Anxiety: New Yorkers' best frenemy
This city is driving us all fucking crazy—but would we have it any other way?
Wed May 21 2014
Photograph: Filip Wolak
“The level of stress people in New York endure is unbelievable. If you don’t develop an anxiety disorder living here, it’s a miracle.”
That’s Dr. David Rosmarin, founder and director of New York’s Center for Anxiety, which treats people out of the Empire State Building (in one of Gotham’s more relaxing neighborhoods). I’m talking to him because I am an anxious person. (And I’m not alone: Fifty-six percent of locals are, according to our poll below.) My most natural state of being is worried, and on the rare occasion when I have nothing to worry about, I find something. I dislike flying; feel a disquieting imbalance in my gut when faced with change, even when it’s positive (a free trip to Europe? Why can’t I just stay here?); and have a ritualistic tendency to turn ideas over in my brain until they are threadbare. When I was a kid, I’d frequently wake my mother in the middle of the night to say, “Mommy, I’m thinking about people dying.” Childhood insomnia due to the fact that you’re fixated on the idea of everyone you love dropping dead? Good times.
It’s worth mentioning that I am also a native New Yorker, and I come from nervous New York stock. My parents are Bronx Jews: My mom, a can’t-sit-still social butterfly, has a high-pitched nervous energy that trails her like Pig-Pen’s dust cloud; my dad possesses a commanding, unteetering presence that betrays none of the tumult within. I am somewhere between the two: a fast-talking, jittery extrovert who (usually) hides it well. We are all three, regardless of how we portray it, anxious New Yorkers.
Dr. Rosmarin thinks that’s no accident. When I ask him whether Gothamites really are particularly prone, he doesn’t hesitate: yes. “It has to do with New York causing stress. For many of my patients, if they lived somewhere else, their lives would be different,” he posits.
My own therapist had a similar take, that anxiety isn’t a particularly New York thing, but that all the stimuli here activate the anxiety humans naturally have: “If you’re a person who already has her antennae up, NYC is bound to contribute.”
I guess they have a point: Rent is astronomical, noise is pervasive, our morning commute usually involves getting shoved (and shoving back)—New York is an aggravating city. (Real-estate website Movoto recently rated NYC the second-most stressful place in the country. Those wheeler-dealers in Washington, D.C., beat us out for the No. 1 spot.) Dr. Rosmarin himself spends only two days a week here treating patients—he lives primarily in Boston. “I will not raise my family in New York,” he tells me defiantly. Which made me feel protective of the old broad because, okay, yes, I am often a bundle of nerves, but you know what else I am? Successful. Ambitious. Productive. New York can be a fickle, cutthroat bitch, and we’ve all got to stay on our toes. Having nothing to worry about would mean having nothing to aspire to, and for me—who’s always looking forward (and yes, worrying)—that’s not an option. So in a way, I’ve become dependent on my anxiety to keep me sharp. I need to be anxious. Or at least I’ve told myself I do.
And that ain’t great, according to Dr. Rosmarin: “Potentially, there’s a positive side. The go-go-go can be great—the most productive people on the planet live here. But the bitter drawback is that anxiety can be a distraction, and people don’t know what to do with themselves.” We are, as he sees it, burying our thoughts in a cascade of activity—like constantly being on our smartphones and going to bars—instead of dealing with the thoughts. That gets way meta when you stop to think about it: We’re distracting ourselves from our anxiety by staying too busy, and that in turn creates more anxiety. Oy.
But wait!, my inner New York contrarian immediately thought: Take away the craziness of the city, and I actually feel more anxiety. It’s really true. Anytime I find myself in the suburbs or country, no matter how beautiful or scenic or blah blah blah the surroundings, at night, as the house settles (why do houses do that?) and I try to drift to sleep, every crick and crack is a psycho killer about to bust in and get me. And the quiet? Ugh, those long stretches of nothingness that fold out before you during the day, the hum of electronics and insects at night, with nowhere within walking distance and nothing but strip malls beckoning? No fucking way. I’d be mainlining Xanax on a mobile IV if I lived in the suburbs.
