How Big City Life Can Trigger Anxiety (and What to Do About It)

Big city living may be exhilarating, but the constant grind and sensory overload is a perfect storm for anxiety.

That's the thought that hit me after 18 months as a New Yorker, when I found my nerves frayed and my resilience thinned.

Mostly the anxiety lay in my chest, loosely gripping my throat as I negotiated the everyday tasks of fighting through a subway queue, battling a realtor about an exorbitant fee, moving my feet before someone caught my heel with their in-a-hurry boot.

Occasionally, it bubbled out in the form of a racing heart and sweaty hands, and I took to lying in my apartment for hours, unable to summon the energy to face the packed sidewalks and screeching sirens outside.

All this made me think: I can't be the only one who finds life in a mega-city to be terrible for stress levels. So I reached out to experts for their insights—and was strangely soothed to learn that I'm not alone.

"In my clinical experience, living in big cities may contribute to the development of anxiety in those who are predisposed to the condition," says Clinical Psychologist Melissa Keogh.

"Factors unique to city life that people often find anxiety-provoking include high rents, a fast pace, longer working hours, large mortgages, navigating unfamiliar roads, tolls, and transport, long commutes and the demands of city traffic."

Noise levels, commuting times, over-crowding and lack of access to parks and nature reserves can also trigger anxiety, according to psychologist and wellness speaker Caroline Anderson, of Performance Edge Psychology. (There's a reason urbanism experts consider strolls in New York's Central Park a matter of public health.)

The literature backs up these experts' observations. One study found anxiety disorders were 21 percent higher in urban versus rural living areas for individuals in developed countries; another discovered city dwellers have higher levels of mood disorders and other psychiatric problems than their country-dwelling counterparts.

Research published a study in the journal Nature even shows people living in cities had the highest levels of activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear and activating the 'flight or flight' response. ("It seems that the part of the brain which can sense danger becomes overactive in city dwellers," Anderson tells me.)

As 'the city that never sleeps', New York might be an extreme example of an anxiety-producing place to live—but the phenomenon crops up elsewhere, too.

The quality of health care, current cost of living, the threat of terrorism, and rate of crime, can contribute to location-related unhappiness and anxiety, Anderson says.

So the fact Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Washington DC were ranked as the nation's four most stressful cities by a 2011 Forbes study may come as no surprise to residents of those overcrowded, expensive towns.

Fortunately, there are a number of practical ways city-dwellers can manage their anxiety.

The first step: Developing a solid understanding of what anxiety is and what maintains it—and assuring yourself that anxiety is "highly treatable through preventative measures as well as psychological therapies," as Anderson puts it.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or CBT, is widely recognized as a useful method of treating anxiety, clinical psychologist Melissa Keogh says. She particularly recommends the book Change Your Thinking, by Sarah Edelman, as a CBT tool.

Practicing mindfulness, which Anderson describes as "a process of awareness, not thinking," can also help.

There are a number of ways to tap into this habit, starting with your smartphone. "There are now a plethora of apps, podcasts, YouTube clips, and MP3 downloads to easily listen to guided mindful meditations," Anderson suggests.

For quick and easy mindful meditations, Keogh recommends The Smiling Mind App.

Incorporating easy mindfulness practices into your busy, city-living daily routine can also be "as easy as washing the dishes mindfully, having a mindful shower or going for a mindful walk in nature," says Anderson.

Alternatively, Keogh suggests the following quick mindfulness exercise: "Stop and notice five things you can hear right now."

Anxiety triggers are amplified for those who have recently moved from the country or are socially isolated, Anderson adds.

Nurturing social ties can also reduce your anxiety levels and "joining clubs, community groups or volunteering may build a greater sense of connection" to your community, she suggests.

And when the hustle and bustle really gets on top of you, try that old favorite easy-to-master DIY trick: Deep breathing.

"I routinely encourage the practice deep breathing through the belly, called abdominal breathing, for five to 10 minutes a day as well as engaging in the practice of mindfulness," says Keogh.

The benefit, says Anderson, is that the change of focus quickly reverses the fight or flight response.

So breathe in. Then out. And hopefully your anxiety will release its grip—allowing you to enjoy, rather than resent, the bustling metropolis around you.