Tag Archives: mental health

Back to Nature on Boreas Pass

I keep thinking about the first paragraph of Moby Dick, the whole of which is on my fall reading list.

A portrait of Herman Melville from 1860.  He has longish hair for the era, and full beard, on the long side, but tidy.  He wears a black suit coat, and his arms are crossed.
Melville in 1860, 9 years after Moby Dick was
published, and 6 years before then Breckenridge
Pass became a stage road.
Unknown author / Public domain

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or the Whale

It is undoubtedly a damp and drizzly November of the soul now for many of us. I find myself restless and cranky, with much to do but little motivation. My ongoing search for work and the self-directed retraining I have undertaken feel grim and relentless.

Fortunately, Mr. Melville’s ideas about the ocean (just in this paragraph, I’m not speaking to the book) are incomplete. It isn’t only the ocean that one can turn to in such conditions. The majesty and grandeur of nature in all its manifestations can be an antidote to the desire to knock everyone’s hat off.

Bearing this in mind, Mom and I took advantage of a break, earlier in the week, in the pall of wildfire smoke hanging over Colorado this late summer and early Fall. Mom is recovering from a bout of non-COVID-related pneumonia. On Monday, I bundled her, her oxygen tanks, and her battery-operated yellow pulse oximeter into the front seat, packed the dog into the back seat, and headed for the high country.

My Mom, an 82 year old woman wearing an oxygen cannulae, looks out the passengar window of my gray SUV.

We were a little early for proper leaf-peeping, but brilliant gold branches gave us a preview of what is to come. We drove up Fall River Road, stopping to investigate the glacial rock deposits, and then headed on up I70 to Silverthorne. Years ago, driving back to the front range from Buena Vista, I had spotted the sign for Boreas Pass. At the time, I didn’t dare take my little red Scion on the rough dirt road. But now I have the vehicle for it, and we aimed for the pass from its northern end, accessed via Breckenridge.

Boreas Pass follows an old railway grade of the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road. It crosses the Continental Divide at 11,482 feet above sea level. There isn’t a lot of air up there, and we had to crank Mom’s oxygen up to its max.

It was worth it, though. The spectacular views of the Tenmile Range, Boreas Mountain, and Bald Mountain were a balm to the soul in these troubled times. There is something both terrible and reassuring in the reality that whatever happens in the coming months, those peaks will stand, pushing into the sky, impervious to our short time frames.

My pointy-eared black dog, with white around her muzzle, looks off to the side, sitting in front of a dramatic view of the Tenmile mountain range from Boreas Pass.  She wears a blue dog backpack.
Dog was not impressed by the scenery, but did think there were lots of interesting smells to check out.

And there is something to consider, too, in the history of the place. I suspect it is likely that it was known to the Ute for centuries, but for white people, it started as a route for prospectors looking for gold to get to the valley of the Blue river around Breckenridge, called Breckenridge Pass. In 1866, they widened it into a wagon road that could accommodate stagecoaches. In 1882, the railroad began laying narrow gauge tracks and renamed the pass Boreas in honor of the North Wind. When they built it, it was the nation’s highest narrow-gauge railroad. They made a little town at the top, of about 150 people, to keep the line clear, and put in lots of snow sheds. The town boasted the highest Post Office in the country, and the only one to straddle the Continental Divide.

The Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad (DSP&PRR, apparently known to locals as Damned Slow Pulling, and Pretty Rough Riding) gave up its narrow gauge right-of-way in 1937, and during World War Two, the government pulled up the track for the steel. In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers created the current road on the railroad grade.

A large wooden water tank, painted orange, is on the right side of the image.  The road (Boreas Pass) comes in from the middle and goes off to the left.  You can see my car on the left, also, and lots of trees.
Baker’s Tank served the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road.

Just think of all the individual, fascinating lives in that tale. Every prospector had a story. Every stagecoach driver, every railroad engineer, every man whose job was to live in that tiny town at 11,482 feet and shovel snow off the tracks had a story — a full, rich life, with at least as many, and probably more, uncertainties and complications as our own. There is something reassuring about that. If they could survive History, surely we can, too.

These are people who lived in an environment that is simply built to a different scale than that of humans. It is a scale we have tried to match throughout civilization’s history, from pyramids to skyscrapers. It is a scale that we cannot match, and likely should not. It is a scale that puts us in context.

