A Face in the Crowd: Overcoming the Stress of Modern Living
Last winter, I was in New York City to attend a family wedding. It was the height of the Christmas shopping season and rush hour when my wife and I left the hotel room, heading down 42nd street into an unyielding mass of humanity. My stress level increased as we pushed and wiggled every foot of our way to our destination. My competitive nature was engaged. I was in the world’s largest mosh pit. I was touched unintentionally more than I am accustomed to by people I didn’t know nor will ever see again. Then I had a strong pessimistic thought, “There are too many people in this world”. Further I thought, “This amount of people pressure cannot be good for people.” “Look at how we have ruined nature with all this concrete.” Environmentalists and ecologists have recently asserted that humanity has less destructive impact on the Earth if we live in large cities. But what is the impact on people living in population dense urban settings?
Modern Living and Psychological Distress
Did you know there has been an astonishing rise in mental health issues despite improvements in psychology, science, medicine, economics, and education? How could this be? While there are probably many factors involved with increasing rates of psychological distress, one likely factor is the breakdown of connection with others. In our modern society we are taken away from close associations, family and friends, with our work and pursuit of a better economic life. Many people have moved to cities for work opportunities far away from the support they grew up with. They end up just a face in the crowd. Evolutionary psychologists have noted that optimal human functioning occurs in small groups of 40-50 people. These small groups could provide well for everyone and were based on cooperation and helping each other. When the groups grew larger than this optimal number in ancient times, a sub group would split off to maintain the efficiency and effectiveness of the groups. Moreover, we have also evolved to attach to those we are familiar with and avoid contact with people or groups of people we do not know. This avoidance functioned to prevent infectious disease and violence that could harm the group. Frequent contact with people not familiar to us is naturally stressful.
Stress and the Brain
All people have organ vulnerability. When a person is distressed the vulnerable organs start to malfunction. In the case of a person with a brain that is vulnerable to malfunction under stress, symptoms such as anxiety and depression can develop. Managing stress is a powerful way to maintain sound mental health.
What to Do
Stress in our modern society is inevitable. Here are some things you can do to decrease the stress and support optimal mental health and life satisfaction:
Develop close supportive relationships
The key to living a good life full of meaning and satisfaction is the quality of your relationships. This could be with family, partner, and friends. If you grew up with a dysfunctional family try to develop supportive relationships with others. You don’t get to choose your family but you can choose your friends. If you have difficulty with family and developing other supportive relationships consider psychotherapy. This is where psychotherapy, even group psychotherapy, shines; developing your capacity to find and foster supportive connection in a small group of others. Remember, you do not have to be defined by a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional family.
If you find yourself feeling isolated and alone, reach out and help someone. Research has shown that depression symptoms can be reduced by helping others. Helping does not have to be big gestures. It can be as simple as opening a door for someone, or more involved helping such as volunteering to serve the less fortunate on a regular schedule. Try making serving others a part of every day.
Find some solitude
When you are feeling overwhelmed with the hustle and bustle of the rat race, find some quiet time to relax. This can be done with an intimate other or alone. Examples of ways you can rejuvenate are: meditation, yoga, a walk, reading, a run, bike ride, music, gardening, etc. One of my favorites is including some aspect of nature. We have so much wonderful outdoor natural space that can be accessed. You don’t have to drive for hours to find nature. Some quiet time in a nice backyard with a favorite person or activity can be very fine.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, Ph.D.