FEATURE: On the Edge
How healthy is Jackson Hole’s addiction to the ‘extreme’?
JACKSON HOLE, WY – As the boardwalk creaks under the strain of footsteps, it appears to be a normal Saturday night in Jackson. Below the neon sign of the Cowboy Bar, a motley crew of professional skiers, venture capitalists and drunken millennials discuss the summer crowds and compare their outdoor tick lists. By the antler arches, a group of cyclists turn on their headlamps and strap down their gear. They are setting out to complete a round trip mission to the top of the Grand Teton under a starry sky. Ten feet to their left two shadowy figures stagger towards the safety of the buckrail fence as their world begins to spin from too many whisky shots.
The average American is in bed at two in the morning, not sipping on her fifth drink or waking up to start an alpine climb. Many Jackson residents, on the other hand, have the tolerance of sailors and the lung capacity of Nepalese sherpas. While the average American visits national parks maybe once a year, locals here dedicate their lives to exploring them. And in Jackson, taking risks and spending time on the edge are the makings of a Thursday afternoon.
So what makes Jackson Hole residents different than the rest of Americans? Do the jagged peaks and extreme landscapes create an environment of abnormality? Or is a certain personality drawn to a rugged mountain lifestyle? To help explore why people here gravitate towards extremes it’s worth noting two ways that locals stand out: extreme exercise and high alcohol and drug consumption.
To put it in perspective, the average American enjoys just 17 minutes of physical exercise per day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For many Jackson locals, however, anything less than an hour of daily physical exertion doesn’t cut it. Not to mention that the valley is home to world-class skiers and snowboarders, multiple Olympians, and countless mountaineers and ultra-runners. But addictions here span beyond the outdoors. Matt Stech, of the Prevention Management Organization, notes that 87 percent of all arrests in Teton County are alcohol related. Stech points to a “play hard, party harder culture,” where public intoxication arrests are high and 50 percent of total arrests are DUIs.
Being “extreme” in Jackson Hole can have multiple meanings and community members seem to take pride in going hard in the mountains and at the bars. Both of these behaviors seemingly help people to cope with the stressors of living in Jackson Hole, such as working long hours and multiple jobs to afford the area’s high cost of living. While some encourage a “more is better” mantra, folks sometimes conveniently forget the potential consequences of adhering to this ethos.
While exercise is perceived as the healthier alternative, both substance use and adventure sports can be taken too far. Either behavior can cross a boundary into unhealthy use when it becomes a person’s only outlet for stress reduction and a psychological “need” is formed. Examples of overuse include continuing to drink heavily after getting a DUI or running on a torn ACL against doctor’s orders. People on the outside judge those with substance abuse issues for not having the willpower to stop. However, folks applaud the same behavior in athletes who center their whole identity on their sport and risk injury and death to push the limits. Sure, there is a divergence in how both groups are viewed, but understanding the contributing factors that make them similar may also forge people’s understanding of what constitutes too much of a good thing.
Pathways to pleasure
According to David Linden, a neuroscientist from John Hopkins University, all activities and substances that create pleasure run through the same circuits in the brain. This means your mind doesn’t discriminate between running down the Hagen trail, taking a sip of beer, skiing in powder, or popping an Adderall. A person’s brain just knows it feels good and will then remind you to repeat the behavior. When kept in balance, pleasure pathways keep people alive by allowing them to approach opportunities, but when these pathways are overstimulated it can cause people to engage in destructive behavior.
As a species, humans have now created substances and activities that “hyper-stimulate” the brain’s pleasure sense and surpass what has been found naturally in our evolutionary past. Take heroin, for instance. It synthetically attaches to natural opiate receptors in the brain. Our biological system then believes it has found a wonderful new mechanism for pain relief because it is unable to distinguish between a substance that is made in a lab versus what can be found in nature. This is one of the reasons that between 2004 and 2013 the U.S. saw a more than 100-percent increase in heroin use for people between the ages of 18 and 25, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Skiing then, can be thought of in the same category as mind altering substances, because racing at breakneck speeds down a ski slope is not something that the human brain was designed to handle. Therefore, excess dopamine is released to help us focus and survive this unusual and threatening situation. This overstimulation of the brain’s pleasure center is, physiologically speaking, no different than using cocaine, which also spikes dopamine production. Andy Glossner is an avid backcountry skier who survived an avalanche in 2007. “There are two kinds of white powder addictions in this world and I have one of them,” he said.
