Humans are not hardwired for big-city living. We operate best in small groups, and it’s thought we can only maintain stable relationships with a maximum of 150 people. This goes some way to explaining why city life can feel so overwhelming. If you’re struggling to cope with the scale and pace of your surroundings, rest assured most of your neighbours will, at some point, have felt the same way. And take heart from the fact that there are ways to combat the stresses of urban living – RSNG spoke to Dr Sheri Jacobson, Clinical Director at Harley Therapy, to find out some of the most effective…
‘Time spent in green spaces reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death’
Spend Time In Nature
By design, cities are unnatural places to live, and for all the opportunities opened up by urban environments there is no denying that, as humans, we’ve had little time to adapt to worlds of traffic and skyscrapers, which is why it’s essential to take regular breaks from the concrete jungle. But you don’t have to actually exit the city itself to do this.
‘A new branch of psychology is ecopsychology,’ explains Dr Jacobson, ‘which directly studies the link between nature and mood. It's been found that nature positively affects moods, even if that just means having your lunch in the local park a few times a week.’
The benefits of time spent in nature extend beyond mental relief, however, with recent research from the University of East Anglia showing that exposure to green spaces can reduce the risk of everything from type II diabetes, to cardiovascular disease and premature death.
The positive impact of exercise on both mental and physical health are well known, and when it comes to coping with the stresses of city living, there are few better strategies than keeping fit. ‘The secret is to find a form of exercise you love, regardless of what others think,’ says Dr Jacobson. ‘With the variety of things available in big cities, be adventurous. Just because all your friends run doesn't mean you have to; you might feel happier going bouldering, or doing a salsa class.’
Regular exercise – 45 minutes three to four times a week – has been shown to reduce poor mental health30227-X/fulltext), and for city dwellers who feel lost or alone amidst an ever-growing population, group exercise such as a class or team sport can also be a way to socialise and reduce isolation.
Life in a city is relentlessly busy, so it’s easy for dowtime to feel a luxury you can ill-afford to take. But making ‘you’ your number-one priority every now and then is essential for maintaining mental wellbeing, and ensuring city life isn’t a constant grind. Dr Jacobson says, ‘This can mean an early night once a week, booking that personal trainer, or taking a long bath instead of doing more work emails,’ but really it means taking time to do whatever will help you unwind from the stresses of the day.
Another strategy Dr Jacobson recommends is making a ‘wellbeing list; of 10 things that make you feel good. ‘It might be cooking, long walks or attending a lecture,’ she says, but whatever it is that floats your boat, the important thing is you make an effort to do one or two of the activities on your list every week.
Mindfulness is simply the act of paying greater attention to the present moment; becoming more aware of your thoughts and emotions, and considering why you might be feeling the way you do. In a city context, it can be the difference between a day of stress and anxiety or one of relative calm.
‘Mindfulness is a lasting trend because it works,’ says Dr Jacobson, ‘and it's also a tool you can use anywhere. A few minutes of mindfulness meditation on busy public transport can work wonders for your commuter stress, and everyone else will just think you are napping! Even deep, mindful breathing can help if you don't want to close your eyes.’
Yoga and tai-chi are a couple of traditional methods for becoming more aware of your breathing, but if joss sticks and crossed legs aren’t really your thing there are also a host of mindfulness apps designed specifically for people without much time on their hands, such as Headspace and The Mindfulness App.
Connect With Like-Minded People
Beyond your colleagues or Tinder dates, it’s important for people living in cities to forge connections with those they can be themselves around. That means getting out and utilising the fact that in a city you’re surrounded by millions of people – the odds of you meeting a few you can get on with, therefore, are pretty good.
Dr Jacobson recommends using platforms like meetup.com ‘to find groups of people who share your interests.’ Those team sports could also come into play here, or, if that’s not your thing, sign up to a class, join a group or a society – ‘Do what you can to meet others,’ says Dr Jacobson, ‘even if it feels easier to just stay home all the time.’
‘The best way to enjoy life, and to make real friends, is by being ourselves’
See The Sights
Feelings of disconnect and loneliness are normal in a place where it’s easy to be anonymous. To combat those feelings, why not take the time to find out more about the place you call home? Cities are often soaked in history. ‘Cities can offer a lot in the way of culture and activities,’ says Dr Jacobson.
‘Making an effort to experience what your city offers can lead to you appreciating it and feeling more connected to where you live.’ Instead of viewing your city as a stressful place to live, try appreciating it for the wealth of opportunities it can present to you.
As well as the stress associated with a fast-paced way of life, city living creates pressure and expectation: ‘to be stronger, more extroverted, funnier or more fashionable,’ as Dr Jacobson puts it. But the increased competition of city life should be met with the knowledge that the only sustainable way to succeed – and find any kind of enjoyment – is to follow your own path. ‘The best way to enjoy life, and to make real friends, is by being ourselves,’ says Dr Jacobson.
WHAT NEXT? Watch Shauna Shapiro’s TED Talk on the power of mindfulness.