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The Ecology of Stress


It’s the fury of going, ‘I have to do this shit and go to a suck-ass job so the guy at the top can get driven in by a limo?’ ” says Bill Gerin, a cardiovascular scientist at Columbia who collaborates with Pickering. Race is an important factor, too: The city’s low-income blacks not only have many of the lowest-control jobs, but the high-fat, high-salt foods that tend to permeate poor neighborhoods drive blood pressure even higher. The biological rules of the marketplace are as Darwinian as you’d expect: Climbing the greasy pole improves your health, and slipping down hurts it.

There is one big exception to this rule: professional women with children. Whether they were married or single, Pickering discovered that mothers’ blood pressure did not go down when they got home from work, unlike everyone else in New York—including married men with children. Why? Probably because of the supermom syndrome; they’re stuck with an unfair amount of home and child care. Some studies also suggest that even when men and women split the housework 50-50, women react more powerfully—and thus with higher stress—to their share. Either way, the legions of avid readers of I Don’t Know How She Does It have some scientific backing: Working mothers really are getting the short end of the allostatic stick.

“It’s a result,” Pickering says delicately, “that may not reflect terribly well on men.”

There is, however, one type of New York stress that is equal opportunity: the subway. While scientists have long studied the hazards of road rage and driving, only recently have they begun to ponder the window-pounding frustrations of urban commuting.

In the past decade, Richard Wener—an associate professor of environmental psychology at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn—studied commuters taking the path train in from New Jersey. He sampled the cortisol in their saliva, and found that riders who started taking the newly available direct train to midtown had much lower levels than those who transferred in Hoboken to go downtown. The reason? Transferring made for a longer and, crucially, more unpredictable trip. As anyone who’s tried to keep their cool while the train idles mysteriously between stations can tell you, delays can cause nearly psychotic rage. “We’re not talking about a gross change. It’s only a matter of minutes,” Wener says with a laugh. “But that’s enough to change your system.”

What’s more, he found that, once again, women with children were hit the hardest. Their cortisol levels were considerably more elevated than those of men or childless women taking the train. “This makes sense,” he says, “because women with children really have two jobs. When my kids were small, if I missed my train, I’d call home and say, ‘I’m going to be late.’ But if that happened to my wife, she’d have to organize someone to pick the kids up.”

Part of what makes commuting annoying is the constant noise: the squealing brakes, the incomprehensibly barking speakers. And noise, all experts agree, makes New York an absolute carnival of stress. Gary Evans, a professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell who worked with Wener on the commuter study, recently studied an elementary school in the Bavarian region of Germany, near where an airport was being built. (It’s tricky to monitor the effects of noise in New York, because it never lets up.) Evans examined the children before and after construction, which allowed him to see how the arrival of persistent noise affected them.

The results were unsettling. Reading levels declined “to a significant degree.” Why? Probably because the kids began screening out ambient noise to protect their sanity. Unfortunately, they also began screening out ambient conversation—which helps kids absorb language. What’s more, the children were more likely to give up on difficult tasks. Before the airport opened, they would attempt an insoluble puzzle—a standard experimental test—7.9 times on average before giving up; afterward, only 6.3 times. Other studies have shown that children lose six months of development for every extra ten decibels added to their learning environment, Evans notes.

“It’s the same sort of thing you’d see with depression,” he says. And while cities have always been loud, technology is creating entirely new irritants. Recently, Japanese scientists subjected patients to the sounds of mobile phones ringing once a minute for 30 minutes: Their level of histamine, a hormone triggered by stress, rose. So that kid with the Usher ring tone on the subway may not be merely annoying you—he could be making your allergies worse.

Then there’s crowding: Densely packed city streets can produce feelings of threat, and diminish your sense of control. Liz Brondolo, a professor of psychology at St. John’s University, has studied the blood pressure of the city’s traffic-ticket agents as they worked. When the agents were at headquarters with colleagues, she found, their blood pressure was relatively lower—but it rose when they went outside to deal with the public. “As soon as they’d step onto the street, their sense of well-being went down,” she says. “Because it’s a more unpredictable environment.” (Though Brondolo notes that the agents also face actual physical danger: “There were examples of them being hit or spit on,” she says.)

Other scientists say street crowding may not be a big deal; Evans thinks we get used to it. For him, the real crowding problem isn’t on the streets but in tiny apartments. A sense of at-home privacy, scientists are discovering, is also crucial to our sense of well-being. In experiments where college students are offered a choice between an enormous bedroom they share with a roommate and a teensy room they have to themselves, they invariably pick the smaller one, “because it lets them have some control over their interactions,” says Evans.

And when we can’t get that sort of solitude? We begin to tune out, literally ignoring those around us. One study found that college students who live in crowded dorms were less likely to help strangers. Maybe that old New York stereotype has some scientific basis: We really are rude, and we’ve got the city to blame.

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