What Is an Adrenaline Rush? What Causes It?

Medically Reviewed By Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH

At times, people may experience fear or excitement that increases their heart rate, causes hairs on their body to stand, or makes their hands tremble. These experiences can result from an adrenaline rush. In the face of a dangerous, threatening, stressful, or even exciting situations, the body releases a hormone called adrenaline to help prepare for any emergency. This is known as an adrenaline rush, and is one of the vital ways the body defends itself. 

An adrenaline rush may feel good for some people as their body floods with adrenaline, energy, and the serotonin hormone, which is dubbed a “feel-good hormone.” However, a persistent adrenaline rush can cause damage to blood vessels and may increase the risk Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source of anxiety, headache, and cardiovascular issues. 

This article will discuss all you need to know about the adrenaline hormone, adrenaline rush, its causes, and symptoms. It will also discuss complications of high adrenaline, how to manage adrenaline rush, and when to contact a doctor.

What is an adrenaline rush? 

a man is walking along a treetop rope course
Arnaiz/Stocksy United

An adrenaline rush is when the brain triggers the quick release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. Adrenaline release can follow stressful, dangerous, or life threatening situations. Sometimes it releases when a person is overexcited.

The surge of adrenaline through the bloodstream stimulates the sympathetic nervous system preparing it to help the body fight or flee.

What is adrenaline? 

Adrenaline is a hormone the adrenal gland produces, which is a gland that sits above the kidneys. Adrenaline is also known as epinephrine. It is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that prepares the sympathetic nervous system and the body to respond to a stressor or a threat.

When the sympathetic nervous system activates, this causes:

  • increased heart rate, allowing the heart to pump more blood
  • pupil dilation, allowing more light to enter, improving vision
  • sweat gland secretion of more sweat 
  • increased blood sugar levels to boost energy and physical performance
  • slower digestive processes, since you do not use them during an emergency

Adrenaline often works alongside noradrenaline, another hormone produced in the adrenal gland’s medulla, to prepare the body for fight or flight.

People may also use Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source epinephrine to treat medical emergencies, such as anaphylaxis.

How long might an adrenaline rush last?

When the body experiences stress or faces a threat, the brain can trigger the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands within a few seconds. 

The surge of adrenaline hormones activates the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers a chain of reactions in the body. You may start to feel these effects within 2–3 minutes. The duration also varies from person to person. Once the possible threat disappears, its effects can last for up to an hour before it stops. 

What can cause an adrenaline rush?

Life threatening situations can cause an adrenaline rush. When the brain perceives you are in danger, the nervous system relays Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source the information to the amygdala. The amygdala is a small part of the brain that processes emotions.

The amygdala then sends information to the hypothalamus, which is the command center of the brain. The hypothalamus further signals the adrenal medulla to release the adrenaline hormone right away.

Anxiety and stress can also cause an adrenaline rush. When you experience stress, the brain assumes you are in danger and triggers the release of the adrenaline hormone and cortisol. This explains why these hormones are stress hormones. 

Aside from stress and life threatening situations, adrenal gland tumors, certain activities, or unexpected, exciting news can cause you to get an adrenaline rush. Sometimes, memories or thoughts of past trauma in people with post-traumatic stress disorder can cause an adrenaline rush. 

Learn about autonomic dysfunction, which may dysregulate adrenaline production.

What specific activities can trigger an adrenaline rush?

Certain activities can also trigger a surge of adrenaline through your bloodstream. Examples of activities that can trigger an adrenaline rush include:

  • plane skydiving
  • bungee jumping
  • rollercoaster riding
  • white water rafting
  • cliff jumping
  • horror movie viewing
  • extreme kayaking
  • speed flying
  • wave surfing

What are the symptoms of an adrenaline rush? 

When you have an adrenaline rush, you may feel different things at a time, all of which are meant to keep you focused and ready to take immediate action. You will notice a boost of energy with heightened senses. However, you may not feel any pain, or you may experience too much distraction to feel pain.

