The Ecology of Stress

Photo: Phillip Toledano

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.

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.

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.

The Ecology of Stress