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Summer spaciousness and adventure

It’s summer and many of us are being called towards adventure. I certainly am! Before we deep dive into questions like: “How is a trillseeker’s brain wired?” and “Why would you throw yourself out of a perfectly good airplane?” I’d like to offer a brief public service announcement.

Make space for yourself this summer.

If you’re anything like me or my clients then:

  1. You are so passionate about your work that you rarely switch off.

  2. You are future oriented. Thus, after accomplishing something big, you rarely savor the win. Instead, you move the goal post or critique your performance for not being good enough.

  3. You care. You serve others before serving yourself which leaves you feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or resentful.

These are incredible, amazing, rock star traits. It’s what makes you shine so bright as a leader. Stay you. However, there’s a ginormous downside. So this summer, my challenge to you is to rest and restore. Refill your gas tank. Make space for yourself.

This week (June 5-9) is my last week “at work” until August. (Psst… catch me and Tutti on Friday for a free, online workshop on integrated leadership and impostor syndrome!)

During the next two months, I’ll be practicing being fully present with the people I love most in the world. I’ll have a vacation responder in place for emails and limited access to Internet and cell reception. (Doesn’t that sound absolutely dreamy?) And I won’t be writing new blog posts until August, though I’ve lined up several great articles from my column with Shasta Scout to share with you.

Even if you can’t take a few weeks or even a few days off, how might you make space on evenings and weekends this summer to rest and restore? My favorite quote from Katie Reed says, "Self-care is giving others the best of you, not what's left of you."

So, make space for you this summer.

Now… onto skydiving.

The Idea

Skydiving was my friend, Ed’s idea. “I’m interested in going skydiving while we’re in Hawaii. I did some research… there’s a ‘1st Class’ jump which leaves at about 14,000', which gives 60 seconds of freefall, and about 5 minutes of sightseeing under parachute descent. Who wants to join me?”

Out of dozens of friends, only my hand shot up into the air. Later, my friend Scott decided to join us.

My husband’s response: “I will spend an extra 6 minutes looking out the window of the plane while flying to Hawaii. Also, I will ensure that there is at least one adult to finish raising our children.”

Our chosen outfitter was quite serious about this. Hidden amongst the seven pages of legalese was this gem of a clause: “I have made adequate provisions for my spouse, if any, my children, if any, my heirs, if any, and all other persons dependent upon me so that in the event of my death or disability they will have suffered no financial loss.” Gulp.

That said, tandem skydiving is actually relatively safe. Each year, there is one student fatality per 500,000 tandem jumps versus one vehicular death per 6,500 vehicles registered in the United States. You are much more likely to die driving to the drop zone than from skydiving with a reputable outfitter.

Still, why in the world would anyone choose to jump out of a perfectly good airplane? Why did I raise my hand while my husband happily remained grounded and took the kids for a big hike instead? And what in the world is going on in my brain during the jump?

Sensation Seeking

I happen to be one of those thrill seekers who will say “Yes!” when invited to defy gravity, go fast, or dare adventure. I’m a thrill seeker. Parachuting? Rollercoasters? Scuba diving? Downhill skiing? Rock climbing? White water rafting? YES! Bring it on!

But… I am also a PhD neuroscientist. Skydiving wasn’t just a thrill. This was a research project, and I was on a quest to understand my brain on skydiving.

There’s been a good amount of research on us thrill seekers. Even I was surprised by what I discovered as I dug into the literature. For instance, Marvin Zuckerman developed a Sensation Seeking Scale, often used to scientifically explore what makes people like me tick. No surprise, I score a 10 out of 10 on ‘Thrill and Adventure Seeking.’

What I did not know was that there are four different subtypes of sensation seekers, and I only score high in two areas.

The second area where I scored high (9/10) was in ‘Experience Seeking.’ I love sensations and experiences that open my mind and senses through music, art, travel, and connection with people different from myself. Travel is my drug of choice, something I choose even beyond thrill because I can share my travel experiences with others.

Hello. My name is Irene Salter. And I’m a travel-holic.

