Study: Skydiving Not Relaxing

Veteran skydivers feel less anxious than beginners, but their bodies still release the same amount of stress hormone.
felixbaum1990.jpg

Felix Baumgartner in 1999 preparing to base-jump from the arm of the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado mountain, overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Baumgartner camped out overnight at the site and used a high-tech crossbow to shoot over the arm of statue to climb up. (Reuters)

PROBLEM: When our bodies are in stressful situations, our adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol. We can measure that cortisol to quantify physical (not mental) stress. Research has shown that for social stressors like public speaking, cortisol responses get smaller as people get more used to doing the stressful thing. Does your body ever really get used to things that can genuinely physically injure or kill you, though? Like, a lion attack, or falling from the sky?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers sent 40 people into the jungle. They then released a bunch of lions to attack them. Ha, no, they did the experiment with skydiving. Researchers at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, led by Dr. Michael Smith, measured cortisol levels in 24 skydivers right before and after they jumped. Some were veteran skydivers, some were new. The researchers also asked the skydivers how anxious they felt.

RESULTS: Veteran skydivers reported that they felt less anxious than the beginners. Cortisol levels, though, were equally high in both groups.

IMPLICATIONS: Skydiving seems to terrify the British body even after it stops terrifying the British mind. What else stopped stressing your mind but is still terrifying your body? Yogurt? Everything?


The full study, "State anxiety and cortisol reactivity to skydiving in novice versus experienced skydivers" is published in the journal Physiology & Behavior.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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