Love is in the air… getting hooked on flying
Remember those first few hops, when your feet first left the ground? Sweaty palms, beating heart, loss of appetite, feeling queasy? And then you couldn’t talk to anyone about anything else? You checked the weather obsessively?
Similar to base jumping and parachuting, our initial flights cause a range of hormones to flood our bodies: getting ready and preparing for flight, our brain initiates the flight or fight response and starts producing epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol, which all raise the heart rate and blood pressure. On take-off, a big boost of adrenaline shoots through our bodies and once settled in the air, this stress and fear that the adrenaline boost has provided will be replaced by feelings of euphoria – which are caused by the introduction of dopamine and endorphins into your system. And after you land well… feelings of joy and contentment which can last for days.
And remember those feelings of meeting that special someone? Sweaty palms, beating heart, loss of appetite, feeling queasy? And then you couldn’t talk to anyone about anything but him/her? You checked your phone obsessively for texts from her/him?
When many pilots talk of loving flying, they are not wrong. In our bodies the sensations and hormonal causes of the euphoric feelings when falling in love both with flying and with a person are nearly identical – adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine and serotonin. Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University in the USA has proposed 3 stages of love – lust, attraction and attachment. Each stage driven by different hormones and chemicals. Initially an important chemical is testosterone – in both men and women.
In Psychoneuroendocrinology, Marazziti and Canale suggest that “Falling in love decreases men’s testosterone levels while increasing women’s testosterone levels. There has been speculation that these changes in testosterone result in the temporary reduction of differences in behavior between the sexes.” The BBC’s Sex ID test suggested that research on the effects of testosterone and competitive behaviour indicates “that testosterone increases competitiveness and risk taking. Interestingly, some studies show that testosterone levels in women change according to the status of their occupations.” So while we are falling in love with this sport, as women our natural testosterone level is increasing and we’re more happy to take risks.
In the attraction stage of falling in love we have adrenaline, the major hormone in the body’s so-called fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is part of a defence mechanism that has developed over thousands of years. It is responsible for the adrenal gland being activated to release the neurotransmitter epinephrine. This results in the production of the hormone cortisol, which increases blood pressure, blood sugar, and suppresses the immune system. Next we are given a massive energy boost in the form of adrenaline or noradrenaline with the aim to prepare us for a violent action. The symptoms we feel are manifold and can include increased heart rate, dry mouth, change in digestive system, tunnel vision and that effect on the sphincter. Once the adrenaline rush has subsided, we are flushed with dopamine. This chemical stimulates an intense rush of pleasure. It has been described as the body’s natural opiate. And lastly, there is serotonin – the happy hormone. According to Princeton University serotonin contributes to feelings of well-being and can act against depression.
In an informal survey of paraglider pilots conducted on PGForum, 70.5% of respondents (117 people) said the euphoria of flying never disappears – regardless of how long you have been flying.
In a study described by Hockenbury in Discovering Psychology, “runners exhibited high levels of endorphins binding to opioid receptors within several regions of the brain, mostly frontal regions involved with positive emotions. This analysis also showed that the subjective euphoric level of an individual runner directly corresponded with the level of endorphin activity that occurred within the brain. This study did not definitively prove that endorphin release was solely responsible for euphoric experiences in runners, but it was recognized as a significant contributing factor. Endorphins play a role in the reward system which may cause a chemical addiction to consistent exercise.”
Endorphins are described on Wikipedia as being “produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in vertebrates during exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food consumption, love, and sexual activity, and they resemble the opiates in their abilities to produce analgesia and a feeling of well-being. The term implies a pharmacological activity [ ]. It consists of two parts: endo- and -orphin; these are short forms of the words endogenous and morphine, intended to mean “a morphine-like substance originating from within the body.”
Given that we get a big boost of endorphins when we fly, can we get addicted?
Hooked on the buzz?
In a 2010 posting on Paragliding Forum, Tony Howes summed up the addictiveness of flying: “I would say it is a little like drugs. The first flight is very minor – a gateway flight (sledder). This is incredible in itself. Then you do it again and again. After a while you want to try something more powerful. You are ready for something more powerful. You inject the flight into your system. WOW. That was much better. You want more of those (soaring at the ridge). After a while of this new extended high, you want to get even higher. Now you start to experiment with a more intense high (thermals). Soon you are higher than ever before. You continually have a smile on your face. Even during work, and in your sleep, and even when doing other amazing things, all you can really think about is your next high (thermal flight). Eventually, you start to really experiment and go the distance with several highs and trying to make the experience last much longer (XC Flight). Occasionally (or a lot depending on how you can handle these intense experiences) relationships suffer outside of this small circle of people with similar addictions. Occasionally you may push the limits too much and instead of the exciting high you want you OD (crash or fly into over development) and can even wind up in the hospital. You may sadly lose friends to the same addiction that you have trapped yourself into. Some of us will quit when exposed to the dangers either personally or through friends injuries scaring (or waking) you to your mortality. Others will push on despite the reality of risk, believing that they can handle it. After all, many people can handle this wonderful and intense high even after repeated exposure year after year. I guess flying does sound a lot like drugs. I’m certainly hooked.”