Linden explains that people’s pleasure sense has developed over millions of years to ensure survival, not for enjoyment or pleasure. Therefore, a high dose of dopamine, either from alcohol, which can raise dopamine levels 40 to 360 percent, or from riding a bike at high speeds, can signal the brain that these activities are important to survival and should be repeated.
In Jackson, folks enjoy the natural release of dopamine when they exercise, and get a synthetic boost when they partake in alcohol or drugs. Dopamine, often characterized as a “feel good” chemical, keeps us on high alert, according to Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Evolution seems to have tailored the release of dopamine to feel “pleasurable” as a survival strategy to maintain focus in intense situations or to keep homosapiens motivated to search for valuable resources. This plays out in Jackson’s culture through a desire to take risks and try new things, either when people push their limits in the mountains or reach for a drug of choice. However, through a process called “hedonic adaptation,” both athletes and people with substance abuse issues develop a tolerance to the initial high. That’s when the brains develops a “been there, done that” attitude. People are then compelled to add new twists and increased intensity to recreate that initial charge.
Steve Gilmore has worked in the substance abuse field for more than 15 years and has a master’s degree in exercise science. He explains that addiction can be defined as “depending on an activity or substance to give you joy or peace.” When determining if your use of a substance or activity is at an unhealthy level, Gilmore suggests stopping the behavior and asking yourself the question, “Am I still OK, do I still feel like me?” Drugs and alcohol are labeled as “mood altering” substances, but exercise and adventure sports fill the same role of helping folks to self-medicate by changing their biology.
Gilmore noted how exercise provides the same euphoric feeling of drugs. “Climbing and cocaine have the same biochemistry, both are hijacking brain receptors that are meant to heighten our senses in periodic situations,” he said. However, these are not circuits that should be firing all the time. But in Jackson and other mountain communities, adrenaline junkies and substance abusers are often pressing the gas pedal and avoiding the brake to remain “high” at all times.
Take for instance, Nick*, who is currently in a local substance abuse treatment program after he was arrested for heroin and cocaine use. He says it’s a constant grind in Jackson. “People are smoking on their way up the gondola to relax, jacking up their adrenaline levels while skiing, then leveling off with some alcohol at night. Then getting up the next day and doing it all over again.”
Overstimulating the brain’s pleasure centers with either mood altering substances or adventure sports gives people the unrealistic expectation that it’s possible to be on cloud nine at all times, but eventually there’s a crash. For Nick, getting in trouble with the law brought his fast-paced lifestyle to a halt, but he now enjoys having balance in his life. He says he has become more dynamic, spreading out his interests to include music production, spirituality, and starting his own business.
Person makes the place
Research indicates many individuals who partake in adventure sports and abuse substances have pleasure systems that take in dopamine at a higher rate than the average person, according to psychologist Marvin Zuckerman. It seems both groups may have an abundance of the D4 dopamine receptor in their brains allowing for a “higher high” than the rest of the population. This evidence supports the claim that people can be “born risk takers” as genetics seems to account for 60 percent of sensation seeking behavior. So it is possible that individuals with an overactive dopamine system were already predisposed to love “super-stimuli” like adrenaline sports and mood altering substances, and their biology gets magnified in these extreme settings.
Gilmore, who has lived in the valley for more than 30 years, noted “Those of us who learned to love the rush from a young age will then seek it out and Jackson is like no other place in the world to do that.” The downfall, of course, is when people place themselves in dangerous situations as they seek that next higher experience.
Researchers at the Dana Foundation also point to evidence that people who are high sensation seekers interact differently with the world than people who are risk averse. It seems that looking for new highs has evolutionary advantages that allowed our “novelty seeking” ancestors to find food sources and overcome fear to explore to new areas.
“Homo-sapiens were the only group of early hominids to emigrate over the entire world, which entailed great risk,” Zuckerman explained. “So I think humans as a species are characterized by novelty- and intensity-seeking.”
