City stress

City stress

Most of the wellbeing courses that I’ve taken in the last 15 years have been in India, Australia and Canada. We chose to set up shop in London because that was where the demand was. It’s also an exciting, fun and financially rewarding place to live. It attracts seekers, people who are looking for the most fun and the most meaning. Its a place for the young. It tests you. The historian Peter Ackroyd describes London as an energetic vortex that sucks people in and either they ascend or they are pulled down into the gutter.

Economically, people are drawn to cities because of an amazing relationship between wealth and population. Geoffrey West notes that for every doubling of a cities population average wealth per person increases by 15%. No wonder people have been drawn to cities for centuries. In 1800 only 4% of the US population lived in cities, now its 80%. Every week 1 million people around the world move to a city. This amazing 1:1.15 growth relationship also applies to other statistics, including crime. As we move to cities we become wealthier but the wealth grows with a widening normal distribution ie. the poorer are poorer and the richer, wealthier. The rest of us in the middle are therefore exposed to this wealth chasm. We fear the effect of the vortex – that we will end in the gutter. We aspire to use the force of the vortex to help us climb the materialistic ladder. Its all there, in our face, rich and poor, light and shade. For more details check out thisTed talks clip:

Numerous studies in Positive Psychology have compared how satisfied people say they are with their lives, with how much money they earn. The results of hundreds of studies around the world conclude that how much you earn has little to do with how satisfied you are with things. BUT…..lots of other studies have also indicated that we have a tendency to look upwards. We are aspirational.  We covet what our neighbour has.  We are jealous. We take this to an extreme so that in the workplace people who are offered salaries which put them near the top of their departments pay scale would rather this, than be offered a higher salary which puts them near the bottom of the departments pay scale.

So we are not profit maximisers, we just need to be alpha male, top dog, chief chimp. We value ourselves through money even when the reality is that if we are able to cover the basics like a nice house, car, education, holidays plus a little bit of F**k you money we don’t really care how much we earn.

Now back to cities. People arrive and they aspire to the rich fruits. People in cities work harder and compare themselves to others much more than our country cousins. A recent bit of research by Andreas Meyer Lindenburg in Mannheim demonstrated potential mental vulnerability in city dwellers. They compared city folk to town people and country people. They found that when people were asked to complete brain teasers in a test situation, city people were more conscious of their performance and more susceptible to criticism. They did this by occasionally interrupting the study and cajoling participants to get a move on and also giving them feedback that they were under performing compared to their peers. They measured brain activity in areas like the amygdala (one of the areas of the brain associated with emotional judgment and fight or flight). They found that city dwellers were much more sensitive to criticism.

In a follow up study the team found that an area called the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC) was much more activated in people who had spent many years living in a city. Studies indicate that the pACC has a positive impact of inhibiting the worst excesses of fight/flight (muscle tightness, breathing problems, inability to focus, short term memory loss). This over activation may prevent this natural inhibiting feature.

Why people living in cities are more susceptible to stress could include many factors such as social comparison set out above, as well as noise, lack of sunlight, constant visual distraction, lack of green space and increasing social isolation.

Another feature of city living is the rise of single person households. Add to this the reduction in team sports and rise of internet relationships at the expense of face to face contact and you build a picture of vulnerable, isolated people striving to avoid the traps of the vortex and aspire to the riches. The obvious conclusion to this is ever growing cities with ever increasing exposure to mental instability. This may be borne out by the relationship between schizophrenia and city living (Stanley Zammit, Cardiff University).

The good news is that a wide circle of friends has a powerful positive effect on the amyygdala/pACC relationship. During moments of bonding and touch hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin are produced, which counteract the negative effects of fight/flight (or rather improve brain functioning such that we are able to deal with regular day to day stresses and strains in a balanced, relaxed way). Another way to manage fight/flight is by taking lots of exercise and learning techniques to concentrate the mind (such as breathing exercises, mantra and meditation)

I suppose this blog is just a long advert for the business case behind Breathe London. We are an integrated wellbeing business with a range of physical (touch ) and talking therapies which try to address many of the issues raised in this article.

Here are some quick tips to counteract the effects of city living:

– take a break, go to the countryside and turn off your twitter, facebook, phone

– cherish your friends and actually do something different with them

– be spontaneous – a friend of mine organises his life months in advance – when you do this you constantly package the future up

– enjoy the amazing things that London (or your big city) has to offer

Breathe is expanding!  Lesley is opening a new Breathe London in South Kensington in April and I’m in Australia setting up here

Hope you found this useful

Andy 🙂


Posted on March 22, 2013, in Coaching, Meditation etc., positive psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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