Sunday, December 4, 2011

Getting away from it all

What’s the first thought that pops into your head? If it’s the opening bars of Mozart’s last symphony, or a great idea for a new flavour of ice-cream you can stop reading now.

If on the other hand you thought “Did I remember to switch the gas off this morning?” Or, “I wonder when the car’s due for a service?” or something along those lines then, like me, you’re a worrier – read on.

Don’t worry (or at least try not to), you’re not alone. Most people’s heads are filled with a constant background noise of minor concerns, bills to be paid, quibbles to be reconciled, and jobs to be done.

It’s just part of being human – we’re problem-solvers by nature, so it’s only natural that we tend to focus on our problems. But occasionally we need to press the pause button on it all, just for a moment, for the sake of our sanity.

For me that’s fairly simple: take a powder snow filled backcountry chute or a few kilometres of mountain bike single trail add a few friends and it’s done – problems ‘solved’ if only for a moment.

But what is actually being done when you press that metaphorical pause button? Clinical Psychologist Lisa Cohen says two mechanisms are affected; the psychological and the physical.

Psychologically it’s simple; you’re pretty much overloading your brain with sensory input. When you’re trying to balance on a pair of skis, navigate and estimate the snow stability – plus smile for the photo at the same time… you’re brain simply doesn’t have the capacity to worry.

Physically it’s a little more complex. When you put your body under the right sort of stress, it releases a bevy of unpronounceable chemicals like andrinocoticortropic hormone, serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, melanocyte-stimulating hormone. The exact workings of these chemicals are a bit of a mystery even for experts like Cohen, but the overall effects are well known – heightened awareness, alleviated pain and euphoria – a natural high.

She says the combination of a clear mind and a euphoric mood often triggers a third, profoundly spiritual component whereby escapists either literally or metaphorically see God in the wilderness. Of course double-black-diamond chutes and single-track bike trails aren’t the only way to get away from it all - drugs and alcohol will do the trick too.

Cohen, who a specialist in the treatment of addiction says whether you choose to get your escape on the summit of a mountain or the point of a needle, comes down to some fairly subtle but very significant personality differences.

“[Outdoor escapists] are usually risk takers, but they’re able to channel their like for risk into healthy activities. Sometimes it may be obsessive, and they may get ‘addicted’ to it, but it’s a lot healthier than substances… and it doesn’t have the legal ramifications.

“[People who use drugs for escape] don’t have a lot of patience, or tolerance for their emotions or themselves or people,” she says. “That’s why they’re more likely to indulge in substances – it’s just easier – it doesn’t take a whole lot of planning.

“Some people will do it consciously. They’ll realize that they’re risk takers and they want to channel their risk-taking in a more positive healthy area that challenges them. They’re also more likely to have some belief in their ability to succeed in those challenges.

“Whereas people who tend to engage in compulsive use of substances tend not to have such a great belief in themselves, or if they do it’s more from a narcissistic point of view – it’s not reality based.”

However, in matters of the mind – particularly when mind-bending substances are involved – things are not always straightforward.

There are notable cases of high-functioning individuals like Keith Richards and Hunter S Thomspson, who despite elephant-killing intakes of drugs and alcohol over the years (or possibly because of it) have managed to produce some of the twentieth century’s best music and literature. Likewise there are countless cases, especially in adolescents, where relatively low doses can have life-wrecking impacts.

Cohen explains “Generally it is a problem if whatever the person is doing is affecting their family and relationships, their job and their health. If it’s not any of those – even though they may be using high levels of substances – then how do you identify it’s a problem… it certainly won’t be for the person [concerned].”

Intriguingly, if you apply that litmus test to the outdoor community you do see the occasional case of ‘endorphin abuse’, with some possible junkies cropping up much earlier than you’d expect.

Most people know George Leigh Mallory, as the British mountaineer last seen in 1924, 350m below the summit of Everest, in the words of expedition mate Noel Odell “going strongly for the top”.

He perished in the attempt sparking an ongoing debate whether he made it to the summit, beating Hillary and Norgay by almost thirty years (although the fact he didn’t survive makes it a moot point).

What people don’t realise is that, before heading to Everest, Mallory served in WWI as a member of the Royal Garrison Artillery through some of the war’s most intense fighting, including the Battle of the Somme – a campaign that cost the two sides over a million lives.

On the front he would have been exposed to the full gamut of wartime horrors; gas attacks, dead bodies, severely wounded colleagues – and as an artilleryman, the constant nagging doubt that perhaps one of his shells had gone astray and landed on his own men.

He returned in 1921, almost certainly suffering from what we’d now diagnose as post traumatic stress disorder, quit his job as a school teacher and headed for Everest.

When asked why he needed to climb the world’s highest peak, Mallory famously quipped “Because it’s there”. I wonder if a more accurate answer, given the memories he would have been carrying with him, might have been “Because when I’m there, everything else isn’t.”

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