Experts loathing fear in the valley |

Experts loathing fear in the valley

Anxiety is one of the most common problems local counselors treat, and Aspen’s economically taxing lifestyle and access to the outdoors can be both cause and relief.

Dr. Joel Brence, who practices psychiatry in Aspen, said people often move here with high expectations of happiness and spending time enjoying the mountains. But when those expectations don’t turn out the way people hope, they can feel helpless and the effects of anxiety.

“Deeper than anxiety and fear is the need to control,” Brence said. He added that people seek a degree of certainty in their lives but can’t always have it.

“Anyone chasing after a dream that doesn’t materialize is bound to experience a lot of anxiety,” he said.

Anxiety is the most common psychiatric symptom doctors encounter today. The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office defines anxiety “as the pathological counterpart of normal fear,” and “is manifest by disturbances of mood, as well as of thinking, behavior and physiological activity.”

Locally, there are many causes of anxiety. People often find that their sphere of influence shrinks because of the Roaring Fork Valley’s relatively small population; the cost of living is high; and there is frequently little time to spend experiencing the area’s natural beauty.

Aspen native Tom Crum, a speaker and author of “Three Deep Breaths: Finding Power and Purpose in a Stressed Out World,” said people often mistakenly believe that a location change will change how they deal with stress. When moving doesn’t make them less anxious, they often wonder why they aren’t happier.

“[Aspen] is the end of the line of success,” Crum said. “If you all of a sudden find you aren’t happy here, you’ll become more anxious.”

Anxiety can go beyond just mental well-being, affecting the entire body. Brence said it can impact hormone production, the digestive system and other functions.

“It creates a kind of toxic stress in the body,” Brence said.

Vince Savage, who holds a doctorate in psychology and works in the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation’s Valley Information and Assistance Program, said he commonly hears about economic difficulties when counseling people. But Savage added that although Aspen presents many challenges that exacerbate anxiety, it also provides relief.

Experts emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all “cure” for anxiety ” it’s something to approach on an individual basis ” but there are general things that alleviate the stress.

“Aspen is pretty friendly about there being ways to participate in culture and the arts,” Savage said. Going to a museum or play is a common way to relieve anxiety.

Plus, Aspen has a low crime rate, and safety is generally not a concern here.

“That’s one of the anxieties we don’t have to cope with here,” Savage said.

Aspen’s abundance of trails and open space also helps people refocus and avoid going on autopilot.

“I think here in Aspen we’re given special … blessings, and it’s our access to nature,” Brence said. “It gets me back to a certain baseline.”

Crum’s recommendation is to simply take a few deep breaths. He said he doesn’t necessarily think expensive medications are always the answer. He sees anxiety as a problem in the nervous system, and one that can be corrected by deep breathing to help refocus.

But Brence and Savage also said it’s important to look at the cause of anxiety. Anxiety is a symptom of something else, and people should look at what causes it.

“I think it’s important to nurture the possibility of growth that anxiety signals,” Brence said.

Greg Schreier’s e-mail address is

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