You may experience Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source symptoms such as:

  • sweaty areas
  • increased heart rate
  • tremor or shaking
  • rapid breathing
  • dilated pupils
  • increased strength
  • sensation of jitters
  • shortness of breath 
  • nausea
  • increased mental focus
  • reduced ability to feel pain

Learn more about adrenal gland symptoms.

Can an adrenaline rush feel good? 

Some people enjoy the rush of adrenaline through their bloodstream. Such people seek thrilling experiences and enjoy the sensations that come with being scared. 

Some participants of a 2018 study on why mountain bikers love riding reported their pleasure in high-risk engagement, while some reported mountain biking as a coping strategy. 

Some refer to people who seek thrill and enjoy intense or high-risk activities that cause an adrenaline rush as “adrenaline junkies.” They often look out for extreme activities or sports to trigger the release of adrenaline through their blood deliberately. 

Why might an adrenaline rush happen at night?

An adrenaline rush often helps when dealing with an emergency situation that requires you to fight or flee, such as jumping out of a vehicle’s way. However, an adrenaline rush can become an issue when your body releases adrenaline too often in response to stress.

You may feel this more at night when your daily activities end and you lie in bed. In the quiet of the night, your mind may flash through the activities of the day. You may start thinking about different issues in your life or worry about what will happen the next day.  

Even when you are not in danger, the worry and thoughts may stress you, which your brain perceives as danger. It releases adrenaline, which gives you an extra energy boost you do not need at that point. The effect is that you feel alert when you need sleep. You can also experience irritability and restlessness, making it difficult to sleep. 

Other things that can cause an adrenaline rush at night include a nightmare, bright light, loud music, or a scary incident at night.

Learn more about why stress wakes you up at night.

How can I manage adrenaline rushes?

Experiencing an adrenaline rush occasionally is common. However, it may become a problem when it occurs too frequently. There are some things you can do to help manage the adrenaline rush.

You will need to do some activities to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which opposes the actions of the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system allows your body to rest and rejuvenate itself.

Things you can do to control adrenaline rushes include:

  • meditating
  • exercising
  • doing yoga
  • performing deep breathing exercises
  • eating nutritious meals
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • making your bedroom fit for sleep by turning off the TV and bright lights before bedtime
  • writing out your thoughts or feelings or talking with someone about them so that you don’t stress yourself by dwelling on those thoughts
  • taking a walk to get some fresh air

Learn more tips to calm anxiety.

When to contact a doctor about adrenaline rushes

Adrenaline rushes always have underlying causes that trigger them. They could be fear, stress, anxiety, a bad dream, or a tumor in the adrenal gland. An occasional surge of adrenaline is often not a problem, but if it happens frequently, it may be a cause for concern. 

If you experience adrenaline rushes frequently, it is advisable to contact your doctor. Your doctor will ask you questions and, if necessary, run some tests to find out the underlying cause. 

If the cause has to do with stress and anxiety, they can refer you to a therapist that can help you cope with your stressors. They can also prescribe you medications and recommend lifestyle strategies to help keep your body in a relaxed state.

What are the complications of high adrenaline in the body over time?

The release of adrenaline disrupts different body systems, causing some of them to get hyperactive and others to reduce activity. This disruption can help you cope with a current emergency condition. But the constant release of adrenaline in high amounts can have an adverse effect on your health.

High adrenaline in the blood over time can increase the risk of health problems, such as:

Summary

An adrenaline rush happens when the brain triggers the quick release of the adrenaline hormone in response to a threat or stressful situation. Almost everyone experiences an adrenaline rush at one point or another in their life. 

The surge of adrenaline hormone prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response. While this is vital for body defense, a frequent adrenaline rush would lead to a high level of adrenaline in the blood. Over time, this could lead to health complications. 

If you experience adrenaline rushes often such that it affects you or prevents you from getting restful sleep, it is a good idea to contact a doctor who can help diagnose the cause and give you tips to manage it. 

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Medical Reviewer: Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 25
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