However, there is a normal bell curve for this adaptive trait and people at the high end of this curve are at a disadvantage because they might risk too much and die before they spread their genes. Therefore, if being born with an “overactive approach system” is possible then some Jackson residents are at the far end of this novelty-seeking spectrum.
“We’re all trying to seek something and some people just end up running into alcohol or drugs first and others find the outdoor world,” said Lewis Smirl, a mental health counselor and avid mountaineer.
An overactive reward and approach system may not be the only reason Jackson residents lean towards risk more often than the average American. A further contributing factor may be that their brains do not respond to fear the same way most people’s brains respond.
Kerry Ressler, a psychiatrist from Emory University, points out that the amygdala, which is the brain region most associated with fear processing, is the same region involved in addictive behaviors. So high sensation seekers and substance abusers may “have a lower set-point for fear extinction,” she explained. “This means they can more easily turn off, or at least tamp down, the physiological response to a fearful event.”
Research on extreme athletes, such as Alex Honnold who climbs without a rope thousands of feet above the ground, explains that some sensation seekers’ threat response circuitry is sometimes a little haywire. J.B. Mackinnon reports that when researches put Honnold in an MRI machine and had him look at anxiety provoking images, nowhere in the fear center of Honnold’s brain could neuroscientists spot activity. Mackinnon says athletes such as Honnold react with lower anxiety and a blunted response to potentially dangerous activities.
Andrew Shorts, who skied competitively on the Junior Free-ride World Tour and also struggled with substance abuse as a teenager, says he experienced a similar response to fear inducing activities as he did to taking drugs. “I didn’t go looking for death, but I wasn’t afraid of it either,” he said. “The high didn’t appeal to me as much as doing something lethal did. Unfortunately, at that point I was more focused on being hardcore.” Growing up in Jackson Hole, Shorts said his identity was heavily shaped by ski and drug culture. He spent a large portion of his teenage years attempting to live up to the persona of a being from Jackson Hole. “Going big is Jackson’s form of currency, it’s how you become credible here,” Shorts said. “You can either play the party card or the ski card with some people playing both.” He spent time in group homes and jail before deciding at the age of 18 that he had enough. Now 20 years old, Shorts has been sober for two years and is spearheading a program that gives at-risk youth valuable info on substance abuse and connects them with area mentors.
Place makes the person
Maybe it’s possible there is just something in the air in Jackson that makes its residents want to ski off 30-foot cliffs or pound that seventh shot of Jack Daniels. In fact, the air at 6,000 feet may be a contributing factor to people’s propensity towards the extreme. Perry Renshaw, a biophysics P.h.D. from the University of Utah, explains that living at higher elevations tampers with brain chemistry, leading to a drop in serotonin and a rise in dopamine, through a process called “hypobaric hypoxia.”
This means that as oxygen density decreases, it can cause brain chemicals to become unbalanced. Renshaw estimates that being in the mountains can raise a person’s average dopamine levels up to 20 percent. A lack of serotonin, which is a mood stabilizing chemical, might also illuminate why mountain towns have so many substance abuse issues. ”Serotonin deficiency can exacerbate symptoms of pre-existing anxiety and depression,” Renshaw said.
Members of Jackson’s community may then experience exaggerated feelings of joy on the ski hill during the day, but an inability to stabilize their mood at night pushing some to level out with alcohol or drugs. In addition, Jackson’s culture seems to reward extremes, and the community embraces its identity as a place that pushes limits. However, when people live up to that image and the darker side of “being extreme” appears through addiction issues and injury in the backcountry, judgment and shaming can occur.
One valley local, John*, incurred multiple ski injuries in his teenage years which led him to take pain killers in order to keep doing what he loved. He didn’t want to miss out on the camaraderie of being in the mountains with his friends and was hooked on the escape that skiing provided.
“To me, skiing feels like dancing. Time seems to stop and all my problems seem to disappear,” he said. After his medications ran out, however, he still wanted the euphoric feeling that opiates provided, so John turned to black tar heroin as a substitute due to its low cost and accessibility. While powder turns were still on his mind, they couldn’t deliver the same high. He says he started out in control of his use, but heroin quickly turned into an all-consuming habit and he became lost.
“It was depressing getting high knowing there was all this stuff I used to love to do and the only thing I cared about was getting high,” he said. “I hated what I was doing, I hated what I had become.” After periods of sobriety, John is now six months sober from opiates and will return to the ski hill this winter.
