Thriving in the City: Managing Noise and Busyness in NYC - Humantold

Thriving in the City: Managing Noise and Busyness in NYC

Brianna Campbell, MHC-LP April 4, 2024

Environmental stressors like noise pollution and fast-paced living are more than mere annoyances; they’re detrimental to our health and wellbeing.

Let’s face it: living in NYC can be uniquely stressful, and finding an enclave of quiet and stillness in a city as bustling as this can feel impossible. Once you’ve lived here long enough, you may forget what it feels like to be truly still and embrace silence. When living in a city that prides itself on a level of speed that feels like it bends space and time, you adopt a feverish pace to keep up. We speedwalk like it’s an Olympic sport, multitask like there’s no tomorrow, and constantly process an array of bizarre sights and sounds without a flinch– a lot can happen in a New York minute. No wonder so many New Yorkers feel burned out and overstimulated, all while guilt snides, “You're not doing enough, keep up!” In a city that glamorizes a 24-hour lifestyle, you deserve a break.

Living in a constant state of busyness and noise is a significant part of the stress that depletes well-being and stifles our ability to lead healthy lives that bring satisfaction and contentment. Environmental stressors like noise pollution and fast-paced living are more than mere annoyances; they’re detrimental. Studies show that chronic busyness and regular exposure to noise pollution are both linked to an increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders and heart disease. 

There’s no better time than the present to learn how to make space for stillness and silence and reduce the risk for adverse health outcomes associated with chronic busyness and noise. It's time to affirm that balance and wellness are possible, even in the middle of the concrete jungle. To do so, we'll examine how we think about stress, then how it makes us feel, and finally, how we can change our behaviors to minimize the impact of stress and maximize the experiences we love.

Busy’s Been Rebranded

The intensity and stress chronic busyness brings to our lives is a feeling that’s hard to ignore, and it’s by design. Stress is a signal that alerts us to impending changes or threats in our environment that need our immediate attention. This stress is meant to be temporary, but stress can be constant and feel inescapable when living in a big city. It is so pervasive that many of us resign ourselves to wearing it as a badge of honor to reclaim pieces of identity that busyness has chipped away. Eventually, our language starts to sound like this:  “I’m keeping busy.” “I don’t have time for a break. I’ve got too much going on.” “I have to grind to make it. I’ll rest later.” These are examples of internalization, a learning process in which we adopt rules about the world by observing, experiencing, and absorbing. As we affirm that being chronically busy is unavoidable, we adopt some of that turmoil and stress into our inner monologue to keep from feeling like we’re being crushed by it. This keeps the cycle of stress active. 

When we internalize stress, free time may challenge our identity and security, and trigger feelings of worthlessness and emptiness, especially for people whose primary coping skills are rooted in avoidant behaviors. Free time can bring up intense feelings of fear that make it difficult to surrender to stillness and silence, resulting in an inability to come to a comfortable halt and engage in physical and mental rest. For this reason, busyness becomes a compelling alternative for so many who have internalized the fast-paced hustle of the city, and fosters a false sense of control.

Over-identification with chronic busyness and constant hustling is pervasive in the culture of New York, and the influence can go unnoticed and unaddressed until we reach a point of breakdown or breakthrough. We subscribe to a culture of busyness that encourages us to take on more than we can manage to prove ourselves competent or to meet our basic needs. Sometimes, busyness is unavoidable, but striving for balance is key. A balanced mix of tasks, routines, and obligations can feel invigorating and improve the flow of our lives. We don’t have to break up with being busy, but we can reimagine our relationship with it through a lens of intentionality and empowerment. Ask yourself these questions and consider exploring more with a therapist… Who would you be without your packed schedule, and what would you do? Would you still be you? Would you still be able to love the least productive and most idle version of yourself? Does your current schedule help or hurt when it comes to your present self-love? Does the thought of you without your daily to-dos make you uncomfortable? If you were to change one small thing about the pacing and scheduling of your life, what would it be? Does your busyness feel meaningful or meaningless?

Health Implications

Physical and mental stress brought on by chronic busyness is one of the most important impactors on our health and wellness. Busyness impacts the ways we think, feel, and behave. Pile enough busyness on for long enough, and research shows that your productivity is likely to drop, and your emotional health will likely suffer. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to managing a chronically busy lifestyle, but reflection, journaling, and talk therapy can be great places to start.

Finding a Balance

When managing busyness, it’s important to remember these three words: stress, distress, and eustress. Stress is the physical or psychological manifestation of force on our bodies, and although we most commonly use the word stress to  covey distress, it isn’t inherently harmful. Stress can also be a positive motivation for us physically and psychologically. The stress of a balanced workout routine, adopting a pet, or getting married are examples of positive stress, otherwise known as eustress. It’s all about finding a healthy balance between the kind of stressors that make up our day and allowing enough time to routinely take a break from stress. Scheduling regular nothingness into your schedule where your mind and body can take a break from processing intense eustress and distress is peak wellness. Here are some examples of low stress activities that can enhance your day:

  • Mindfulness meditation 
  • Prioritizing time for restorative sleep 
  • Spending time with loved ones
  • Going for a nature walk
  • Stretching and Yoga

Tuning Out the Noise

New York City can be described in many words, but quiet is not one of them. In a metropolis as populated as ours, you can expect to hear a cacophony of sounds at any time of the day. From your upstairs neighbors' evening vacuuming session to the blare of sirens and ambulances and the roar of planes flying in and out of LaGuardia, there are unlimited sounds that pollute the environment and impact stress levels. This constant inundation of sounds can lead to overstimulation and impact our physical and mental health in the long run.

Overstimulation can present  in many ways, some of which can be manifested as anxiety and extreme irritability, covering of the ears or eyes, sensitivity to overwhelming stimuli, headaches, anger, or crying spells. Overstimulation looks different for everyone, but a skilled therapist can assist you in reflecting on how stress feels in your body and in reducing overwhelm. 

Because we can’t always avoid noise, planning ways to adaptively manage it can be helpful. Tools such as noise-canceling headphones, ear plugs, and other audio-dampening aids can be a great way to manage overwhelming noises on the go. Utilizing white noise machines or ambient-noise videos online can be an excellent way to neutralize sound and enhance your home's soundscape. We can also utilize our body as a tool to manage overstimulation; taking a moment to meditate and non-judgmentally tune into the sounds in our environment one by one can be a useful way to slow down and shift our environment despite the busyness of the city around us. 

Therapy Can Help

When the world feels chaotic and loud, therapy is a space of reprieve in which you can slow down to a natural pace. An hour a week is a great way to signal a new beginning where you value and protect your rest and stillness. Busyness is a part of life, but there’s so much more to life outside the daily grind. We live and work in New York City to be productive and enjoy the diverse cultural melting pot around us. Reimagining your relationship with busy allows you to do more of that. If this interests you, here are some therapeutic styles to consider exploring with a therapist at Humantold:

  • Mindfulness
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Somatic Therapy 

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