• Rusty Harrison, MEd


There is a gurgling rumble coming from a panga’s outboard motor as it leaves the dock. Giant, lazy ceiling fans stir faint breezes that carry the scents of ripe fruit, wood smoke, and the sea. In the background, salsa music provides a soundtrack for the murmurings in multiple languages from patrons at the tables around us. Erica and I are sipping tropical drinks, watching sea birds search for fish, and soaking up our first morning back in Bocas del Toro at Buena Vista’s over-the-water restaurant. Every time I try to communicate with the waitress, she looks hopefully at Erica to help translate my weak Spanish. We are on our third visit, so the sights, sounds and fragrances of this place are at once ordinary and exotic. We are in a state of unadulterated bliss. But why? Why does our vacation place seem so much more pleasant than our home? Bocas is unquestionably a tropical paradise, but our home is in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and it could also be described as a type of paradise.

Have you ever walked into a room and the scent took you back to some pleasant childhood memory? The room may have smelled like your grandmother’s house. We are all unknowingly being classically conditioned constantly! Ivan Pavlov discovered the process of classical conditioning when he found that dogs, who naturally salivate when given food, could be trained to salivate at the sound of a bell by repeatedly pairing a ringing bell with the presentation of food. As we go through our days, we move through a range of emotional states. We feel happy, bored, frustrated, hungry, satisfied, and so on. All the while, sensations from our environments are coupling with those emotions.

Years ago, I remember taking a trip to Disney World. My lawn looked like a jungle, lots of bills were due, and my inbox at work was piled to the ceiling. My job as an examiner for Social Security Disability was insanely stressful. The organization was a white-collar sweatshop with supervisors patrolling the halls to ensure that everyone was working every minute of the day and each examiner’s weekly production statistics were publicly posted. The job was mainly spending time either on the phone with claimants who unloaded their frustrations at how long the process was taking or on the phone with doctors’ offices who also unloaded their frustrations at being pestered by disability examiners trying to obtain the medical records required to adjudicate claims. Disability examiners were basically yelled at all day long. One of my co-workers, Gene, had been an air traffic controller in the army and he claimed that our job as examiners was more stressful! During my three years with Social Security Disability, Gene and six other examiners under the age of 50 died of either cancer or heart disease. The death rate of disability examiners during my tenure there was one in four! I am certain their cause of death was chronic stress. Of the surviving examiners, over half of us had to be prescribed anti-depressant medication to manage the pressure.

It goes without saying that my life at that time was riddled with tension. My bank account was low, and my obligations were many. I had absolutely no business going to Disney World. However, I did have accumulated leave and a credit card! I remember feeling the weight of the world as I backed out of my driveway, but gradually, something magical happened when I left the familiar sensations of James Island, my hometown, and merged on to I-95 to Florida. My worries just melted away and my thoughts shifted from the hassles of daily life to my Disney vacation. I had a blast at Disney World. I felt like a kid again and soaked up the wonders of engineering and imagination that make Disney such a unique destination. I ate, drank, laughed, and played. When the fun was over and I was heading home, the hammer dropped. As soon as I was in familiar territory, a flood of unpleasant realizations flashed through my mind.

“I need to cut the grass.”

“The light bill is past due.”

“I have so many cases to clear at work.”


The reason for this experience was classical conditioning. The stressors of my life had been paired with the visual, auditory, and olfactory (smells) stimuli of James Island. Like Pavlov’s dogs, I had been conditioned. Other than managing your stress very well, I don’t know that it is possible to avoid being conditioned to associate your hometown with your worries. This is a very good reason why taking vacations is important to mental health. It is one small strategy to combat chronic stress and the many potential health problems that can ultimately result from it.

Currently, my life is not particularly stressful. I have a wonderful family, a great relationship with Erica, and a job that provides lots of autonomy and plenty of opportunities for creative expression. Erica is a hospital administrator. She loves her job, and she is very good at it, but her work is inherently stressful. She has non-stop fires to put out and often doesn’t have control over processes that influence the outcomes of her efforts.

When we visit Panama, it is as if a new chapter has begun. While life’s pressures have been associated with our hometown, Panama has been associated with fun, adventure, and freedom. We plan to retire to Bocas Del Toro in a few years. We have discussed the potential for Bocas becoming associated with stress once we have been there a while, but I am not certain that it will. A primary stress driver for most people is their work. As retirees, the work we plan to do will be completely self-driven and I imagine it will feel more like a hobby than a job. I am sure there will be stressors that we don’t anticipate, but still feel optimistic about settling in a tranquil wonderland.

If you are not approaching retirement, decrease that hometown stress by getting away. Long vacations to exotic places are wonderful but short, weekend getaways can do the trick. For a more in-depth look at stress management strategies, check out our upcoming book Guide for Aging Heroes.

Until next time, here’s to aging heroes who lace up their traveling shoes and head out for parts unknown!

The Professor