Stress in the City

Stress management is not about suppressing stress, pretending we don’t have any. It is about using the natural gift of stress productively. It is about understanding ourselves and our bodies, our strengths and limitations a little better so that we can improve our overall wellbeing and with that live up to our purpose in life.

We all thrive with stress. We need stress and we know it. Good stress that is: Eustress.

“Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves.” Ray Bradbury

The adrenaline that is released when we are stressed or get excited will increase heart rate, raise blood pressure and ready the body’s energy supplies. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone” also increases blood sugars. We get a surge of energy, our awareness increases, our memory and memory recall improves and we even have a temporary lowered sensitivity to pain. This natural high prepares us to fight or run, and we can use it effectively to energise other tasks and this little high is quite addictive.

We read a tremendous amount about how bad stress is, but we all know we actually need it, most of us thrive under it. It is probably this reason that people have become immune to the “stress is bad” messages until it is almost too late.

An increased number of professionals and executives are referred to psychiatric hospitals for treatment after prolonged excessive stress which can cause depression, psychosis, other mood disorders and trigger substance abuse. Many of us refer to this as “burn-out”. It comes in many forms and most of us have been exposed to it in some form or another by the time we are adults.

The stress hormone, cortisol, is wonderful to help fuel our stress-induced high, but chronic elevated levels have been linked to interference with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease and the one we should seriously pay attention to more: increased weight gain, especially around the gut. This bad visceral fat has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and many more ills.

Stress management is about using the energy and other benefits provided by Eustress to the best of our ability and knowledge so that we can, not only prevent it from becoming Distress, but thrive and help build a better world around us.

Mother Africa

Research published by Bloomberg shows that South Africa is the second most stressful country in the world. We came in second to Nigeria, but only just. Our income per citizen is about 4 time that of the average Nigerian, and our cities less crowded, but our corruption score is almost double, our inequality score 50% more, our unemployment rate higher and our murder rate almost 3 times higher that of the most stressful country in the world. Both Nigeria and South Africa rank almost 15% higher than the next closest, which is El Salvador and South Africa is 12.5 x more stressful to live in than Norway.

“I know the world is filled with troubles and many injustices. But reality is as beautiful as it is ugly. I think it is just as important to sing about beautiful mornings as it is to talk about slums. I just couldn’t write anything without hope in it.” Oscar Hammerstein II

South Africa is a spectacularly beautiful country, with some of the kindest, most generous, resourceful, resilient people you can find. When we hear all the bad news though, and read all the bad statistics, it triggers high levels of stress, understandably so. There is very little we can do as individual citizens to address the problems of the entire country, and nothing keeps stress levels high quite as well as a feeling of helplessness and injustice.

The best thing you can do, for yourself as well as your country, is to put the energy released by your stressful response to good use before it turns into Distress. Speak out, educate, inform, and support each other. Get involved in your own community as well as its extended communities and help address the immediate threats. This will help to reduce harmful stress and work towards the long term wellbeing of your community.

Little pockets of social wellbeing, where members of the community work towards improving things, soon benefit everyone, and the effects rapidly even spreads into neighbouring areas.

“Courage is like a muscle. We strengthen it by use.” — Ruth Gordo

Collaboration is one of the many wonderful strengths of women, and we all know that when we help others, our own stress decreases and our happiness increases. When we see someone else in Distress it triggers our own Eustress, and with energy and purpose we assist. Once the task is done, everyone’s stress levels are lower.

All forms of community service and volunteering has wide-spread benefits for the volunteers. It improves mood, reduces depression, reduces harmful stress and increases happiness.

Stress in the City

Living in the urban jungle increases the risk of poor stress management and mental disorders. City dwellers have a 20 per cent higher risk of developing anxiety disorders, a 40 per cent higher risk of developing mood disorders and double the risk of schizophrenia. Psychiatric medication are even adjusted based on whether you live in a rural or urban area.

This is true even though infrastructure, socioeconomic conditions, nutrition and health care services are often much better in cities than in most rural areas.

Cities expose us to more stressors. Besides pollution and noise, social stresses seem to be the most important factor for the increase in unhealthy stress. This is because the environment becomes less controllable for the individual in crowded areas and we feel more vulnerable. This heightened alertness is great in short doses, but after a while we become numb and withdraw from the excess stimulation.

City dweller’s sleep cycles are also unhealthier than their rural counterparts. The vibrant night life in cities can be great, but if you still have to be at work early after a few hours of fitful sleep where traffic and sirens and noise disrupts what little sleep you did get. There is also increased pressure from friends, colleagues and the competitive demands of businesses to sleep less and live harder.

“Cities are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.” ― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Studies also show that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain. If we’re sleep deficient, we have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling our emotions and behaviour, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency has also been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behaviour.

Sleep deficiency also increases the risk of obesity

Sleep plays an important role in our physical health. For example, sleep is involved in healing and repair of our heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.

In South Africa the percentage of urbanised people have increased from 52% in 1990 to 62% by 2011, and still rising. This means that the majority of us face the challenges of urban stress and we have to find effective ways to channel the surges of additional energy city stress gives us, so that it stays vibrant and does not become distressing.

