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The Ecology of Stress

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Some of New York’s stress, though, was caused by something that no one expected when they moved here: the attacks on the World Trade Center.

After 9/11, researchers swarmed the streets to try and measure the psychological damage. Their main fear was that we’d see a surge in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—a bouquet of symptoms including flashbacks, bad dreams, hypervigilance, and nasty reactions to sudden noises, like planes zooming overhead. They found it: Six months after the attack, a study by Sandro Galea, associate director of the Center for Urban Epidemiological Studies at the New York Academy of Medicine, showed that 7.5 percent of people had PTSD one month after 9/11. One man who worked across the street from the World Trade Center was wearing a blood-pressure monitor during the attacks: His average blood pressure soared by 30 percent in the days immediately after, a huge overall bump.

But the question no one yet knows the answer to is this: Has 9/11 caused any long-term damage to the city’s stress levels? Immediately after the attacks, almost a third of us were drinking and smoking more, one study found. And six months after the attacks, Galea found that the levels of 9/11-related PTSD had dropped to about 1 percent. Then, a year later, it was back up to about 3 percent, where it probably remains today. Why? No one’s sure. Possibly factors like rising unemployment and fear of another attack, speculates Galea. Even at today’s lower levels of PTSD, there are still tens of thousands of people affected, says Randall Marshall, a Columbia trauma-studies specialist.

“Imagine if there were 10,000 cases of West Nile virus. There’d be a lockdown and money flowing in to treat people!” Marshall says. “I think it’s an example of the stigma that still surrounds PTSD.” Worse, he notes, scientists believe that PTSD’s effects can be cumulative. If you’ve experienced it once, a second incident—like another terrorist attack—can trigger an even worse recurrence. “And you don’t think this is going to be a one-time attack, do you?” he says.

Still, no matter what you throw at the citizens of New York, we stagger along like mules. It could mean that we’re even tougher than we think.

Or it could mean that things aren’t quite so bad.

“It really just boosts your ego to brag that you live in the most stressful city,” argues Jonathan C. Smith, founding director of Chicago’s Roosevelt University Stress Institute. “If you say, ‘Well, I live in the most screwed-up city, that’s why I can’t concentrate on my kids or my spouse or my job,’ ”—he laughs—“it’s an excuse.”

Scientists still argue over the degree to which emotional stress causes bodily changes. Part of your high blood pressure is likely due to diet. And some unknown part of your stress-hormone levels may be due to genetic inheritance, or even basic personality. Though the science here is suggestive, it’s still sufficiently new that no one can quite say for sure. Many people leave New York for peaceful rural settings and still turn out to be stress monkeys. Many others float through the chaos of the city in a Zenlike state of grace, with seemingly nothing disturbing them.

Indeed, coping with high stress is mostly a matter of whether your system can ramp up quickly to meet a threat, then ramp down again. A famous study of air-traffic controllers, McEwen notes, discovered that the healthiest workers were “take charge” guys who had low cortisol levels until the job became hectic. When crunch time came, their levels would surge, then drop as soon as the crisis ended. In contrast, the most stressed workers had high cortisol levels all the time—and they were also sicker, with higher rates of absenteeism.

As for me, my day of stress monitoring ended at 2 A.M., when I blearily pecked out the final bits of work at my computer. Then, just as I headed to bed, I realized I’d forgotten to mail an important bill payment, so I spent fifteen minutes frantically trying to locate the invoice under mounds of paperwork—then running up and down six flights of stairs to the mailbox, because the elevators in my building weren’t working. When I finally crashed at 2:45, the combination of panic and sudden physical exertion had popped my blood pressure up to its highest level of the day, a craggy mountain peak on my daily chart. I lay in bed quivering like a guitar string. Then, finally, I fell asleep.


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