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The Ecology of Stress

We’ve always known New York has the ultimate climate for producing anxiety. Scientists are only now understanding why, picking apart the triggers of tension in our daily lives in order to help us calm down.

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It was the end of the workday, and all hell had broken loose. Just as I was about to complete a long-overdue project, my boss swooped down with a sudden rash of last-minute changes. By the time I placated him and peeled myself away from my desk, I was already running late for a meeting uptown. Not a single cab was free—of course—so I raced for the subway in the rain, calling ahead to apologize to my annoyed friend. I was seriously stressed.

That’s not just a subjective impression. I can scientifically prove I was freaking out, because I was wearing a portable blood-pressure meter given to me by Thomas Pickering, a hypertension expert at Columbia University. Every twenty minutes all day long, it automatically squeezed a cuff around my upper arm and sampled my blood pressure, a key measure of stress levels. Sure enough, when I visited Pickering the following morning, he downloaded my readings from the device and produced a chart showing a black line jumping up and down. “You’re within the normal range most of the workday,” he noted, but when crunch time came, a jagged line popped out the top. “Something here,” he said, pointing to the peak, “was agitating you.”

Odds are, your chart looks like mine. Stress is an omnipresent fact of life in New York—and it’s getting worse. We work harder—an increase of almost four hours per week between the late eighties and the turn of the century. We take less holiday time than the Japanese. We need more money to pay for rising taxes and inflation. We worry about another terrorist attack. And, to top it all off, stress might even age us more quickly at the cellular level. Researchers in San Francisco just completed a study that found that chronic emotional stress erodes telomerase, an enzyme in our cells that helps extend our life span, keeping us young and healthy. The cells of the most stressed-out women in the studies were effectively aged ten years more than normal.

The point here is not to make you even more tense—really. It’s about arming yourself: Understanding the causes of stress takes you halfway toward winning your personal battle against it. And when you consider the ecology of stress, New York is like a psychological experiment designed specifically to test the bounds of sanity. Take a few million type-A strivers, jam them into tiny apartments and 50-hour-a-week jobs, deprive them of grass and nature, then have them drink way too much and travel around in cramped underground tubes: That is a nearly perfect environment for overwhelming the “allostatic system”—the scientific term for the bodily processes that help us manage stressful events. Every time someone steals that cab from under your nose at rush hour or the landlord jacks your rent up higher, your body reacts. As researchers like Pickering uncover the biology and psychology of stress, they’re discovering precisely how the city gets under our skin.

In fact, just crossing New York City borders is enough to set your teeth on edge. In 1999, Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor at the University of California, examined the national rates at which people die of heart attacks. In New York, he noticed, the rates are 55 percent higher than the national average. “It stands out like a red light on the map,” he says. Then Christenfeld examined the rates of heart attacks among visitors to New York. Amazingly, those numbers were also elevated—34 percent higher than normal. The reverse was also true—when New Yorkers travel to other parts of the country, their rates drop below the city’s norm by 20 percent.

Turns out your paranoid mother was right: The city really will kill you. “It’s incredible,” Christenfeld marvels. “Just by visiting New York, you pick up half of the stress effect of living there. And you can shed half of it by leaving.”

Mind you, the concept of “stress” is still reasonably controversial, partly because scientists are learning that it isn’t as simple as we once thought. Not all stress is bad. On the contrary, when stress triggers our allostatic system, it’s forcing us to perform at a higher level—a vestige of the “fight or flight” instincts that kept us alive on the prehistoric savannah. Stress produces the hormone cortisol, for example, which improves our memory and enhances immune function. (Cortisol also protects us from some of the ravages of alcohol, no small thing for such a booze-addled town.) And those temporary spikes in our blood pressure? They’re flooding our muscles and brain with crucial oxygen.

“The allostatic system is there to protect you. We’ve gone away from this old notion that all stress is bad for you,” notes Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist who studies stress at Rockefeller University.

The problems arrive when our allostatic system becomes charged too frequently, and we have no chance to vent our energy physically. And that, unfortunately, almost defines the New York experience. When your e-mail in-box is piling up while your boss hovers over your shoulder, your body is chemically demanding that you flee screaming (a pretty rational response, when you think about it).

But since you’re at work, you have to sit quietly. When stress hormones build up, they cease to be a positive force, and begin to do damage: Overloads of cortisol will damage your memory, hurt your immune system, and increase the size of your gut. Stress-related spikes in your blood pressure have their own overload effect. Though no one is entirely sure how short-term increases affect your long-term health, doctors worry that if your system is ramped up for too long, it begins to burn out.

That’s where work comes into play. Virtually everyone who moves to New York does so for work—and often very high-intensity, deadline-oriented stuff, from the immigrants who schlep shipments of sushi off trucks at 5 A.M. to the M.B.A. kids who shriek into phones all day long on Wall Street.

“Work is a big component of stress,” says Pickering, and he ought to know. For the past twenty years, he has performed one of the nation’s largest studies of how blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day, strapping meters onto hundreds of New Yorkers. His charts show that blood pressure typically spikes when you get up in the morning, as your system revs up; indeed, any normal physical exertion will produce a short-term boost. But the workday hits particularly hard: Blood pressure soars twice as high compared with when you’re at home—or having an off-day.

The worst work-related stress, Pickering says, is caused by jobs that offer people little power over their daily activities. “It’s the control that seems to matter the most,” he notes. “You might have a lot of work, but if you’re able to control the rate at which you have to deal with it, you’re okay. It’s when you feel helpless that it gets bad. You drop into a depressed state. You have much higher cortisol levels.”

This sets up a hierarchy of stress: You get hit much harder than your boss. Sure, the high-priced lawyers and Wall Street boys may feel like they’re getting killed by stress—and sometimes, if they’re not in control of their work flow, they are. But they can compensate with roomy apartments, vacations to the Cayman Islands, and hot-stone massage treatments. Far worse off are people in low-paying, low-status jobs.


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