The view coming in to South Park from Boreas Pass.
The view coming in to South Park.

On the other side of the pass, going down into South Park, thousands upon thousands of aspen line the road. It will be stunning next week, or the next. It’s stunning now, for that matter.

It’s hard to put your finger on why getting out into that environment that is so much bigger than you, be it the sea or the desert or the mountains or the vast plains, is such a remedy to human mental health woes. It is easy to return to the idea that many humans live in a built environment that doesn’t much resemble our evolutionary habitat. But I live in the woods. There are houses and roads, yes, but still, it isn’t that different from the world where my great-great-grandcestors lived.

Perhaps it is simply that it puts us and our troubles into a larger, much larger, context. Or maybe it is about taking time away from the busyness and complexity of our lives as social animals. During the pandemic, I haven’t had much by way of a social life anyway, but even the twice or more removed interactions of social media and TV demand something of us.

A mountain peak, mostly above tree-line, pushes into a sky with clouds and crepuscular rays on Boreas Pass.  There is a meadow of brown grass in the foreground and pine and fir trees in the midground.
This may be Mt. Silverheels or Little Baldy Mountain, I’m not sure.

The high mountain peaks and the vast single organism that is an aspen grove demand nothing of us, really. They are simply there. If we wish to survive them, and to appreciate them, we must demand things of ourselves. We must demand caution and respect for the power of nature. We must demand reverence and honor for forces so beyond ourselves. And we must demand humility for our place in the vast scheme of things.

If we’re lucky, we come back refreshed when we make this demand of ourselves and we are not so tempted to knock hats off.

How to Worry in a VUCA World

A collage illustrating our VUCA world, with a woman printed with circuit boards, and globe made of portraits, and complex cables.  Volatility, complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity are spelled out in German, and the acronym VUCA overlays in the center.
Apparently it almost translates into German. Mummelgrummel / CC0

I learned a new acronym today from the business world.  VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  

VUCA stands for 2020.  

Nature did not equip humans to live comfortably in a VUCA world. There are sound evolutionary reasons to prefer a stable, placid, dull environment. Even at our most adventurous, we like a calm, constant refuge to return to at the end of the day or the trip.  

And it was already a VUCA world, even before COVID-19 showed up. A statistic I ran across in an August 2019 article tells us that one in three Americans will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. I wonder how much that statistic will change as we all live through this upheaval of everything predictable.  

May you live in interesting times has never been a Chinese curse. Nevertheless, it is apt. Our age will not make the dryest chapter in the history books, but living through it is fraught and exhausting.  

Worry, when it is not dominating our conscious thoughts, is an ever-present background buzz in our minds, like an old fluorescent light that needs a new ballast. It keeps us on edge, unbalance, ungrounded, uncentered. It would be easier to deal with if the current crises were finite, but they’re not. We have no time frame, no point we can look forward to by saying to ourselves it will be over by next month, or next season, or next year.  

A lit up check engine light is shown next to a speedometer.  Worry is like a check engine light in our minds.
Wikiuser100000 / CC BY-SA

So what can we do with all this anxiety?  This article, which prompted me to think more deeply about worry in September 2020, espouses some benefits to worrying. It’s like a check engine light in your mind, giving you a heads-up that trouble awaits on your road. Just as with our car’s warning light, worry should prompt us to take action to mitigate or eliminate that upcoming trouble. It should help us to problem-solve and make plans and preparations.  

Of course, if you are living with your metaphorical dashboard lit up like a holiday display, it’s hard to use worry as an adaptive evolutionary tool. I would assert that you can look at most mental health disorders as too much of a good thing. Anxiety disorders certainly fall into this category. I figure they would be a lot easier to vanquish if irrational preparedness didn’t pay off in such a big way, now and then.  

Where is the line between adaptive worry and disordered anxiety? The above article suggests that worry graphs in a U shape, dipping down into productivity somewhere between too little concern and too much.  

A graph of worry is shown with a U shaped curve and a x axis of not enough worry to too much worry and a y axis of productive to not productive.

There is also, perhaps, a distinction to be made between actionable worry and helpless worry. It is one thing to be apprehensive enough to wear a mask, shop less frequently, and take other reasonable precautions. It’s something else to agonize over the course of the pandemic; something you don’t control in the slightest.  

