Living in cities can lead to a unique form of burnout. How do we mitigate this effect and what role do natural spaces play in our health as individuals?
My alarm clock, a soft hoo-hoo-hoo owl sound, wakes me up at dawn. I stretch my stiff back and open the curtains of my studio apartment. Outside, I am greeted with a grey and pink sunrise, even if it is only kissing the tips of roofs. My balcony overlooks a parking lot. Beyond that there are graffiti drizzled buildings, condominiums rising sky-high and old houses with trees interspersed between. I see people in thick puffer jackets criss-crossing the lot as they go about their day.
I finish my morning rituals and bundle myself up in the same way, ready to face the wind. More importantly, I am trying to psych myself up to face the long work day ahead of me. I step out of the front door of my apartment building where I’m lucky enough to live across from a little green space. Cars, trucks and buses hurtle by between the park and myself. I glance at the time on my phone but I don’t have time to take a stroll. I must get to work on time.
On the subway I am crammed in between at least fifteen other passengers who look exhausted or stressed. It is dim and the old adage fits; we truly are sardines in a can. In front of me, I can smell a man’s deodorant spray. Behind me, I feel someone’s backpack spiking into my knee. When the subway car jolts, I clumsily crash into a lady beside me who – thankfully – smiles and accepts my awkward apology. With my headphones on at a high volume, I use the music to let my mind wander beyond the confines of the tiny space.
I think of the bigger picture. There are thousands of others who are like me – sticking it out together on all of the subway lines, buses and streetcars riding around the city routes. In 2017 alone, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) carried 533.2 million people, averaging around 1.5 million riders in a single day.¹ I think of the inner workings of public transit and of the incredible amount of energy and resources that goes into the makings and maintenance of such a system. I feel a sense of gratitude, even if only briefly.
As I scramble up and down the stairways of Union Station and through the sidewalks that are packed wall-to-wall with people, I feel as though I might be trampled by the human stampede. I check the time on my phone again; I have to rush to the office.
If I can, I try to leave the apartment earlier to take the long route to work. It is above ground in a streetcar, and there is more leg room to sit. I enjoy getting some natural light through the windows and watching the usual comings and goings of city streets. I feel more relaxed when I take this route, but if I’m not careful I can wind up late.
I have tried the cycling to work thing too. I found that this commuting experience was less stressful but it was difficult for me to keep it up with chronic pain issues. Maybe I’ll try biking to work again once the warmer days of Spring return.
I work long hours in front of a computer screen. My longest shift is a twelve hour day and in a surreal sense sometimes the screen seems to be all there is. This is a huge change for me because I have always been drawn to all things natural. I cherish the moments when I can step away and look out the window at the sky, Lake Ontario, even the people and cars passing by on the streets down below. Even in such an urban setting, looking down over the cityscape from nearly the top floor I notice a house sparrow swooping with grace from trees to buildings. I find a sense of delight in seeing the slow dive of the bird.
When I am at home I want to be away from the computer screen and from my phone. I feel a sense of dread about the amount of screen time I get – am I getting too much? Am I addicted to checking my e-mails and my social media notifications? It is hard to relax; I am restless. As a result, I try to keep my phone on “Do Not Disturb”, which to me is the ultimate Silent Mode. It turns off all notifications from every single application (except phone calls, but you can silence those too). Despite my phone being on notification lock-down, the curiosity of what might be waiting for me online still rumbles at the pit of my stomach. Device addiction is a hunger that cannot be satiated.
Working long hours in the city means that I don’t get to spend as much time outdoors as I am used to or would like. In the past, my free time was spent bike riding or hiking on long trails and winding country roads or reading a book in my family’s backyard garden. I felt much closer to nature. Days seemed longer then; my body and mind were in tune with the biological hours of the day.