Apart from the natural high that dopamine produces in our bodies during and after flight, there may be another reason for our perceived addition to flight. Dr Donatella Marazziti, a psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, studied twenty couples who had been seriously in love for less than six months. The study aimed to find out if constantly thinking about your loved one was similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder. When analysing the blood samples from the couples, the study discovered that the serotonin levels of the subjects were equivalent to the low serotonin levels of OCD patients. So if your non-flying partner wonders why you are so obsessed with flying…your serotonin levels have made you a little OCD about it.
Can you keep that loving feeling?
There is evidence that the habituation to a task decreases the hormonal response. Just like living with our partners, familiarity can breed contentment. But just like spicing up your love life, you can inject novelty into your flying and keep that loving feeling. Take Helen Gant, who inspires the British paragliding scene with her enthusiasm. Flying since she was allowed to train at 16, she has never lost the lust, attraction or attachment. She says:
“I don’t travel to the end of the country just to have a nice soaring day, I’ll travel to the end of the country for a potential epic adventure or for some mind-blowing scenery with lovely amazing friends or just to get as far away from routine/work/reality and get some semblance of a sense of perspective back. I’ll go to Stanage Edge on a grey scratchy dull day in winter for the joy of flying with my friends because they’re a real pleasure to fly with and there’s a good chance it will make me grin. I’ll feel better playing in the miserable grey air than moping indoors staring out of the window into the gloom. If you don’t go out, don’t carry your wing to launch, don’t take off, you’ll never know what magical adventure you might miss out on. It’s about making every opportunity into the best possible adventure I can have… If I’m at work and don’t get out till late then the best adventure I can have that day is to zoom to a hill for a spot of sunset soaring. If it’s a good cross country day then the best adventure is a good XC, easy option, I love flying XC. If I can get a few days off and RASP says Scotland’s going to be mind-blowing I’ll gamble. There has some kind of balance for me though: it stops being fun if I wear myself out racing to the far end of the country for a single day’s epic flying, my limits are roughly upto 3 hours travel for a promising XC day, 5+ hours travel only for a couple of days fun flying somewhere special… winter rules are different, best adventure is to go somewhere new or somewhere I’ve not been for ages with pretty scenery and lovely people, or somewhere with possible epic wave…flying distance becomes irrelevant.
My motivation’s changed over lots of years of flying: turning points which helped me jump up levels were my first XC flight, the Pennine boys taking me adventuring in the Lake District, Derbyshire pilots helping me overcome mental blocks about flying cross country, Judy Leden proving that being female doesn’t give you excuses not to fly bravely and well, joining the XC league trying to beat others, trying to beat my personal best, Steve Nash showing me how to fly mountains in Snowdonia, the Pennine bad lads then rekindling my old spark for crazy reckless adventuring, my disillusionment with XC league points when it no longer matched what I wanted to achieve, my friends Ash and Lucy providing hot chocolate for everyone on landing in winter to create a closer community, identifying what DOES matter to me in my flying, the UK North-South Cup providing the kind of competition I wanted to play in, a week in Scotland flying over beautiful mountains from untested sites feeling like a tiny insignificant privileged dot in an amazing landscape and huge sky reminding me what I love about flying.
Flying 200km meant I no longer needed to prove myself to myself. Landing at the coast at Whitby and getting 60km less than those who’d declared made me realise I really don’t give a s*** about points, they don’t mean anything to me. Landing after an XC at 8pm when the sun’s rays highlight the yellow fields, the trees cast long shadows against the glowing green grass, swifts dart around me, kites and buzzards lazily circling in the last climbs of the day, lakes or the sea sparkling gold and unreal with the low sun, implausibly late cloudbase views, birds my only company in the late evening sunshine, every climb another bonus adventure and no idea how I’m going to get home – THIS is when I feel really free and privileged to be up here.
Crazy wave days on Lord’s Seat when you can get up in the sunshine above the clouds with a whole load of other pilots all amazed and laughing to be up there, that’s special. Flying from familiar places and finding myself in a whole new amazing world. I love cloudscapes, being up the side of a cloud, popping through the wispies at the edge of a cloud, flying with friends, flying on my own, trying to push it as far as I can and scoot back to the hill on unpromising days… If I go out, it might just be the best adventure I’ve ever had, how will I know without trying?”
It must be love…