Stress in the City
Cities are one of the most remarkable human creations, a product and driver of our development since we started to establish settled communities in the Near East at the beginning of the Neolithic. But while cities can promote prosperity and happiness, they can also provide a paradigm for what is worst about humanity. The pressure and pace of big cities creates enormous stress for their inhabitants and extremes of wealth and wellbeing are brutally visible.
London, the first metropolis of the modern era, remains one of the greatest world cities, its iconic buildings and traditions known across the world. Its vibrancy, energy and genuine multi-culturalism are infectious and attractive but it is also a city with significant social problems which are in many cases the consequences or cause of mental ill health. The poet A.E. Houseman was not the only one to be challenged by the harsh and impersonal aspects of London life:
But here in London streets I ken
No such helpmates only men;
And those are not in plight to bear
If they would, another’s care.
Having come back to live in the city for a second time I’ve made been made to reflect on what it takes to manage the stress of living in a big city and of the importance of raising the profile of public mental health as an essential component of what is required to promote the future prosperity and happiness of the city and its inhabitants.
I hope to write a few blogs on this subject but wanted to start today on my own thoughts on how to manage “stress on the city”. Like most public injunctions some of these are observed more in the breach but they all have contributed to keeping my sense of wellbeing in the hectic rush of the capital.
The first is the ability, in the famous words of W.H. Davies, “to stop and stare”. London is a beautiful city but too often we are tied up in the bubble of our business to notice. William Wordsworth, better known for his love of the Lake District, wrote in 1802 of the view from Westminster Bridge:
“Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty.”
I am lucky that my daily cycle to work takes me along a stretch of the Thames path between Wandsworth Bridge and Battersea Bridge. The view of the river, always slightly different each day, is able to grab my attention and distract me from my ruminations about what faces me at work. It cannot change the events of the day ahead but it can put them in a different context.
The second is connection. While the city itself is too big to relate to there are communities within it which are more accessible. It’s been a lovely discovery to find that the neighbourhood we have moved into has a strong tradition of social events, providing an opportunity to get to know the community we live amongst in a way which the normal rhythms of London life make it very difficult to do. Communities of interest are also important. I am also grateful for the friends and community I have been able to connect with in London’s welsh community. While at times London can be forbidding and impersonal there is something about it being a city full of outsiders which can make it more accepting of newcomers than other more settled communities.
My next reflection relates to courtesy, not you might expect necessarily the most common characteristic in London. Many days whether on my bike or on the tube I can be left thinking just how selfish and rude other Londoners are. As a result it is easy to fall in with the view that in the city every man (or woman) is best left looking after number one. Yet when offered, received, acknowledged simple acts of courtesy offer a great sense of wellbeing, so much better than the momentary advantage secured by trying to get ahead of the crowd.
My fourth ingredient is the ability to break routine. London’s very busyness can make the daily round of work and other activities all the more oppressive. A city which never sleeps is a city which never rests. The ability to change pace, break routine, do something different or not very much at all has a profound impact on how I feel. The discipline not to be drawn into work, not to look at my phone for at least a day a week helps make the stress of my job containable and ensures that I have some physical and psychological energy to devote to it when I return. The ability to escape the city and seek quieter places from time to time is necessary and makes London all the more enjoyable when I am back.
My final protective factor is laughter. It’s possible to get angry, at times, with London and Londoners but it’s so much better when it’s possible to laugh with, or occasionally at, your fellow citizens. There’s much evidence for the psychological, and indeed physical, benefits of laughter but it’s also an expression of the ability to detach oneself from the immediacy of situations which create stress and take a different perspective on events. There’s much to make one smile in the capital and when that is shared with others it is so much the better.
So living again in London has made me think afresh about those strategies and habits which can help protect my sense of wellbeing amidst the pressure and stress of a big city.