In 2011, Science Daily reported a study by the Douglas Mental Health University Institute called "Stress in the city: Brain activity and biology behind mood disorders of urbanites."
The summary was as follows:
“Being born and raised in a major urban area is associated with greater lifetime risk for anxiety and mood disorders. Until now, the biology for these associations had not been described. A new study shows that two distinct brain regions that regulate emotion and stress are affected by city living.”
What does that mean to me? I may live longer for the fact that I have spent most of my life as a New Jersey suburbanite. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates one out of every four Americans suffers from mental illness every year and 85 percent remain untreated. It seems the risk for anxiety disorders is 21 percent higher for city dwellers, who also have a 39 percent increase for mood disorders.
Sometimes the best break is the one you give yourselfie. If we can take photos of ourselves constantly---so popular there’s a cutesy name for it---why can’t we also grant ourselves peace even in the bustling city where there’s so much to consume and digest you couldn’t possibly eat it all in one lifetime?
Why not give yourself a break today since much of our angst is self-produced? Aren’t there enough people pulling at you (both literally and figuratively) to do this or that or go here or there? If you do one thing every day to manage your stress, let it be figuring out how to make things easier, especially if you’re playing beat-the-clock. No time to bake a cake? Buy one. Stressing over meeting with someone today when tomorrow is perfectly doable? What for? There’s always an easier way. All you have to do is find it.
I’m giving myselfie a break right now simply by writing what I want to write as opposed to what I believe I should write. Sometimes I realize how easy it is to crop anxiety out of the picture of my day and hit delete. Not always, but when I feel in control, I take advantage of that power by not allowing the noise either in my head or on the street to shake me up.
It’s like that feeling I get when I’m in New York City. Last week I went in for a brief business trip. As soon as I got off the ferry from New Jersey I got that rush of excitement. What can I do? Who can I see? What can I learn? The same hunger exists within me no matter where I am, but the Big Apple acts like a steroid to my awareness of both past and present, all I want to do and haven’t done.
But wouldn’t you know it, after a 20-minute people-watching, window-shopping walk to the hotel, all I did with my free time was sit. The walk was enough! A younger me would not have done that and what’s worse, I probably would have pushed myself to do one thing or another rather than be mindful of what I needed to do to keep that sense of ever-ready anxiety in check.
Mindfulness can be put to use in all situations and all places---a power meeting in the city, a picnic in the country, a camel walk in the desert, or a close encounter with an army of aliens in outer space---doesn’t matter. All it means is that you’re living in the moment and aware of the experience you’re having, and your focus on your own needs even if they seem counterintuitive. For instance, although I thought I wanted to be outside looking up at skyscrapers and counting how many different languages I’d hear on the street, instead I was mindful of my need to sit in the comfort of the hotel lobby on a couch and stare at the art on the walls.
I was at the Gramercy Park Hotel, by the way, a manic feast for the senses back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and again in the 2000s when the owner’s son committed suicide by jumping off the roof. I’m glad I wasn’t there that day.
Another key component of mindfulness is the keen observation of your thoughts and feelings minus any judgment. So instead of calling myself lame or lazy for sitting on the couch, I just let myself be. I didn’t even bother to document the act of resting my arthritic bones by taking a selfie. Absolutely unnecessary. I’ll remember the moment no matter what.
There are times when I only have to think about a day in the city and I stop in my tracks. Even though I love it when I’m there, it’s instantly stress-producing in both healthy and unhealthy ways. I may not be up for it on a given day.
In all my years of intermittent talk therapy, I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness (even though I begged for one during a particularly hard time). Regardless, I must manage my tendencies toward anxiety and depression, and the only way I survive is by striving for balance with moment-to-moment mindfulness. While the city poses many possibilities for extreme anxiety, there’s no need to focus on them.
I know I can return to my peaceful New Jersey life where cab and subway rides are unnecessary, traffic is minimal and the loudest thing I might hear all day is either the sound of someone’s lawnmower or the few minutes twice a week the garbage truck roars down my street.