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A Physical Workout To Help Our Brain Overcome Fear

Tennessee Watson

Jackson, Wyoming is all about extremes. Folks from across the country flock to the mountain town to summit peaks, to ski fresh powder and to party. Athletes are revered for going over the edge, whereas those who fall into addiction are not. But what if the underlying cause of an avalanche death and a drug overdose are one in the same? The Mindstrength Project is taking advantage of that connection.

Tony is one of the participants. Ripping down the Tetons on his snowboard has landed him in the Jackson hospital a bunch of times. “I’m not allowed in this hospital anymore,” he said. But that’s not why the ER doctors don’t want to see him again. “I’ve been in there 50 times to detox from alcohol. Because I’ve been so saturated with it. And that’s just at this hospital.” 

Tony was hesitant to tell the world just how bad it’s been, so he asked to go by his first name. He’s spent the better part of his adult life trying to get clean. He’s been in and out of rehab 12 times, and been to thousands of AA meetings, in fact, he hosts a meeting. But it took a major tragedy for him to get out of what he described as a vicious relapse cycle. 

“Two years ago my girlfriend fell down drunk with me — an alcoholic too — busted her head open. Her brain came out of her head and died right in front of me. I gotta remember that stuff because if I don’t then I’m gonna go back to that.”

He got real about turning his life around. That’s when he found The Mindstrength Project, which incorporates physical exertion and problem-solving. Ryan Burke is the facilitator of the project, and like

Tony, Burke came to a turning point in his life through loss, when his close friend died in an avalanche. 

“I asked him towards the end — he was doing all these first ascents, multiple repels, super dangerous — and I asked him why do you keep going,” said Burke. “And he just kind of tapped his arm, like he had a heroin addiction.”  

The death of his friend helped Burke see a big overlap between athletics and addiction.

“Without moderation, we can go overboard in either genre.”

He said he saw that amongst athletes in Jackson. “People dying in avalanches. Dying rock climbing. But I also saw it in addiction. Where people kept chasing that initial high. Wanting more and more and more.”

Burke wanted to help break that cycle. He’s a world-class mountaineer, who is constantly putting himself in risky situations. Last year he ran the length of the Tetons. That’s 50 peaks stretched over 102 miles in one push.

His response to the loss he was seeing as a mountain athlete and substance abuse counselor lead him to create The Mindstrength Project. At the start of one of the project’s sessions, Burke set up crash pads under two angled climbing walls that jut out into a gym. Then he positioned two giant fans across from each other. 

As people filed in, this particular group revealed itself as the ultimate merger of the athlete and addict communities. Most of the participants were there through a court-mandated program. As things got started, they traded stories about what they’d been up to since last week’s session at the yoga studio. They were skiers, climbers, mountain bikers. And Tony, the snowboarder, was there too. 

Burke convened the group and explained what they’re in for. 

Credit Tennessee Watson
Ryan Burke leads participants through a Mind Strength Project workshop.

“Why this program is unique, is because we are doing stuff under simulated exposure,” he started in. “So for instance in a minute we’ll turn on those fans. That creates an automatic fight or flight response. When you get some exposure. If you are high in the mountains and you feel the wind versus a calm day. The brain is going to go a little haywire. We are going to do something balancing on a ball. We’re going to do some things blindfolded. These are things that automatically spike your fight or flight response. So we’re going to see how we do under those.”

Burke ran through some ways the body can help calm the mind down. His first suggestion was licking your upper lip. “Why would that help me? When someone licks their lip what are they starting to do?” he asked the group.

Snowboarder Tony, who is also a chef, and had the answer. “Salivating.” 

Then Burke went on to explain: “Right. So if I’m salivating that means I’m not running away from a predator. It means I’m ready to eat prey not being chased by a predator, so it sends a signal to the brain that everything is ok up here.”

Burke said it’s all about using your body to trick your brain. “And so if I’m laughing I’m not really worried about a tiger. My body needs to know that. And so when you smile your peripheral vision expands. So, therefore, you can see more options.”

Burke explained that the rational part of the brain gets shut down by fear. The goal is to practice using the body to calm the mind to get logic back online. For some that practice might eventually mean saying no to a beer, or staying home when avalanche danger is high. And for others that could mean overcoming the blinding panic preventing them from being able to see the next climbing hold. Whatever the scenario, the idea is not to have your choices limited by fear.

Burke fired up the fans, and in pairs, they moved through the circuit: Sprints and burpees. Scaling the climbing wall blindfolded. Stepping from box to box with heavyweights in their hands.

Then balancing on a ball, while being blasted by the two big fans, they had to find five inconsistencies in two almost identical photos. Periodically Burke threw dodgeballs at their heads.

It might sound tortuous and absurd, but snowboarder Tony, who was initially mandated to get treatment by the court, said he wanted to stick with it voluntarily.

“To me, it’s creating positive neuropathways in my brain. And a positive neuro pathway isn’t sitting in a group setting while I’m doodling. I have to have exercise in my life. It’s the only reason I’m in this town in the first place: Big ski mountain. Big ski town.”

Thanks to The Mindstrength Project, now when someone offers him a PBR, he no longer things about beer. Instead, he thinks of the project’s mantra: PAUSE, BREATH, REPEAT.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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