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Skydiving Never Gets Less Stressful

Update Date: May 17, 2013 11:37 AM EDT

Everything gets duller and easier with time and practice, right? Not skydiving, according to researchers.

A new study reveals experienced and inexperienced skydivers show the same levels of physical stress before every jump.

Previous laboratory studies suggested that when people are repeatedly exposed to a stressful situation, like public speaking or solving mental arithmetic problems in front of an audience, they become desensitized and their physiological responses or levels of arousal and stress hormones decrease as they become accustomed to the activity.  These findings suggest that the more someone is exposed to a stressor, the less they respond to it.

Lead researcher Dr. Michael Smith of Northumbria University wanted to see if the same desensitizing effect would occur in a real world setting.

The study included 24 healthy male skydivers. Of all the participants, 11 were novices carrying out their first solo skydive and 13 were experienced skydivers who had completed at least 30 jumps. Participants were asked to self-report levels of anxiety and give saliva samples for researchers to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol before and after the jump.

The study revealed that novice skydivers reported feeling more anxious before the jump than experienced skydivers.  However, cortisol samples showed that both groups responded with the same levels of biological stress reactions to the jump.

The latest study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior is the first to show that skydiving increases levels of cortisol, which does not reduce even with repeated exposure to jumping.  The findings also show that self-reports of anxiety in experienced skydivers did not match up with their actual biological stress reactions.  While they may not have perceived themselves as being as anxious as the novice skydivers, their bodies showed the same stress reactions as a first time jumper.

"This study is significant because it reveals how people respond to stressors in the real world. Very few studies have been able to examine people's true reactions as it would be unethical to deliberately and repeatedly expose volunteers to severe stress in a laboratory situation. Therefore, the most stressful laboratory situations have tended to be exercises in public speaking or performing difficult tasks in front of an audience," Smith said in a statement.

"We used skydiving as our 'real world' stressor because it is an activity that does pose a genuine risk to safety and survival. Although repeated exposure to a stressor dampens the stress response in the laboratory, our findings show that this is not the case for real life stressors which pose a threat to survival," he added.

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