Opinion: Risk-taking at Lake Tahoe, and the culture of inner destitution
This is the first in a two-part series of opinion columns from Truckee psychologist Kimball C. Pier, in response to the Dec. 14 “Why the Huck?” presentation in Tahoe City, focusing on the idea that more adrenaline and high levels of risk are not necessarily motivated from a healthy place. Look to SierraSun.com later this week for Part Two.
What are the consequences of living in a competitive culture where we have made “bigger, better, louder and faster,” synonymous with success and heroism?
The outcomes are showing up in ways we’d rather not attribute to those treasured values and behaviors. We’d prefer not to believe that the culprits for increased depression, panic attacks, anxiety, increased teen suicide rates, and a host of chronic physical ailments are the frenetic pace we keep.
Insidious predators of such disease include our children’s addiction to video games; violence on television; cellphones and texting; and our need to pack schedules so full that we have no down time.
We consume huge amounts of caffeine to offset the effects of sleep deprivation, and our children are now following suit. Children and teens are mashed under the wheels of an imbalanced educational system that has them working 15-hour days including homework, with no respite on weekends or vacations.
As a culture, we function in chronic sub-acute adrenal exhaustion, chronically over-stimulated and thinking that because we’re exhausted, disenchanted and unable to feel contentment, the antidote is in adding more stimulation in the form of venti lattes, bigger rushes, louder music, or more excitement in any form.
Why the Huck?
On Dec. 14, I asked my 28-year-old son James to attend “Why the Huck?” — a presentation given by the Go Bigger Coalition at the Tahoe Art Haus — on the psychosocial elements of risk-taking, intended to address parents’ concerns about their children following the examples of people who engage in sports where the risk of serious injury or death is high.
James has hucked himself right into the emergency room on numerous occasions over the years and is now recovering from a badly broken leg suffered in a hucking accident involving a skateboard.
Dr. Robb Gaffney’s well-organized presentation on the risks and rewards of risk-taking in sports illustrated the biological and sociological processes that occur when risk-taking, particularly in big mountain skiing and activities like base-jumping.
He explained how the neurochemical dopamine serves to reinforce behavior that makes us feel joy when we make the leap and we land it, or when the outcomes of our whatever risk-taking behaviors are better than we expected or hoped for.
The resulting dopamine surge is the fuel for the next level of risk-taking, whether it’s leaping, flying, or twirling or even obsessive Facebooking, texting and Instagramming.
In my work as a therapist, I see the consequences of how our culture has cranked up the volume in pretty much all aspects of life. It’s not just the veneration of high risk sports activities such as BASE jumping, skiing and riding the big and steep in Alaska or airing off Eagle’s Nest in Squaw Valley; it’s everywhere in all our behavior.
If it isn’t the fixation on video games — an addiction that is just now being recognized as an addiction that causes similar neurochemical responses, similar to methamphetamine — it’s the constant stimulation available in interacting with technology through social media and cellphones, email and texting that keeps us from shutting down and turning inward for times of rest that can give our nervous systems time for a joyful reconciliation with quiet and naptime.
Our Educational System
Our educational system is another source of over-stimulation and stress that encourages competitiveness and promotes striving for standards of achievement measured in scores and grades; celebrates over-working and over-scheduling; and discourages down time for rest and balance and time away from academic activities to enjoy play and family life.
The focus on test results and achievement batters the lives of children and families with overwhelming schedules of testing, homework and the ominous threat of failure if results do not meet or exceed standards purported to measure learning, but that really measure nothing other than the ability to test well.
These arguments are well researched and documented in Vicki Abeles’ film, “Race to Nowhere,” and her newly released book, “Beyond Measure.”
Abeles’ research points to sleep deprivation, overscheduling, over-structuring, and pressure to be competitive, among the leading causes for teen depression, anxiety, panic attacks, autoimmune illnesses, decreased immune function and suicide.
Kimball C. Pier, Ph.D., LMFT, is a depth psychologist and a practicing therapist in Truckee. Visit sierraagape.org to learn more.