Yet my scores were considerably lower in the other two categories: ‘Boredom Susceptibility’ (an intolerance for unexciting, predictable people or repetitious experiences like watching the same movie many times was 1/10) and ‘Disinhibition’ (sensation seeking through sex, alcohol, and/or recreational drugs, and socializing with people who share these preferences was 5/10). I know several friends with the opposite sensation seeking profile as me – restless people who are easily bored but would never in a billion years try skydiving.

Psychologists like Laurence Steinberg demonstrated that sensation seekers are wired differently. For instance, teenagers are notorious for seeking thrills, experiences, excitement, and sensations. Consider two different brain networks: the socio-emotional system responsible for processing rewards, social cues, and emotions versus the executive control system responsible for planning, thinking ahead, and self-regulation. Right around puberty, the socio-emotional brain system rapidly becomes more sensitive and more easily activated. In contrast, the executive control network (with prefrontal cortex at its heart) matures slowly and gradually well into one’s 20s. In teenagers, the socio-emotional brain leads the way and the immature executive control network simply can’t keep up.

In adults, there seems to be a strong genetic component to sensation seeking. In a study of twins, Zuckerman and colleagues found a heritability figure of 58%. More recently, a review paper by Agnes Norbury and Masud Husain summarized several decades of research showing that sensation seekers like me have higher baseline dopamine levels in our brains, fewer available D2 receptors, and an enhanced dopamine burst in response to cues predicting upcoming reward. Neuroscientists like Wolfram Schultz showed that our dopamine isn’t just tied to reward, and definitely isn’t the pleasure molecule (that honor goes to endogenous opioids and cannabinoids). No, dopamine directs our attention towards things that are better or worse than we expected them be. Dopamine is about prediction error, and we humans are intensely motivated to seek out that dopamine burst.

Like me, thrill seekers tend to seek dopamine bursts by pushing ourselves to the limit of our capabilities. Last summer, I jumped off the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Skydiving was just a jump from a tiny bit higher up, 13,371 feet higher up.

What draws adrenaline junkies like me towards adventure like moths to a flame is stretching ourselves to the next challenge. I love dancing along the edge of something that my brain and body perceive as death-defying but the data proves is well within my capabilities and which takes place under carefully controlled, meticulously choreographed, triple safety checked conditions. Because I have higher baseline dopamine levels with fewer receptors, it requires a bigger burst of dopamine to get that prediction error. I push myself further towards the next skill to master, towards the next higher jump, towards the next level of challenge, because that’s where my brain will find the prediction error and receive the dopamine burst I’m seeking.

While we sensation seekers may be more prone to problems such as drug addiction and death from falling out of airplanes, we, like teenagers, are drawn to high-arousal, novel, and uncertain situations. We are the explorers, adventurers, and trailblazers of the world. Whereas most people avoid danger, novelty, and stress, we can handle it. We make great leaders and inspire others to greatness.

My Brain on Thrill

Thus, armed with my adventure and experience seeking brain, I found myself climbing into a tiny Cessna 208 Caravan in a full body harness with George as my guide. Thank heaven for George! He resembled a blue heron: lanky, calm, and confident. This was his 7,152nd jump, a fact that immediately relaxed my anxiety and soothed my stress response. I was in highly experienced hands.

The plane climbed into the blue Hawaiian sky, soaring ever higher over verdant emerald mountains and twinkling cerulean seas. We could see Pearl Harbor peeking between the hilltops and Waimea Bay glinting far below.

When we were so high that the cars below blended in with the asphalt, the final preparations began. The cargo doors opened with a blast of icy wind. George was behind me, cinching my straps tight and securely clipping me onto his harness at four attachment points. My amygdala — that almond shaped brain area nestled deep behind your ears, towards the center of your skull, the brain’s fear center – screamed from zero to 100 mph as it went from gentle charter flight sightseeing to “Oh shit! I’m really about to jump out of this plane!” My stress response raged, releasing a flood of stress hormones like cortisol, preparing my brain and body for the life-threatening risk ahead.