If an anxiety disorder or even just excessive worry is simply the overstimulation of an adaptive trait, the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate that trait. There are so many articles on getting rid of worry, but it’s really about managing anxiety, not abolishing it.  

In social services, sometimes, a client may not be ready to change harmful behavior altogether. Many practitioners use a harm reduction model. Someone using IV drugs might not be prepared to stop, yet, but they can use clean needles. An alcoholic might not be able to stop drinking immediately, but they can give up their keys.  

Mitigating a trait one doesn’t want to eliminate might be seen as a different kind of harm reduction.  

An icon is shown of a worried stick-figure face with hair sticking up to the right.  A VUCA face, if you will.
worry by Alex Muravev from the Noun Project

Looked at that way, some strategies to “get rid of” worry in all those articles have some good tips. You can assign your worry a time of day, and deny it space in your head until its appointed hour. You can address procrastination and make a point of letting yourself feel the emotions worry may be suppressing. You can journal, talk about it with friends or a therapist, and address negative thought patterns.  

But my favorite ideas come from the article about the benefits of worry and a document on wellbeing developed by Edward Watkins at the University of Exeter.  

Give worry a job, as Kate Sweeny, a worry researcher featured in the article, puts it. Figure out what you can literally do to address the situation or potential situation. There is almost always some preparedness or precautionary action you can take.  

Worried about the election? Volunteer to phone bank or make social media posts, and plan out your voting strategy in advance. Concerned about the virus? Make sure to take all sensible precautions and be prepared. Go ahead and stock up for the next lockdown, but spread your purchases out over a more extended period, so you aren’t running stores out of crucial supplies. Freaked out by climate change? Make a point of making sustainable purchases.  

And if you don’t have time or money to do the things that feel most effective, do whatever you can to not make it worse.  

Just doing something proactive makes us feel a lot better. That was the deal with the national shortage of toilet paper before and during the lockdown. People felt helpless, and stocking up on TP was at least actionable.  

Even making a plan helps in and of itself. Setting up a series of if/then triggers for yourself can help reestablish (or just establish) a sense of control. If school goes all remote again, then I will… If I get sick, then I will take care of myself and others by… If there is another fire in my area, then I will… 

These things allow us to take helpless worry and turn it into actionable worry.   

Branches of a tree are shown with paper leaves attached by zip ties.  Things that people are grateful for are written on the leaves.  The nearest leaf is legible and says "my cat and my dog."
A gratitude tree clients made with me in my old job.

I also liked the suggestion to find something that is going right. It goes along with counting your blessings or the evidence-backed practice of listing the things you are grateful for every day. And you can project it into the future by figuring out some things you can realistically look forward to.  

There are other ways to use time, too. Looking back over your life, it is worth identifying the crisis points and figuring out how you got through them. Chances are, what worked before will work again, even if you must adapt it to different circumstances. And imagining how you will look back on today’s events ten years from now can put things into a different, calmer perspective.  

When it is all too much, worry researcher Kate Sweeny identifies at least three anti-worry states. Mindfulness, flow, and awe are incompatible with worrying, and beneficial in and of themselves. She suggests that mindfulness might work better for finite situations. Flow, when you can get lost in a project for hours at a stretch, and lose track of time passing, might be the best (and most productive) distraction in a situation where there is no end in sight.    

Awe might be why going for a walk or bike ride out in nature works so well for me. It is hard to focus on worry when the aspen leaves are fluttering just so, when the sky is brilliant blue and adorned with puffy clouds, when the wind blows through a field of grass, riffling in choreographed waves.  

An icon from the Noun Project representing adapt.  Three lines run vertically in the center.  Two arrows push in on the lines horizontally from either side.  The two lines on the outside bend inward to accommodate the pressure of the arrows.  Adaptability is key in a VUCA world.
adapt by Ralf Schmitzer from the Noun Project

And of course, to an extent, acceptance should be a strategy. We live in VUCA times, and will be living in them for the foreseeable future. We should be worried. We should even be worried in helpless, unproductive ways. Given the times, it is probably a sign of mental health, rather than mental illness. I’d say we all have an anxiety disorder now, but it is too appropriate to be called a disorder.  

Perhaps again in our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, as in evolutionary times. Adaptability, not serenity, may be the end goal of mental health.