When you're alone in the middle of the night
and you wake
in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you're alone in the middle of the bed
and you wake
Like someone hit you on the head
You've had a cream of a nightmare dream
and you've got the
Hoo-ha's coming on you
Hoo hoo hoo
- T.S. Eliot, Fragment of an Agon

Q. What do these people have in common?

Sex in an Airplane

Paul Scotts, a 58-year old accountant, was returning on  a 12-hour flight from Singapore with his wife and two children. His doctor prescribed Ambien to promote sleep. He downed two glasses of red wine and 10 mg. of Ambien about 7-hours prior to landing.

Mr. Scotts was sitting in the row directly in front of his family. About 10 minutes into his self-medication, he approached the flight attendant's station intending to ask for another glass of red wine. There he spotted a woman who he found to be sexy, a bit tipsy, and cheap. Disinhibiton set in and he began asking about her tattoos. She confided that she was once an erotic dancer.

Soon the hitherto strangers began to touch erotically. On Scotts' invitation they snuck into the flight restroom and carried out a variety of sexual acts, culminating in his reaching orgasm

Paul Scotts carried out this scheme without concern for the multiple risks of being discovered by his wife, his children, the flight staff, fellow passengers, or possible legal and health ramifications of having sex with a stranger in the bathroom of a commercial airline.

Jumping Off a Building

Robin Heid and Brian Veatch ascend the 700-foot United Bank of Denver building, eager to jump off. Upon reaching the top, both fastidiously check their parachutes, making sure that everything is correctly rigged.

Robin steps out on the end of a scaffold and begins the countdown -- "Okay-four . . . two ... three." He turns to Brian and both begin to laugh. Robin continues, "Boy that was great, wasn't it?" Then he resumes concentration, makes the proper countdown, and leaps. Time seems to stand still as Robin savors a sense of weightlessness and the dual feelings of fragility and power in the same instant. Exhilarated by the experience of total control, his life seems at once supreme and valueless.

After the chute opens he gracefully navigates his floating assemblage through a half circle, deliberately drifting to an urban clearing, descending on a stunned pair of middle-aged passersby. Wide-eyed, smiling, and invigorated with curiosity, one excitedly blurts out, "Jesus, what planet did you come from?" Robin's nonchalant reply: "Oh, you liked it, huh?"

Brian jumps. As soon as he lands, the two hop in the getaway car, driven by Robin's mother. The police arrive four minutes after the daring fait accompli.

In the aftermath, Brian and Robin become intoxicated by the wine of success. The pristine ecstasy of free-fall is replaced by group celebration, euphoria, and bliss.

Gambling Addicted Casino President

In March of 2001, Gary DiBartolomeo, the highest-ranking casino executive ever to confess being a compulsive gambler was banned from New Jersey casinos for five years. 

As a condition of his license renewal, he was warned by regulators to quit gambling. On dozens of occasions he violated the restrictions. While playing in casinos in Nevada, Connecticut, Mississippi, the Bahamas and Monte Carlo he bet up to $1,500 per hand and lost $389,000 in an 18-month period. One time he recruited a fellow Caesars worker to act as his "alter ego" to play blackjack with DiBartolomeo's money as DiBartolomeo supervised the bets. Tearfully, he described himself before the gaming commission as "the David Copperfield of deception." He called compulsive gambling the demon inside of him.

 A. They enjoy the rush of stress hormones and excitatory neurotransmission in their body and brain.

Hans Selye introduced the concept of getting high on our own stress hormones. Selye believed that stress drunkenness accounts for more overall harm to society than all the licit and illicit drugs combined. When we become excited, either through anger or fear, the brain signals hormone-producing glands to release chemicals that prepare us for fight or flight. The adrenal glands produce cortisol, a chemical that increases blood sugar and speeds up the body's metabolism. Other messages to the adrenal glands result in the release of the amphetamine-like stimulant epinephrine (adrenaline), which helps supply glucose to the muscles and brain, and norepinephrine, which speeds up the heart rate and elevates blood pressure. The adjacent figure illustrates the body's chemical response to stress.


Stress response

In response to stress, the hypothalamus secretes corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), which stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone ACTH into the general circulation. ACTH stimulates the adrenal cortex to release cortisol. The hypothalamus also stimulates the adrenal medulla to release the catecholamines, epinephrine and norepinephrine, into the general circulation. Catecholamines mobilize stored fat and make the heart beat faster and stronger.

The psychological by-products of a moderate biochemical emergency are noticeable increments in one’s feelings of physical prowess and personal competence, often associated with strong sensations of pleasure. In many ways, the state of biological and psychological “readiness” produced by stress is mimicked by the effects of stimulant drugs. People may self-induce similar alterations of consciousness with amphetamine, methamphetamine, cocaine, or caffeine (two and half cups of coffee will double the level of epinephrine in the blood), or by engaging in activities that appear to be life threatening.

The key concept for sanity: Positive experiences - falling in love, pushing the envelope on your talents and abilities, skiing, playing an exhilarating sport, riding a roller coaster, watching a thrilling movie,… - can evoke the same stress hormones and excitatory neurotransmission as more troublesome flirtations with danger or drugs.

Thrill yourself wisely!

About the Author

Harvey Milkman, Ph.D.

Dr. Harvey Milkman is professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver specializing in cognitive-behavioral approaches to mood alteration.

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