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The Challenges of Living in the Big Apple

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It is a miracle that New York 
works at all. The whole thing is 
implausible. - E.B. White

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I’m an old school ‘New Yawker’. For old timers like me, NYC has lost its soulful edge. Over the years I’ve witnessed the NYC landscape transform through gentrification, displacing immigrants and working class folk so that the wealthy one percent can occupy lavish high rises. Unique ethnic character has become tamed by carbon copy development. NYC, in my humble opinion, is no longer a revolutionary artists playground. The Golden Age of Graffiti Art, when you could spot a Keith Haring drawing on a subway platform, is long gone. Music landmarks such as the Bottom Line Cabaret, Gerde’s Folk City, Max’s Kansas City, Tramps, The Palladium and CBGB are relics of the past. Times Square has become a place of Disneyland sterility. Iconic diners have been replaced by Starbucks. Gritty OTBs are no longer. Yet with all this waxing nostalgic, one thing has remained constant. Be it yesterday or today, living in an urban landscape such as NYC takes its toll on mental health.

While some of my psychotherapy clients reside in outlying suburban communities, all are prone to the multitudinous stressors of NYC life. Researchers contend that urban dwellers evidence brain activity suggestive of higher levels of fear and anxiety than non-urban counterparts. Hence, urbanites are at a higher risk for acquiring mental disorders than those who reside in rural communities. As a result it’s to be expected that the environmental impact of living an NY urban lifestyle would infiltrate the psychotherapy process in myriad ways. Predominant issues raised in sessions pertain to social isolation, cost of living largely rooted in sky high housing costs, and the inherent pressure of competition rooted in an industrialized ‘caste system’. Generalized anxiety and fear related to an absence of space, mass transit mayhem, and rampant violence, rudeness, and endemic homelessness, are also common themes.

Henry Miller wrote, “In New York I have always felt lonely, the loneliness of the caged animal, which brings on crime, sex, alcohol and other madnesses.” In a city of over 8 million people it may appear as if cultivating a social network and forming life long bonds would be an obvious consequence. Yet warding off alienation and loneliness in NYC is a common source of distress. NYC is unrivaled in single occupant households, with one in three homes being single dweller occupancies. Unlike the Sex & The City caricatures, my clients convey that living in a densely populated urban environment devoid of warmth and camaraderie, contributes to their feelings of loneliness and alienation. They report a paralyzing and shameful loneliness, and being plagued by vicious cycles of rejection and self-deflation. This leads to concomitantly fearing and desiring social connection, which in turn results in insulation and emotional disregulation. One either medicates loneliness through sundry compulsions or responds to its plea by seeking out meaningful connections.

Clearly in the Big Apple, the desensitization inherent to urban life contributes to a guarded and jaded perspective. People struggle with becoming hardened and bitter from incessant disappointment and ruthless maneuvering. Competition in the New York workplace is second to none, and the emphasis on style and social status is unparalleled.Yet, with a vigilant focus on balance and an appreciation for the unlimited resources NYC has to offer, one can survive and even thrive here. NYC is still a world-class cultural mecca, offering incomparable diversity via food, spiritual centers, theater, music, etc. Day treks to the Hudson Valley or a Long Island beach, or taking respite in Central or Prospect Parks, a yoga studio or a meditation center helps New Yorkers maintain equilibrium. And if all else fails, in a city that has the most therapists per capita, there’s plenty of innovative (albeit expensive) treatment out there to help everyone stay afloat!

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