Mental health through the lens of radical life changes, and the virtuous cycle of pet ownership, Guatemalan travel and catnip smuggling

This is episode 6 of our podcast, Our One Wild and Precious Lives (and Our Dogs). I’m really proud of this one – it turned out really well, if I may say so myself! Thank you, Peter and Val, for being vulnerable and brave and brilliant with me!

I’ll be adding the link to the episode below so you can all listen – but before I do, I want to ask you all a favor. If you are reading this (potentially because you’re a subscriber to my blog), and if you’ve been enjoying the podcast episodes I’ve put out so far – every second one is dog geeky, and every other one is about living abroad, being brave, vulnerability, mental health, politics, queer lives etc … So if you’ve been enjoying them, please subscribe to the podcast on one of the podcast platforms as well! We’re on all the major platforms. AND please, if you’ve been REALLY enjoying things, leave us a rating on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and a nice review on Apple Podcasts! I’m not making money podcasting; I’m just having a lot of fun doing it – and seeing the listener numbers increase makes my day. Ratings and reviews will give the podcast greater exposure, and that means positive reinforcement – more listeners! – for me. Thank you so much!

I myself am super lazy when it comes to reviewing podcasts. I’ve got SO many favorites I haven’t taken the time to review yet. So I’m setting myself the goal to review one independent podcast I love for every review I get, to pay it forward! Thanks, folks!

Alright – on to this episode I really, really like! I’ll embed a link, and you’ll find the episode description below.

In this episode, Chrissi and Peter talk to Valerie Russell. Originally from the US, she has studied forensics in the UK and worked in law enforcement in the New York metropolitan area for many years. After severe depression and a PTSD diagnosis, Valerie started her life from scratch: she moved to Guatemala and opened Due South Travels, a unique and successful travel business. Val is one of the first people I (Chrissi) met in Guatemala, and I admire her on SO many levels. She is brave, courageous, authentic, and simply good people.

In this episode, we talk about mental health, all the things the animals we share our lives with do for us, the broken system of law enforcement and health care in the US, and smuggling cat nip. We hope you enjoy this conversation as the three of us did!

How to quit stuff and be happy instead (a post about people rather than dogs)

I’m still reading The Science of Consequences, and yet another fascinating fact just caught my attention: quitting (1). There’s a chapter on addictions. What I found most interesting is the paragraph about smoking. I like the “smoking” example, because smoking is a nice metaphor for almost anything you’d like to stop doing. Smoking is less hard to quit than certain illegal drugs (the reinforcement value and withdrawal agony of which are greater), and (as someone who smoked for 10 years and then quit), I would venture that the nature of a cigarette addiction is similar to that of other common addictions: drinking, eating, buying things on the Internet. What do these addictions have in common? They are respectable addictions – we can indulge them in public -, and their reinforcement value increases with the amount of stress we experience in our lives, and they often include a peer pressure element. So what did the studies find about smoking, and how can we take advantage of tit?

1. Cash incentives

Studies found that cash incentives increase people’s chance of quitting smoking. (Programs designed that way do not necessarily require lots of public funding: there are programs who ask people to put up their own money and then earn it back – or lose it, if they give in to the temptation.)

2. Shaping is more effective than quitting cold turkey

A study of heavy smokers who wanted to quit was put into two groups: one group were asked to quit cold turkey, i.e. from one day to the next. The other group was shaped: they were asked to smoke less and less every day. In both cases, people who successfully managed to not smoke were reinforced with money. Almost fifty percent of the shaping group succeeded in quitting, but only a third of the cold turkey group succeeded.

3. Progressive schedules of reinforcement are more effective than fixed ones

Another study compared fixed and progressive schedules. (In the fixed schedule, the reward was always the same, in the progressive schedule, the rewards got smaller over time.) Both groups were twice as likely to quit as the control group (who also wanted to quit, but didn’t get positively reinforced for not smoking). However, participants on the progressive schedule were least likely to relapse after the end of the program.

These three findings about studies are all you need to know to quit your own bad habits. What’s a bad habit? Well, anything you’d like to stop doing. Here’s how:

1. You don’t need a fancy program to take advantage of cash incentives. Just ask a friend to help you quit, give her a substantial amount of your hard-earned money, and set up a contract specifying under what circumstances you get your money back. Maybe you get 10/20/100/500 euros for every day/every weekend you don’t have a drink, or don’t snack on sweet temptations?

If you want to integrate punishment in your treatment plan as well, specify in the contract that for every drink/chocolate bar you have, your friend must donate 10/20/100/500 euros (your euros, which will be lost forever!) to an organization you despise, such as a cult, a right-wing political organization, or the sports team you hate.

2. Don’t force yourself to stop your addictions from one day to the next, but gradually decrease their extent. If, for example, you used to drink 20 bottles of beer every weekend, on the first weekend of your therapy plan, you’ll limit yourself to 15 bottles, on the second weekend, to 10 bottles etc. If you used to eat 5 chocolate bars ever day, only have four and a half on day one, four on day two, three and a half on day three etc.

3. Design a progressive reinforcement schedule with your friend. In the beginning, you’ll earn back a lot of money for not engaging in your favorite vices. Gradually, the amount of money you make will decrease. This way, you are most likely to stay “clean” after you’ve earned all your money back.

(1) Schneider, Susan M.: The Science of Consequences. p. 230-33.