“I feel a little lonely when the crazy people aren’t yelling gibberish”
The subway, on the other hand, an almost-too-easy example of a place that should rationally inspire anxiety? When I’m packed into a train in sometimes grotesquely intimate ways during my morning commute, I may not be making any real connections with people, but at least they’re there. And as an anxious gal, that hubbub—as obscenely sweaty and awkward as it might get—somehow calms me.
“New York is exciting—dazzling, even!” Dr. Rosmarin concedes. “There’s plenty of action around the clock. I wouldn’t be surprised if some anxious people—individuals who feel a need to constantly distract from the din of self-criticism and emotional pain—are drawn to it.”
I asked my friend Bob, a non-native New Yorker who’s always been anxious, what he thought of it all. He’s lived here for seven years, minus one ill-advised short stint in San Francisco (“a silly place filled with shiny people who think they’re special somehow because the weather is always reasonably pleasant”). You might say that New York is tailor-made for someone like Bob (or vice versa)—who is in a lot of ways someone like me. “New York no longer makes me anxious,” he says. “I now get anxious when I’m in places that are less citified, which is pretty much everywhere. ‘Why can’t I get anything to eat at 3am?’ ‘Where are all the goddamned taxis?’ ‘I wish there were a crazy person yelling gibberish right now.’ I feel a little lonely when the crazy people aren’t yelling gibberish. This is how the place ruins you.”
Having lived in Boston and very briefly in L.A., I know that he’s right. In fact, it not only ruins you, but the very things we endure become (a) reassuring and (b) a badge of honor. I could have stayed in Boston after grad school and had a reasonably nice life. It would have been fine. It’s certainly a more manageable city—not as competitive, not as fast-paced. Even the bars close at 2am, as if to enforce a citywide Mother Bear mandate that everyone go home and get a good night’s rest. It’s a perfectly lovely place to live. But it’s not New York. And who wants to say they live in Boston when they can say they live in New York? Certainly not an anxiety-ridden, hyperkinetic native New Yorker, that’s for sure.
“Maybe that’s what makes us tough,” my shrink wagers. “We learn to manage all the stimulation.”
Truthfully, I wouldn’t know who I was without my neurosis. The people I gravitate to most are the ones who understand anxiousness and introspection, and when I express self-doubt or worry. I once heard Ani DiFranco say at a show, “I miss New York like a person. New York is like a friend—kind of a bitchy friend.” And that’s exactly it. The anxiety that is so intrinsically New York is the motor that keeps us going. (Even if it is a motor that runs on dirty fuel.) Like alcoholics and food addicts, we New Yorkers are junkies, but the monkey on our collective back is stress. Is that a healthy relationship? Maybe not. But most of us can’t imagine it any other way.
“I don’t think leaving New York is an option for me anymore,” Bob says. “I like visiting places that are more laid-back, but I now have a hard time staying there. Even places like D.C. and Philly—they’re both bona fide in their East Coast credentials—they seem to lack the oomph of New York for me. I find them quaint and, you know, nice places to visit.”
Amen, brother. New Yorkers need oomph. We need action. We need something to be angsty about, when you get right down to it. We have no interest in living someplace nice and pleasant and fine all the time. So that means we’re probably more stressed-out and, yes, more anxious. But our ability to deal with it (and even use it productively) is a testament to our scrappiness. “It’s actually amazing to me how well the city functions,” says Dr. Rosmarin optimistically. “That’s what’s truly remarkable—that more people here aren’t completely debilitated.” Hooray?
Neurosis in numbers
We asked 100 New Yorkers: Do you…
…consider this the most stressful place in the world? 43%
…feel anxious? 56%
…take antidepressants or antianxiety meds? 27%
…see a shrink? 26%
More high-strung stats!
Gothamites’ drug of choice? Xanax (followed by Lexapro and Wellbutrin), and the East Village is filled with more anxious New Yorkers than any other nabe. A couple of people (in Midwood and Dumbo) admit to self-medicating with weed, and a few of you on the UES and in Brooklyn take “something” for anxiety but “can’t remember what.” (Be careful, you guys!)—Compiled by Tolly Wright
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