Did you know that Central Park in New York City, the financial capital of the world, is a whopping 341 ha? Think about the implications of this for a minute… the most expensive real-estate in the world and they have a protected city park bigger than the average Gauteng Game Reserve.

Spending only 30 min in nature has long-lasting stress reduction benefits, and more and more city planners see the value in giving inhabitants easy access to nature.

Do your bit to make sure natural areas in the city are protected, accessible and safe for use. We cannot afford to lose bits of green in any of our South African cities.

Working Girl

Extensive worldwide stress studies show that women are up to twice as likely to experience major depression than men. They are also up to three times more apt to suffer from anxiety disorders or to attempt suicide.

“I like to go out there looking like a strong woman, because I am strong. But I am also a woman who goes through all kinds of problems and highs and lows.” – Katy Perry

The South African Stress and Health study carried out in conjunction with the World Health Organization World Mental Health Survey Initiative backs this finding and also points out that although substance abuse was higher amongst men, mood disorder were higher amongst women.

Interestingly, the study found that people with a low-average income have fewer mental disorders than those with higher incomes.

South-African girls’ stress survival guide (with a few tips for men)

No matter who you are, or where you live, prolonged, unproductive stress will do some serious damage. If you don’t channel your Eustress effectively it will rob you of some wonderful experiences and life, and reduce your contribution to society dramatically.

If you are a South African female working in a city, you should really take extra special care.

Learn to channel the energy from stress productively. To be more effective in the workplace it may be worth doing assertiveness training, learning better time management, structure realistic breaks into your work day, identifying and setting reasonable standards. Make sure you and your business understand who you are and can set up the work environment to make best use of your individual strengths and compensate for your unique weaknesses.

When you can’t immediately use the energy released by stress into something useful, practice stress management techniques.

Deep Breathing

The quickest way to get the immediate surge of energy and hormones under control is to practice deep breathing. This is something you can practice to great benefit even in very crowded and sedentary environments, like on a crowded train

It is worth doing a few lessons with a breathing coach, such as a yoga instructor to learn how the correct deep breathing techniques, and practice them often. Deep breathing causes the vagus nerve to signal your nervous system to lower your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol. Taking just 10 deep breaths can assist with relaxation and provide a sense of calm.

Exercise – the best medication known to man

Calming down from your stress high, suppresses a natural system of energy release, so by no means is forcing calm the best long term way of dealing with stress, even if it is very important and useful at times. Every time you have a stressful day, your brain instructs your cells to release potent hormones. You get a burst of adrenaline, which taps stored energy so you can fight or flee. At the same time, you get a surge of cortisol, which tells your body to replenish that energy even though you haven’t used very many calories. This can make you feel hungry and your body keeps on pumping out that cortisol as long as the stress continues.

If you don’t put this excess energy to work, it builds up as fat, mostly the bad kind, visceral fat around your organs and on your tummy.

Physical activity has so many health benefits that it should be an essential part of all our lives. After any stressful day, doing just 10min of aerobic exercise can make the difference between coping with stress and sleeping well, or destroying your health and your body through inactivity.

For those of you with smart phones, use the pedometer function to reach your daily 10 000 step goal and impress yourself with the benefits to body and mind.

Investing in a rowing machine, exercise bike or even a skipping-rope is one of the best gifts you can give to yourself. When you can’t go for a brisk walk with your family or friends at the end of a stressful day, when you can’t cycle back from work, when you just don’t have the luxury of living in a place where this is even possible, when you can’t go to a gym… this is when you reward yourself with 10 – 20 minutes of aerobic exercise in the comfort of your own home.

Not only are the physical benefits tremendous, the release of endorphins will improve your mood and help you sleep better.

We all know the vicious cycle of excessive stress and poor sleep. When we deal poorly with stress, we sleep badly, this negatively effects our ability to deal with stress productively, which makes us sleep worse, which…

As a side-note, using alcohol to help you get to sleep is counter-productive as it reduces the amount if REM-sleep we get, and also makes us sleep very lightly when the alcohol starts wearing off. Initially it helps us to fall asleep quickly, but then it causes us to wake up easily and have restless nights.


Social isolation is deadlier than obesity, and more prevalent in the crowded cities than in rural areas. This feels perhaps counter-intuitive, but consider how many people in cities know their neighbours, and how many people in small rural towns know their neighbours. We are surrounded by strangers in cities, and humans are a breed of both strongly social and anti-social individuals.

Having a small group of real friends who know and understand us is an important part of building resilience and maintaining a high level of mental health. Having people who accept us without judgement and will support us even when we have made mistakes, lay the groundwork for much personal growth and a productive life at work, in our communities, in our families, and in ourselves.

“A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.” — Diane Mariechild

Why not combine all these stress management techniques and regularly take walks in parks, zoos and nature reserves with a few friends. Go to yoga or meditation class together to learn and practice breathing and relaxation techniques.

These friends form the support group you need to productively use the high levels of energy we gain from stress to do our bit to make the world around us a better place and will help us celebrate the role we as women play in nurturing South Africa into a bright, beautiful future.

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