• The Professor


tropical paradise

There was a gurgling rumble coming from a panga’s outboard motor as it left the dock. Giant, lazy ceiling fans stirred faint breezes that carried the scents of ripe fruit, wood smoke, and the sea. In the background, salsa music and squawking parrots provided a soundtrack for the experience. Erica and I were 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.

We were on our third visit, so the sights, sounds and fragrances of Bocas were at once ordinary and exotic. We were in a state of unadulterated bliss. But why? Why did our vacation place seem so much more pleasant than our home? Bocas is unquestionably a tropical paradise, but our home in the mountains of Western North Carolina 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. All the while, sensations from our environments are coupling with those emotions and conditioning us.

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. One of my co-workers, Gene, had been an air traffic controller (known to be one of the world's most stressful jobs) in the army and he claimed that our job as examiners was more stressful!

During my three years with Social Security Disability, Gene and several 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 six! I am certain the cause of these deaths was rooted in 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 leave accumulated and a credit card!

the magic kingdom

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 at the time, 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 crossed the bridge to James Island, 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 being a stress management genius, I don’t know that it is possible to avoid being conditioned to associate your hometown with your worries. This is 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.