Finding Time for Stillness in a Non-Stop Society
It’s 5:30pm. You’re pressed up between bodies in a metal can shooting through a tunnel, ferrying these exhausted souls between work and their next destination. Purse on your shoulder, briefcase at your feet, you grin and bear it for another 7 stops until those red doors slide open at King’s Cross, and you finally have some room to breathe as the carriage spills its contents out onto the platform. The train trickles on until you finally arrive at your glorious destination, from where your feet take over, carrying you home – left, right, left, right – all the way to the comfort of your front door. Sigh – inhale, exhale. You prepare yourself before you go in, because you know on the other side of this door is another set of stressors and demands to be dealt with. An evening of cooking, help with homework, domestic chores, last-minute online ordering, and weekend planning ensues, with the longest you have to yourself being the ten minutes in the shower before you crawl into bed, ready to do it again tomorrow.
In an enormous, bustling city like London, it can be easy to succumb to overwhelm and stress, and in the process, neglect taking care of yourself because it doesn’t feel as though there are enough hours in the day. Our increasingly interconnected society, through email and apps like Slack, coupled with the competitive nature of being and remaining employed today, has redefined ‘office hours’. Anyone who can use their downtime to get ahead, will, setting the expected standard for everyone else. When it doesn’t feel like there is an ‘off’ button, or pressing it will take result in us falling perilously behind in work or social settings, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, inadequate, and anxious. But if you start practicing putting yourself first, you’ll notice an increase in wellbeing, productivity, and that – gasp – you won’t fall behind, you’ll actually spring forward with regard to your ambitions and personal fulfillment.
Cities and Mental Health
There seems to be something inherent about cities that lead us to feeling constantly stressed. Always a new bar to be seen at, a new exhibition to check out, another friend who’s only in town for 2 nights and wants to see you. Pile this on top of normal work and family life, and in London, rising cost of living, and you can clearly see the potential for a disastrously stressed life.
Indeed, the data show that city-dwellers are more likely to be leading higher-stress lives than their rural counterparts. An interesting German study found that the brains of people raised in urban contexts versus those raised in rural contexts showed an increased vulnerability to negative emotions and social stress processing.
According to The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, people who live in cities experience the ‘overload’ effect – an increase in the body’s baseline levels of arousal, stress, and preparedness, and a resulting urge to seek relief in quiet, private spaces. Over time, this urge may evolve into the kind of social isolation associated with depression and anxiety, two mental health disorders for which city living has been identified as a risk factor for.
The overload effect stems from the never-ending stimuli in urban environments that trigger action and thought on a latent level of awareness. Over time, the build-up of these latent thoughts makes us think that we can’t ‘cope’, leading to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.
In addition to depression and anxiety, city dwelling has also been repeatedly linked to an increased risk of developing schizophrenia later in life, with one study stating that growing up in a city as much as doubles the risk of developing psychosis later in life. The researchers behind this bold claim argue that the most likely reason for this is the low social cohesion that tends to exist in cities, with low supportiveness and sense of community between neighbours, and higher crime rates encouraging people to adopt an “every man for himself” mentality. Ironically, this reinforces isolation behaviour, which in turn reinforces feelings of depression and anxiety, perpetuating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break out of and will leave you feeling exasperated and unfulfilled.
Green Spaces – An Easy Urban Solution to a Complex Problem?
In and amongst this doom-and-gloom research on mental health in cities comes a little light. It has consistently been shown that green spaces boost mental wellbeing, because they provide the space for socialising, exercise,and relaxation. Specifically, time spent in nature or greenery has been suggested to promote improved concentration. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) states that the natural environment abounds with “soft fascinations” which capture our attention without requiring us to be switched on in a way that requires a lot of effort or conscious thought.
Indeed, plants in hospital settings can help patients recover faster and better. After surgery, patients in resting rooms overlooking trees fared better than their counterparts faced with a brick wall, experiencing fewer complications and asking for weaker painkillers (Ulrich, 1984). Similarly, children in New York State were found to be less stressed by adversity when they lived in rural areas (Wells & Evans, 2003), and those presented with natural scenes before a university exam benefited from reduced stress, while those presented with industrial scenes did not (Ulrich, 1979). A 2015 study by Stanford University found that a 90-minute walk in nature versus in an industrial setting led to significantly lower rumination behaviour – the act of repeatedly dwelling on negative emotions or events, an act associated with the increased risk of developing depression.
This relaxation and apparent refocus brought about by exposure to the natural environment could be one key way to drive mental well-being in a city that never stops, perhaps because it encourages attention without requiring concentration. It naturally puts us into a state of awareness without it being chaotic, similarly to another well-renowned method of creating time to slow down and relax you might have heard of. It’s called mindful meditation.
Mindful meditation is the psychological process of bringing your attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, usually by focusing on your breath and/or sensations happening around you. It is essentially a non-judgmental awareness, allowing thoughts to occur in our minds, observing them, and letting them pass by without analysing, worrying, or dwelling on hypotheticals in the future or past. Deepak Chopra articulation sums it up nicely, “My body is busy, my mind is still”.
Meditation has been shown to reduce negative psychological stressor of feelings like anxiety and depression. In fact, research shows that after an 8-week meditation course, participant’s brains are different than they were before the course. Areas connected to processes of learning and memory, emotional regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking experienced a boost in gray matter density, while areas associated with fear and stress showed a decrease in gray matter density. On a longer-term basis, practitioners of mindful meditation can expect to benefit from elevated capacity for empathy, and a change in the brain waves emitted by their gray matter, leading them to experience a state of wakeful relaxation.
Now, we know we don’t all have the time or patience for an 8-week meditation course, but we have good news for you! Even just meditating for 10 minutes a day can lead to better focus and concentration, and lower levels of stress and anxiety, according to a study by the University of Waterloo.
“But I don’t have time!”
The truth is, the prospect of stopping and doing nothing for a while is actually rather daunting for most of us! It becomes tempting to push it down the priority list, but that’s because we’re so used to living without stopping to smell the roses, we don’t know what we’re missing out on!
Remember our commuter on their way home from work? We bet they could grab 5 minutes between King’s Cross and their final destination to focus on their surroundings, their breath, the sensations of the world around them. Or perhaps between dinner and tucking the kids in to bed, our commuter carves out 10 minutes to check in with themselves and reflect on the day. When you prioritise your wellbeing the way you would your spouse’s or your friend’s wellbeing, you’ll see boundless opportunities to make little changes that will improve your life for the better.
Mindful meditation isn’t the only way to find space to slow down. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that keeping a gratitude journal helps keep you connected to other people, and in a positive frame of mind. In Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive, she writes, “According to a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida, having participants write down a list of positive events at the end of the day, and why these events made them happy, lowered their self-reported levels of stress and gave them a greater sense of calm at night. That’s one for all of you who struggle to sleep because your mind is a non-stop whirr of worry, troubles, and ‘what-ifs’ late into the night!
Summing it all up
The pace of life is so fast and hectic as it is, it is easy to feel as though it passes us by before we get a chance to enjoy it. However, it is up to us to make our mental well-being a priority, and finding the time to practice little rituals that can make a real difference to your happiness and mood.
So to our commuter struggling through the crowds on the Underground, take the opportunity to slow down: focus on the air flowing in and out of your lungs, and embrace your existence – even when you find it’s landed you in a hot rush-hour Tube carriage.