins “some of my best friends are …” and ends with “but you wouldn’t want your sister to marry one.” Both statements embody stigma, the social effects of being someone who violates others’ expectations or fails to fit into an assigned social niche.

Stigma attached to illness has a long, ignoble history. The most classic example, the devalued social role of lepers, illustrates its classic elements: fear and avoidance. Deformities elicit basic revulsion in many, while infections also trigger fear of contagion. Historically, some of the positive stigma that doctors enjoy reflects our ability to transcend our fears and provide care to those whom society would consign to the desert beyond the pale of a socially integrated life.

In modern times, patients with psychiatric disorders (including addictions) experience stigma in painful and damaging ways. The American Journal of Public Health devoted its entire May edition to the consequences of the stigma that plagues those with mental illness and the disordered behaviors that it often causes. The bottom line of the Journal’s complex assessment across many articles: stigma kilIs. According to Hautzenbuehler et al, increased health care costs, poorer health outcomes and, most tellingly, premature death are all consequences of having a psychiatric disorder of any kind. While we all intuitively “get” why people with schizophrenia or addictions might face stigma based on their disruptive, non conforming behavior and the frustration caused by the intractability of their conditions, the negative consequences of having a psychiatric disorder also extend to otherwise normal appearing people with depression and anxiety, and, most tragically, to children.

Read the entire post here


July 25, 2013 Posted by | health care | , , , , | 3 Comments

Human Brain Is Divided On Fear and Panic: Different Areas of Brain Responsible for External, Internal Threats

From the 4 February 2013 article at Science Daily

Feb. 4, 2013 — When doctors at the University of Iowa prepared a patient to inhale a panic-inducing dose of carbon dioxide, she was fearless. But within seconds of breathing in the mixture, she cried for help, overwhelmed by the sensation that she was suffocating.

The patient, a woman in her 40s known as SM, has an extremely rare condition called Urbach-Wiethe disease that has caused extensive damage to the amygdala, an almond-shaped area in the brain long known for its role in fear. She had not felt terror since getting the disease when she was an adolescent.

In a paper published online Feb. 3 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the UI team provides proof that the amygdala is not the only gatekeeper of fear in the human mind. Other regions — such as the brainstem, diencephalon, or insular cortex — could sense the body’s most primal inner signals of danger when basic survival is threatened.

“This research says panic, or intense fear, is induced somewhere outside of the amygdala,” says John Wemmie, associate professor of psychiatry at the UI and senior author on the paper. “This could be a fundamental part of explaining why people have panic attacks.

nterestingly, the amygdala-damaged patients had no fear leading up to the test, unlike the healthy participants, many who began sweating and whose heart rates rose just before inhaling the carbon dioxide. That, of course, was consistent with the notion that the amygdala detects danger in the external environment and physiologically prepares the organism to confront the threat.

“Information from the outside world gets filtered through the amygdala in order to generate fear,” Feinstein says. “On the other hand, signs of danger arising from inside the body can provoke a very primal form of fear, even in the absence of a functioning amygdala.”


Read the entire article here


February 8, 2013 Posted by | Psychiatry | , , | 1 Comment

Expressing Your Emotions Can Reduce Fear, UCLA Psychologists Report



anxiety (Photo credit: FlickrJunkie)


From the 7 September 2012 article at Medical News Today


“Give sorrow words.” – Malcolm in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”

Can simply describing your feelings at stressful times make you less afraid and less anxious?

A new UCLA psychology study suggests that labeling your emotions at the precise moment you are confronting what you fear can indeed have that effect.

The psychologists asked 88 people with a fear of spiders to approach a large, live tarantula in an open container outdoors. The participants were told to walk closer and closer to the spider and eventually touch it if they could.

The subjects were then divided into four groups and sat in front of another tarantula in a container in an indoor setting. In the first group, the subjects were asked to describe the emotions they were experiencing and to label their reactions to the tarantula – saying, for example, “I’m anxious and frightened by the ugly, terrifying spider.”

