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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Support Natural Highs For Youth

Guess what? Most people take drugs to get high. 

If you have never experienced this feeling of pleasure through drugs, you may want to compare “natural highs” you have felt without the aid of drugs to a drug "high." Remember the times your brain's reward circuitry was activated with so much dopamine that an event or even an expectation caused an unexpected rush of excitement to come over you and fill you with intense feelings of pleasure?

Of course, different levels of intoxication on drugs are dependent on the drug and various other physical and environmental circumstances. Let's assume someone smokes marijuana. What kind of “highs” may occur?

Speaking in generalizations, the lowest level of “high” may be referred to as “catching a buzz” for 30 minutes up to 2 hours. Users with a buzz experience a nice, calm “floaty” feeling that often changes their negative mood and increases their happiness while lowering their inhibitions.

A second level often known “getting high” causes pleasurable feelings to grow even more and extend into longer periods of time. People who are high generally feel intense bliss and report heightened sensitivity to their environments. It alters their perception of the world around them. Users who “get high” may laugh a lot and want to do something fun or exciting. One analogy to “getting high” is feeling like being “a grown up kid.” But, high individuals are not necessarily totally impaired. Some enjoy heightened sensations while having “high” sex.

“Being stoned,” the feeling caused by the the highest level of chemical consumption, causes many individuals to display a complete lack of motivation or activity for quite a long time. Users refer to being stoned as “being wasted” or “being zoned out.” Others parallel the feeling with being drunk but feeling as if they have some “distant” feelings of control. When people are stoned, they can not only become lethargic but also feel paranoid as they have bad sensations of being “burned out” when coming down from the experience.

Risk behaviors, including tobacco, alcohol, and drug use, are common in adolescents and young adults. Those who engage in one risk behavior are likely to engage in additional health risk behaviors, and as the number of risk behaviors increase, depression comorbidity emerges.
Many findings support the fact that young people, especially, practice risky behavior when they are high.

One such study found the following:

“More frequent heavy episodic drinking, marijuana use, and other illicit drug use were associated with a greater number of sex partners. Frequency of marijuana and other illicit drug use was associated with less frequent condom use, and marijuana use was associated with use of injection drugs.

“Younger individuals (i.e., 21-24 years old versus 25-30 years old) had fewer sexual partners, more frequent condom use, and a stronger association between heavy episodic drinking and number of sexual partners than did older individuals. These effects did not vary across gender.

“Findings highlight the covariation of substance use with HIV-related risk factors among recent cohorts of young adults in the U. S. and the particularly strong link between heavy episodic drinking and number of sexual partners among individuals aged 21 to 24. Prevention programs should acknowledge the co-occurring risks of substance use and HIV risk behaviors, especially among young adults in their early twenties.”

(M.E. Patrick et al., “HIV/AIDS Risk Behaviors and Substance Use by Young Adults in the United States,” Prev Sci, October 2012)

Why Do Young People Engage in Risk-taking Behavior?

The reasons may be a little more complicated than most people think.

In findings reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Agnieszka Tymula and colleagues at Fordham and Yale wrote: “It is not that adolescents actually choose to engage in risks, but rather they are willing to gamble when they lack complete knowledge,” the authors wrote.

Co-author Ifat Levy of the Yale School of Medicine said in the statement that the teens’ tendency to embrace the unknown “biologically makes a lot of sense: young organisms need to be open to the unknown in order to gain information about their world.”

“When we see young children engaged in risky actions we do not think about them as risk-takers, but rather we see them as curious about the world that surrounds them. This process of learning continues throughout life,” the authors wrote. “Our results suggest that policies that aim to correct adolescent decision-making under risk by providing a safe and supervised environment for learning by doing so may in some cases be more effective than those that rely on prohibition.”

(Eryn Brown, “Teens and Risky Behavior: More Complicated Than It Seems,” Los Angeles Times, October 2 2012)  

Support For "Natural Highs"

What if more alternatives to being "high" became common practice? What if young people were able to lead lives that included safe and supervised environments that provided a degree of risk taking? I believe youth would benefit with increased physical activity and alternative interests that fire the release of dopamine and increase excitement.

Consider the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health reports:

Nearly half of young people aged 12-21 are not vigorously active on a regular basis.