In contrast, in my city-work life I spend a lot of my downtime in front of more screens. I can’t judge myself for that – a tired body needs the relaxation that watching TV and movies can provide. Watching Netflix or the equivalent can be an act of self-care, too. Though it is through a screen, the immersive experience of film and television can allow the mind to relax. Still, I’m feeling a little disconnected from the “real world”, living behind all of these screens. I miss sunlight. I miss clean forest air. I miss the sound of rain trickling down my window – and nothing else.
I feel a little bit like a bird whose wings have been clipped. I feel trapped by the confines of the urban landscape; it seems like at every corner I turn there is another person, another car, or another wall. It’s exhausting. It’s stressful.
In nature: there is stillness, there is quiet. There is external peace that allows you to be yourself. It does not judge.
Living in or near nature is a huge contrast to the noise and clutter of the city. When I am in the city, I feel that I must drown out that chaos with music, white noise, and many hours of quiet reflection in film, music, books and meditation. I know it may sound extreme. However, for me, the stress of city life feels like an assault on my body. I feel I must constantly be maintaining my health through these introspective activities.
Rural living can act as a natural meditation if we are open to it. The slow speed offers us breathing space to slow down, take moments to think and fully be present in our lives and in the environment around us. It can be therapeutic to be able to immerse yourself in a clean, aesthetically pleasing environment with interesting textures. Most importantly, rural living can help us to be connected to our environment in a tangible way as opposed to abstractly; we can become acquaintances with it in our everyday lives.
In a natural setting, time can become much slower. It doesn’t require as much energy to find repose. I can recall laying in my bed when I lived in the countryside, seeing the leaves and branches outside my window sway back and forth – as though in a dance – in the wind. That rustling sound that trees make is called susurrus, and the susurrus of a quiet country evening never failed to soothe my mind.
It’s hard to feel soothed in the city. There isn’t much space for reflection, at least for me. I need that physical space. I need to be able to hear myself think.
One of the simplest places I could find solitude was in walking down a path that seemed to be endless, listening to just the crunch of stones, leaves and roots beneath my boots. As unexceptional as the activity might seem, walking in wilderness can have a powerful, meditative effect.
What is “city life burnout”?
Burnout is a separate term in its own right, but I think that city living can lead to it’s own unique form of burnout. City life burnout can feel like crushing exhaustion and chronic fatigue. One may feel mental agitation; it feels like an abyss of stress. It can become difficult to cope with life as everyday tasks can be overwhelming. There may be feelings of detachment, cynicism and a lack of meaning or accomplishment where there once was. One may feel disengaged from their environment. A key sign of city life burnout might feel like desperation to escape the city and to find a quiet place in nature to spend time in.
Here are a few of the main contributors to the stress of city living:
- time (and sense of time)
- space (physically and mentally)
- the senses (sound, sight, smell, touch)
- disconnect from our natural environment.
Our sense of time in the city can change.
Time can become altered as a result of the speed of life. If we are always busy – rushing around to work, completing errands, fulfilling social obligations while still maintaining our own personal lives – this leaves little space for slowing down and simply being. It is hard to reflect and unwind at such a fast pace.
Our bodies, like other natural organisms, are driven by a circadian rhythm, which is a daily pattern of physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour oscillation. Circadian rhythms can be affected by external cues such as sunlight, darkness and even temperature. Working or living according to a schedule or in an environment that provides little natural sunlight or not enough darkness can have harmful effects on our body’s natural rhythms. How much sunlight we get in the morning and how much darkness we get in the evening plays a huge role in getting healthy sleep, for example.
Green spaces may help to promote well-being.
Many cities, including Toronto, do have lots of green spaces which are beautiful and fun to visit. However sometimes these spaces are not quiet, large or “wild” enough to provide the breaks from the city that people need. Some studies suggest that there are health benefits to reap from spending time in nature.