When people experience stress, alcohol and drugs appear a common coping method. Athletics can be a pathway out of addiction and a replacement high that fills the gap when alcohol or drugs are gone. But even with “extreme” sports, mental health experts say it’s important to find a balance and not fall into a similarly destructive pattern with physical pursuits.
“It used to be much easier to roll over and grab my bag of weed, rather than motivating to get out the door and sit in the cold tram line for powder,” Shorts noted. However, now that he is clean and getting back in shape for skiing his perspective has changed. “Being successful on a day-to-day basis is my new organic high. I used to love smoking weed but it was temporary and artificial, now I just like the sober alternative better.”
When John was using and addicted to opiates he remembered, “I felt lost and everyday I would think ‘just a few more times.’ I kept trying to get back to being me.” It took several tries before he gained full sobriety, but today he relishes in running up Snow King as fast as he can and doing yoga at the top. “It feels better than using heroin,” he said.
In many ways, Jackson Hole is the best the world has to offer—magnificent landscapes, passionate people, and a mental mindset among many to always go further, and often times bigger. This ethos injects pride into its community members, but it also means societal norms are different here than in other places. For some, simply recognizing that these norms are not necessarily normal, or healthy, can be of great benefit. Making sure the coping skills one chooses are sustainable in the long term is paramount.
“It’s a seductive idea to believe you can always be on the move,” Shorts said, “but skiing and drinking six or seven days of the week is exhausting and completely unmanageable.” PJH
*Name has been changed.
Mind strength in the mountains and on the streets
By Kelsey Dayton
Ryan Burke was on day six of a seven-day traverse of the Teton Range when he hit a mental wall. He was hiking off-trail through head-high bushes on loose dirt and rock on his way to Rimrock Lake. It was a journey where he planned to summit 50 Teton peaks, cover 102 miles and climb 112,000-feet of elevation in the process.
As Burke bushwhacked his way toward the lake he started his mental mantra.
“One is ‘I’ve been here before, I can do it again,’” Burke said. “That keeps me moving. The other question I ask is ‘Can I get through the next 10 feet?”
It’s similar to what Burke teaches his clients at Curran-Seeley where he is an addiction specialist. With addiction it’s about getting through the next day and reminding one’s self you have gotten through similar days before and have the strength to do it again, he said.
These similarities of what gets him through the mountains and what helps addicts stay clean, are why Burke started the Mind Strength Project, a program that physically and mentally trains athletes and addicts side-by-side.
The program, which he piloted this summer, brings together world-class athletes with substance abuse addicts.
“We use these Rocky-type workouts, with geeky neuroscience and some Jedi mind tricks of mindfulness,” he said.
The group performs high-intensity exercises to elevate heart rates. Then participants practice cognitive skills, learn mindfulness and coping mechanisms and how to use them in high-stress situations. The goal is to prepare people for stressors, whether it’s a dangerous situation in the mountains for an athlete, or an addiction-triggering situation for an addict.
“Both people in the mountains and those coping with addictions have these moments of risk,” Burke said.
Burke knows the power of mental strength in the mountains from his own personal experiences. He moved to Jackson from Maine in 2004 and wasn’t a climber or mountaineer—not yet. He started exploring the mountains, but it wasn’t until 2010 when he met Jarad Spackman, who would become his friend and mentor, that Burke started embarking on epic adventures that tested his physical stamina and mental endurance.
“I did some 30- and 36-hour missions and you go into that and your body wants to stop and everything in your brain wants you to pull over,” he said. “It becomes kind of meditative and you just have to focus on the next step in front of you.”
Burke practices meditation and mindfulness. He attributes his success in completing long endurance events to his mental strength. It also allows him to complete what some might see as abnormal or extreme physical challenges without losing balance in his life.
Yet many athletes didn’t understand how to train mental toughness. “As athletes, we spend so much time training our body and not enough time training the mind,” he said.
The skills he teaches are applicable for all high-stress situations and everyone in the program is equal. It is not a mentor-mentee relationship. Both groups learn from each other, Burke said. “Everyone is collaborating to figure out how to stay alive, whether it’s in the mountains or in the streets.”