Anyone who drives during rush hour in metro Atlanta knows why stress is a problem here. Our 30.8-minute average commute is the fourth-worst in the nation, according to the U.S. Census.
“Are people really thinking of the mental health costs of their lifestyle choices—where to live, where to work, where to send the children to school?” asks psychiatrist Lawrence Giustra, assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University. “A lot of people are doing things in different areas of the city, and I think getting around is a big source of stress.”
In addition, Atlanta is a relatively young city (thirty-three is the median age here, versus a national 36.8 years), so that often means a lot of stressful job changes. In March, when the unemployment rate was 9.2 percent nationwide, it was 9.8 percent in metro Atlanta. While home prices are up in cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego, in Atlanta prices are now below what they were in 2000. Thanks also to high rates for divorce, depression, and crime, as well as a surprising 149 cloudy days a year, Businessweek ranked Atlanta number ten on a 2009 list of America’s Unhappiest Cities. More than a quarter of Atlantans report having a “great deal” of stress, according to a 2010 survey by the American Psychological Association. Money, the economy, and work are our biggest stressors, but 70 percent of Atlantans point to traffic.
“Stress and anxiety are a major part of what we see every day,” says Michael Seyfried, M.D., a family physician from Dunwoody. Patients come in with physical symptoms like heart palpitations and shortness of breath, only to find that the problem ultimately was rooted in mental strain.
Stress manifests itself in everything from irritability and sleep problems to headaches and back pain. Once you recognize the issue, inventory your priorities. Consider eliminating unnecessary burdens, says Giustra, and adding small pleasures to your day such as getting out into nature, taking a relaxing bath, or listening to soothing music.
Regular exercise is also critical. “Turn all that emotional energy into physical energy and you’ll recover quickly,” says Seyfried. “I tell all my patients, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, just that you do.’” Ideally, do something aerobic for thirty minutes a day, five days a week, says Seyfried.
Practices such as yoga, meditation, and tai chi can elicit a relaxation response that helps reduce stress. Because they demand an intense focus on breathing and/or body movements, participants dwell less on their problems.
“I ask my patients, ‘If you had all the money in the world, how would you relax?’” says Seyfried. “Anything that doesn’t hurt you and makes you feel better—as long as it’s not illegal or immoral—then have at it.”
But if you feel so bad that you’ve withdrawn from your closest relationships, have problems with your job, and feel hopeless, it’s time to seek help. Most people start with their primary care doctor, who may manage the care or offer a referral; Seyfried often helps patients directly because stress relates to “how we manage the whole person.”
Here are some ways to reduce stress in Atlanta:Move Your Body
- Yoga’s focus on controlled body movements and breathing takes the mind off anxiety. Be Yoga (105 Church Street, Marietta, 770-312-6491, beyogaatlanta.com) offers a free yoga class on the first and third Sundays of the month.
- For a more vigorous approach, Street Studio Dance & Fitness (23 Oak Street, Roswell, 678-226-9022, streetdancestudio.org) offers hard-core classes like Cardio Hip-Hop. The $15 Saturday class requires so much concentration and coordination, you’ll forget about life’s problems.
- Avoid stress-inducing charges at luxury spas and check out SensAbility, the teaching clinic of Atlanta School of Massage (2 Dunwoody Park South, 770-667-0300, sensability.com). Under supervision, massage students practice what they’re learning, and you spend only $40 for a fifty-minute massage.
Write It Down
- Visit the John Ripley Forbes Big Trees Forest Preserve (7645 Roswell Road, 770-673-0111, bigtreesforest.com) in Sandy Springs. The undervisited thirty-acre forest is home to two creeks and dozens of towering oaks offering plenty of shade.
- The Japanese Garden is a cozy, quiet spot at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (1345 Piedmont Avenue, 404-876-5859, atlantabotanicalgarden.org).
- For serious meditation, join the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (2625 Highway 212, Conyers, 770-483-8705, trappist.net). Wander the lovely grounds in silence or spend the day in reflection and prayer at the Abbey Church. The grounds open daily around 8 a.m., and the chapel is open from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. People of all faiths are welcome. The new Monastic Heritage Center includes a museum, cafe, bonsai greenhouse, and gift shop.
- Journaling can be an effective way to deal with stress, says family physician Michael Seyfried of Dunwoody. For a large selection of journals, stroll through Sam Flax (1460 Northside Drive, 404-352-7200, samflaxsouth.com).
- Artlite (2555 Piedmont Road, 404-869-8670, artlitepens.com) has the city’s finest selection of fountain pens, ballpoints, rollerballs, and even mechanical pencils.
Illustration by Jude Buffum