For example, in a study conducted by Dr. Sobko and her collaborator Professor Gavin Brown, Director of the Quantitative Data Analysis and Research Unit at the University of Auckland, the results showed that children who had a closer connection to nature had less distress, less hyperactivity and fewer behavioral/emotional difficulties and improved pro-social behavior.²
A study conducted by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health analysed data that followed people over a five year period found that moving to a greener area sparked an immediate improvement in mental health that lasted for at least three years after the participants moved. The authors of the research adjusted their data to remove the effects of other factors likely to affect mental health such as income, employment, education, as well as personality.³
“We needed to answer important questions about how the effects of green space vary over time. Do people experience a novelty effect, enjoying the new green area after the move, but with the novelty then wearing off? Or do they take time to realize the benefits of their new surroundings as they gradually get to know local parks? What we’ve found suggests that the mental health benefits of green space are not only immediate, but sustainable over long periods of time.”Dr Mathew White, Co-Author of the study, “Examining how green spaces affect wellbeing”.
A connection to nature may be the key to both environmental and human health.
Being disconnected from our natural environment can also make it harder to understand our connection to nature in the first place. Our food sources, climate, other resources and our quality of life depend on the environment around us. Just as being socially connected to our community is good for us, so can feeling a connection to nature benefit people.
We don’t need to live in or near nature to feel connected, but if we don’t immerse ourselves in natural spaces sometimes, where does that connection come from? I am grateful that I was given a chance to experience all sorts of natural environments – from the back-country of Ontario to the jungles of Peru. My experiences spending time in wild spaces have strengthened my relationship with nature.
My passion for environmental work did not come from reading about the environment in textbooks or from watching Planet Earth on television. It came from real world experiences in nature that formed a bond between myself and the natural world. I think that if more people were to feel connected to the environment, they would feel much more impassioned to work towards environmental goals. Not only does it spark action, but when we have a connection to nature it provides a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives.
Okay, so you’re tired of city living. Now what? You can’t just uproot your entire life and run away, Into The Wild style, right? Well, you could. However there’s also a middle ground.
It is possible to find stillness even among the cacophony of the city. Here are a few things you can do to mitigate city living pains:
- Practice mindfulness wherever you are.*
- Spend time in urban green spaces like parks and ravines. Learn to cherish the natural spots that you have close by.
- Find time, even if it’s only an hour or less a day, to take a break from phones or other screens.
* Mindfulness – or “one-mindfulness” as used in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) – helps us to focus our attention on the present. Often when someone is stressed or mentally agitated, they are distracted by thoughts, feelings, and worries. The simplest way to practice mindfulness is to do one thing at a time, and to focus your attention on it. It is a skill, and like any skill it takes practice to do, so don’t beat yourself up if you struggle with mindfulness at first.
As for myself, I think there is a lesson to be learned here. How do I interact with my environment, regardless of whether I live downtown or in the middle of nature? Can I learn to find quiet joy wherever I live or do I need the external space of nature to find it?
Recently, I went home to visit my mother, who lives 2 hours north of the city. I felt an immense sense of relief once I was out of the city limits. Being able to see expanses of green space and to experience the quiet of a small town calmed my senses. Perhaps I need the slowness of nature to help soothe my mind and body. Every person has different needs and what may be fine for someone to tolerate may be difficult for someone else. And maybe that’s okay.
Maybe city living isn’t for everyone. Until I move out of Toronto, I will have to continue to mitigate the city burnout I experience. I will cherish the moments of solitude I do get, and treasure the urban green spaces that exist right here in the heart of Toronto. Still, I’ve realized that I’m not content with a compromised life, so I am planning to eventually leave the city life behind. For me, experiencing the glorious space and silence of nature sparks my happiness; it drowns out mental noise and draws my eyes and heart to the beauty of our universe.
|¹||“TTC Operating Statistics: Section Two.” TTC, Toronto Transit Commission, 2017, http://www.ttc.ca/About_the_TTC/Operating_Statistics/2017/section_two.jsp. |
|²||The University of Hong Kong. “Kids: Connection to nature lessens distress, hyperactivity and behavioral problems.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 January 2019. .|