“This is unique because it differs from typical procedures in which the goal is to have people think differently about the experience – to change their emotional experience or change the way they think about it so that it doesn’t make them anxious,” said Michelle Craske, a professor of psychology at UCLA and the senior author of the study. “Here, there was no attempt to change their experience, just to state what they were experiencing.” …



September 7, 2012 Posted by | Psychiatry, Psychology | , , | 1 Comment

The Risks We Dread: A Social Circle Account « Full Text Reports…

The Risks We Dread: A Social Circle Account 

From the summary at Full Text Reports

What makes some risks dreadful? We propose that people are particularly sensitive to threats that could kill the number of people that is similar to the size of a typical human social circle. Although there is some variability in reported sizes of social circles, active contact rarely seems to be maintained with more than about 100 people. The loss of this immediate social group may have had survival consequences in the past and still causes great distress to people today. Therefore we hypothesize that risks that threaten a much larger number of people (e.g., 1000) will not be dreaded more than those that threaten to kill “only” the number of people typical for social circles. We found support for this hypothesis in 9 experiments using different risk scenarios, measurements of fear, and samples from different countries. Fear of risks killing 100 people was higher than fear of risks killing 10 people, but there was no difference in fear of risks killing 100 or 1000 people (Experiments 1–4, 7–9). Also in support of the hypothesis, the median number of deaths that would cause maximum level of fear was 100 (Experiments 5 and 6). These results are not a consequence of lack of differentiation between the numbers 100 and 1000 (Experiments 7 and 8), and are different from the phenomenon of “psychophysical numbing” that occurs in the context of altruistic behavior towards members of other communities rather than in the context of threat to one’s own community (Experiment 9). We discuss several possible explanations of these findings. Our results stress the importance of considering social environments when studying people’s understanding of and reactions to risks.


April 24, 2012 Posted by | Psychology | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Men’s Ability To Manage Fear In Ways That Allow Them To Exhibit Confidence


Two fighters grappling in a mixed martial arts...

Image via Wikipedia Public Domain

From the 26 December 2011 Medical News Today article

An Indiana University of Pennsylvania sociologist’s study of mixed martial arts competitors found that these men have unique ways of managing fear that actually allow them to exhibit confidence.

This ability, which Dr. Christian A. Vaccaro and colleagues call “managing emotional manhood,” is both an interactional strategy for managing emotion and a means for conveying a social identity to others. The study finds that successful management of fear by men in contact sports such as mixed martial arts may “create an emotional orientation that primes men to subordinate and harm others.” …

…”Putting on a convincing manhood act requires more than using language and the body; it also requires emotion work. By suppressing fear, empathy, pain, and shame and evoking confidence and pride, males signify their alleged possession of masculine selves,” Vaccaro said.

“By signifying masculine selves through evoking fear and shame in others, such men are likely to more easily secure others’ deference and accrue rewards and status. Managing emotional manhood, whether it occurs in a locker room or boardroom, at home or the Oval Office, likely plays a key role in maintaining unequal social arrangements.”

Read the entire Medical News Today article

December 26, 2011 Posted by | Psychology | , , , , | Leave a comment

Masked fears: Are fears that are seemingly overcome only hidden?

Masked fears: Are fears that are seemingly overcome only hidden?

One group of nerve cells in the brain controls the fear behaviour (right). This can be suppressed by a second group of nerve cells (left) — but the fear is only masked, and has not disappeared completely. (Credit: Carlos Toledo/Bernstein Center Freiburg)

From the March 18 2011 Science Daily News Item

ScienceDaily (Mar. 20, 2011) — Fear is a natural part of our emotional life and acts as a necessary protection mechanism. However, fears sometimes grow beyond proportions and become difficult to shed. Scientists from Freiburg, Basel and Bordeaux have used computer simulations to understand the processes within the brain during the formation and extinction of fears.

In the current issue of the scientific journal PLoS Computational Biology [full text of article], Ioannis Vlachos from the Bernstein Center Freiburg and colleagues propose for the first time an explanation for how fears that were seemingly overcome are in reality only hidden

The reason for the persistency of fears is that, literally, their roots run deep: Far below the cerebral cortex lies the “amygdala,” which plays a crucial role in fear processes. Fear is commonly investigated in mice by exposing them simultaneously to a neutral stimulus — a certain sound, for example — and an unpleasant one. This leads to the animals being frightened of the sound as well. Context plays an important role in this case: If the scaring sound is played repeatedly in a new context without anything bad happening, the mice shed their fear again. It returns immediately, however, if the sound is presented in the original, or even a completely novel context. Had the mice not unlearned to be frightened after all?


March 22, 2011 Posted by | Medical and Health Research News | , , , , | Leave a comment



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