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How Risk-Taking Behavior Impacts Mental Health

Risk-taking is closely associated with the image of a person. People who are robust, energetic and athletic are believed to engage in more risk-taking activities. However, the entire debate centered around risk-taking and the image of a person is quite subjective. For example, a person who bungee jumps or scuba dives is usually careful about his health, regardless of the risks that he might take later while indulging in the adventure sport. On the other hand, someone who sits on the couch and smokes weed while flipping through TV channels is not participating in any activity that is associated with thrill, adventure or danger.

The label of a risk taker would not apply to them ideally. However, they could view themselves quite differently. Given the fact that many who do drugs or consume alcohol or smoke on a regular basis could have started the habit when they were young, even though they were aware of the risks associated with it, they could be right.

A new study that undertook a research of genetic data has come up with surprising finds. During the course of the research conducted by UK Biobank, the participants were asked to self-assess themselves under the question, “Would you describe yourself as someone who takes risks?”

  • The study led to the identification of two genome-wide significant loci. One was observed within CADM2, and the other was located in the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) region of the chromosome.
  • The study also found genetic correlations between risk-taking activity of individuals and schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity and smoking.

More about the findings

Those who identified themselves as risk takers were male and had higher BMI. It was also observed that compared to those who had assessed themselves as non-risk takers were more likely to have smoked or doped earlier than their peers. Women who identified themselves as risk takers had a child at a younger age compared to others. The study also noted that there was a positive link between risk-taking and depressive disorders.

Some other conclusions of the study published in the Communications Biology are:

  • There are 26 variants in regions of the human genome linked with risk-taking activity.
  • Four areas of the brain are associated with risk-taking behavior, previously the pre-frontal cortex, hypothalamus, anterior cingulate cortex, hippocampus. Past studies have indicated that hippocampus plays an important role in behavioral inhibition, hypothalamus is responsible for fear complying the fear of pain, predators, etc., and the anterior cingulate cortex plays a vital role in the exercise of control when performing a task.
  • The immune system plays a key role in the sunset of mood and behavioral disorders like depression.

Rebellious spirit or serious mental problem?

Since early childhood, children are taught to differentiate between things that are good or bad for them. As they grow older, they instinctively take cue from what they have been taught or what they have picked from the environment and behaving accordingly. They are no longer guided by the identification which is responsible for unstructured or uncoordinated impulses. Instead, ego or superego plays a major role in the way they act or behave. They learn to reason – instead of smoking a joint that is easily available or driving a car at breakneck speed, they practice restraint.

However, in people with a mental condition, the tension to act impulsively remains even when they are no longer children. They find it difficult to exercise restraint and act on impulse. The impulsivity is seen in people living with a wide range of mental health disorders, such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. For example, teens who have been living with a major depressive disorder have shown a greater likelihood of risk-taking activities such as engaging in sex with more than one partner or drinking alcohol or doing drugs.

Road to recovery

As the implications of risky behavior go beyond the standard refusal to conform and rebellious spirit, it is necessary to identify the reasons behind someone's risk-taking activities. Screening for mental health conditions and substance abuse is just as important.