George helped me adjust my goggles over my glasses and gave some final tips about sucking in air through my teeth if the wind whipped too fast to draw a proper breath. The flood of adrenaline and cortisol was causing my heart to race and breathing to accelerate. I started box breathing. Breathe in, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four. Breathe in…

The departure happened almost too quickly to think. A light above our heads went from red to green. A camera man jumped out immediately followed by the first tandem pair. Another camera man and another pair. It was as if the wind literally swept them out the door into the blue sky and clouds beyond. Whoosh. George scooched me forward towards the door. My friend Ed and his guide jumped. Then my friend Scott and his guide. Whoosh. Whoosh. Soon, it was just the pilot, George, and I.

I was told to perch on the edge. Time slowed. My vision narrowed to only the view out the door. I hardly noticed the wind or the cold. I’m sure my heart was galloping, but it didn’t matter. Every thought, every bodily sensation, became hyper-focused on the experience. This state of hyper-focused arousal is linked to the release of norepinepherine, a neurochemical that directs arousal and attention, particularly in times of stress.

We rocked back then WHOOSH. My scream was ripped away by the wind. I ignored the impulse to curl into a fetal position and instead did what George taught me – hold my straps, arch my back, let my knees curve until my body assumed the shape of a banana. He released the drogue parachute which would slow our fall enough to not break our bones when the main parachute deployed. Then, he tapped me on the shoulder signaling that I could spread my arms.

I was free. I soared. I flew.

Sheer delight

A feeling of euphoric delight enveloped me as endogenous opioids and cannabinoids joined the adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine already in my system. Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule. That honor goes to opioids and cannabinoids. Kent Berridge pioneered the research dissociating sensory pleasure from dopamine. He and his colleagues noticed that rats will naturally lick their lips in pleasure after sipping apple juice or munching a tiny bit of rodent-sized candy. It’s an innate pleasure response no different than how we smile and lick our lips after something delectable. Berridge found that injecting a tiny puff of dopamine in the brain does not cause rats to lick their lips. Opioids do.

Don’t get me wrong. Rats will press a lever to the edge of exhaustion in order to receive puff after puff of dopamine into certain brain areas like the nucleus accumbens. That’s precisely what drugs of abuse do after all — they mimic a burst of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, driving craving and addiction. Dopamine makes them want it, desperately, longingly. But rats don’t like it. They don’t lick their lips.

I was metaphorically licking my lips in sheer, unabashed joy. George showed me how to use my arms and shape my body in the sky like Superman, sending us swooping first left, then right.

I was a peregrine falcon, diving through the blue. I was a red tailed hawk, gliding across the heavens.

After far too short a time, George released the main chute. My body swung down into an upright position below an expanse of yellow, green and blue ripstop nylon. The cortisol and adrenaline receded, and my amygdala quieted, leaving a delicious cocktail of dopamine, norephinepherine, and pleasure molecules to float me down to Earth again. My body hummed and sang.

Mostly. There was discomfort too. George helped adjust my harness so it didn’t crimp so uncomfortably. Pressure built in my inner ears so I did the scuba diver’s trick of equalizing the pressure by pinching my nose and blowing gently. The spinning, tilting, moving expanse of Hawaiian landscape was making my stomach twist. Yet my unsettled stomach certainly didn’t stop me from excitedly encouraging George to spin us like a merry-go-round, blurring sea, sky, clouds, mountain, and beach together into a marble swirl of vibrant blue and green, streaked with yellow and white. George passed the controls to me and showed me how to reshape the wing above us to soar left then right as I wished.

He took back the controls to thread a gap in the clouds. My fingertips brushed damp tentacles of mist and cool beads of moisture grazed my cheeks. George sent us into another spin, this time rotating us at an angle such that for a moment, we were thrown skyward. Ahead was blue sky. Looking past my shoulder, our parachute was below us, between me and the ground. Another time, George piloted us like a giant swing set, tossing our bodies forward under the parachute until we hung weightless like children at the peak of a rope swing. Throughout, that intoxicating neurochemical cocktail bathed my brain and made me feel dazzlingly alive, every cell in my body ringing with pleasure.