Physical activity declines dramatically with age during adolescence.

Female adolescents are much less physically active than male adolescents.

Children are more active than adults, but their activity levels decline as they move toward adolescence, and significant numbers of young people do not participate in recommended levels of physical activity. The 2003 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) provides documentation of the inadequate levels of physical activity among high school–age youth.

“Thirty-seven percent of students did not participate in ≥20 minutes of vigorous physical activity on ≥3 of the previous 7 days, and black, Hispanic, and female students were less likely than their white male counterparts to participate in vigorous physical activity at recommended levels. More than one third (38.2%) of students spent >3 hours per day watching television.”

(J.A. Grunbaum et al., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2003)
Challenges, both physical and mental, ignite significant instinctive interests in young bodies and brains. Not every child can be a sports star, but all can choose from a multitude of other activities that build promising skills and provide helpful character-building opportunities.

Youth need not only intellectual and physical challenges but also outlets for their natural need to take risks. For example, I remember when drag race strips were extremely popular places for motorheads to race and gather. I also remember times when many young people built a strong interest in outdoor activities – hiking, hunting, fishing, rappelling, caving, orienteering – through Scouting.

Today, adults should provide ample experiences for young people to burn some of their racing hormones. If taking drugs and drinking alcohol increases the risk for serious illnesses and death, the adults have the responsibility to structure alternative “natural high” experiences for young people. To expect adolescents to become less curious and less adventurous is folly. They are at the height of their need for exploration, and, realistically, some of this curiosity involves needs to test their boundaries of risk. I did this as a youth. Didn't you push your limits and risk danger too often when you were young?

The drugs of choice today are far too dangerous and addictive to invite experimentation. Youth want to “get high” for reasons that seem very important to them. The novel, the thrilling, the titillating, and the risky present a carnival of sensory experiences irresistible to the young. The key is that intelligently prepared navigation through these new, exciting times can prevent these young adults from relying upon chemical stimulation.

What kind of “natural high” experiences am I suggesting? Ghost hunting, skydiving, skin diving, camping, boating, archery, construction, mapping, exploring, model building … on and on. What fields interest youth? Archeology, technology, history, anthropology, health, medicine, paranormal, languages, geography, film, drama, literature, recording, music … many more.

Let's face it. Our youth do have many varied interests that could be tapped by local citizens willing to spend some extra time with them. We should provide all of them, not just the athletically inclined, with opportunities to engage in exciting activities that give them a safer, “natural high.”

I am certain that the curiosity and cravings for adventure will not suddenly disappear just because someone preaches to them about the value of safe living and the worth of making good choices. We must extend these lessons by offering young people controlled environments that include a degree of risk and allow them to make their own decisions even in their innocent days.

I played junior high and high school football. I saw many injuries (some, in fact, very serious) and I suffered a few myself. Potential injury is always present, a part of the sport, yet athletic associations, medical groups, schools, coaches, officials, and parents do everything they can to prevent any serious injury from happening. Parents are willing to allow their children to engage in this risky activity provided the right protection and supervision is given. Most parents think little about the most serious risks, such as spinal injuries, that may occur to their children while playing football.

What teens are dealing with every day in their schools and in their gathering places holds the potential of much more danger than playing football.

I am so tired of seeing parents set their children loose in dangerous environments without essential information, protection, and guidance. These parents misjudge the potential for serious injury and death in these environments and assume their teenagers can make trustworthy friends and critical decisions in the face of peer pressure, raging hormones, and drug abuse that can easily extinguish their lives.

Teens who avoid all contact with elements of danger are typically labeled “wallflowers” and suffer bullying and rejection from the popular crowd. No wonder so many overdoses, addictions, pregnancies, STDs, suicides, and other tragedies occur.

In my opinion, we do not offer these teens alternatives. I think if “natural highs” can save lives, we should encourage youth to engage in them. I believe in outlets for teen emotions, trials, and tribulations. And, I believe young people need some freedom combined with better education, better structure, and better support. The freedom to make informed decisions through increased physical and mental development will build better decision makers. Structuring some “risky” opportunities for young people will help them cope with the future, and, most importantly, it will also save their lives today.

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