Though I have limited personal experience with LSD, mushrooms, or ecstasy, (at least any that I’ll publicly admit…) I get high on that very unique neurochemical cocktail which travel and adventure serve to me on a silver platter. I crave it. I wait in jittery anticipation for my next hit. The Urban Dictionary defines ‘tripping’ as, “A state of mind brought on by experiencing a different state of consciousness -- mostly through vast changes in perception, senses and thought patterns.” I was brain tripping.


Soon I could make out tiny people like sugar ants on the beaches. I could see that the other parachutes were landing in the drop zone back at the airfield. George and I sailed out over the shallow turquoise waters dotted with coral reefs one final time then swayed back over land towards the big grassy field where my friends awaited me.

We came in fast, but just at the last moment, we pulled up, stalling in the air. I landed on my feet in a gentle loping stride. A wave of euphoric, delighted, gratitude enveloped me. I felt rapturous to have had this experience, to have landed without an impact crater, to have had such an incredible guide in George, to be alive and brain tripping.

I felt buzzed and high for quite some time, high-fiving and taking selfies with George, hugging and describing the experience to my friends that had come to watch, texting my husband to inform him that our kids will, indeed, continue to have two parents to raise them. But it wasn’t long before I began to crash.

The extreme bolus of cortisol, adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, opioids and cannabinoids was fading. What was left was a physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that left me in desperate need of a nap.

We do not have an endless supply of neurochemicals in our brains. There’s no giant warehouse in which to store them. We have a small supply tucked away in vesicles within our brain cells, enough for daily use or for six minutes of extreme terror/delight, but then more must be synthesized from precursor molecules before they can be released again. My brain needed to replenish her stores.

I was extracted from my harness, paid for the requisite souvenir photos, then headed towards the car with the express desire to sleep all the way home.

In contrast, on my way past the preparations deck, I saw George getting his next student into a harness, setting up for his fourth jump of the day. Experienced skydivers recover faster from the anxiety and stress of a jump. Their cortisol doesn’t climb as high and is back to baseline after 30 minutes. Still, the pleasure from a successful jump is often just as high as the first time.

George said he was “living the dream,” doing something he absolutely adored, living in a stunningly beautiful place, and grateful for every day he was alive. It’s what Alex Honnold says about rock climbing in the film Free Solo, “I think it's the best thing in life to be able to take the one thing you love the most and have it work out that you can make a living that way.”

I feel the same about my work mentoring leaders, writing, and teaching, but am quite happy for my two feet to remain on solid ground in my daily life. Thus, I slept for the entire ride back to our rented cottage, ate lunch, then took a second nap as soon as I got home.

Would I do it again? In the moments after my feet touched solid earth, at the peak of the euphoric opioid and cannabinoid induced high, I would have said absolutely yes. Now, I’m not so sure. If I could go with my kids when they’re old enough, take a client, or learn to skydive solo (thus increasing the challenge, engagement, prediction error, and dopamine burst) then maybe. But for now, the memory of flying like a falcon and dancing through the sky is more than enough. There are plenty of other adventures and experiences waiting for me in the wide world.

What adventure will you choose?

Read More

Try taking the Sensation Seeking Scale for yourself and see how you score.

Read more about the importance of switching off in this blog post.

Going Further

Before you sign off for summer, consider joining me and Tutti for a free online workshop on managing impostor syndrome. Learn to witness your impostor syndrome and inner critics without letting them define you.

Applications for my next group coaching program are open and it’s going to be incredible. First, I’ll be partnering with the amazing Tutti Taygerly so that you get not just one, but TWO executive coaches to mentor you. Second, we will be focusing on sustaining all 5 aspects of integrated leadership (spaciousness, flow, connection, inner wisdom, outer presence) while helping each member achieve a big goal. Best of all, it ends with a four-day, three-night retreat in Hawaii. Join us.

Finally, you don’t want to miss the summer series of blog posts which take you inside a coaching session with me. Subscribe or share with a friend.

Happy summer!

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