New York City is one of the most bustling and challenging cities in the world, so it makes sense that many people struggle with navigating life here. I hope to show you in the first of this blog series on living in New York, that what you might think makes living here difficult may also be the key to your own growth and happiness.
My work as a therapist at Citron Hennessey Private Therapy centers on changing minds and brains through changing beliefs and behaviors. Most people who seek help through therapy recognize that they’re stuck in a pattern of relating to themselves and their world in ways that are not working. The work of improving our lives and relationships is often not simply a matter of changing our external circumstances, but of addressing our inner worlds and limited perspectives which undermine our ability to successfully navigate the outer world. Most of us are operating on a system of beliefs that developed during our early upbringing that is no longer serving us. By helping to broaden and reframe our perspectives and by exploring new ways of being and relating, psychotherapy is a life-changing event that succeeds predominantly by rewiring the brain.
The coolest thing about our brains is they are constantly changing in response to new information and experiences. Being in therapy gives clients a new way of being in a relationship that allows the brain to restructure, rewire, and ultimately integrate within the individual a new sense of wholeness and vitality. Interpersonal neuropsychologists have taught us that psychotherapy works not just on a psychological level to bring new awareness or changed behavior, but that it works on a biological level. It is the reorganization of neural networks, the connectivity of new associative memories, that brings about change. Here is an excellent article describing this process in everyday life.
The more we understand mental health and wellbeing from the neurological perspective, the more I find myself thinking about nature, and our place in it. Our biological processes are nature-made products of evolution, which includes our innate capacity to heal physically, emotionally and psychologically. We don’t often relate to ourselves as such, but we aren’t just a part of nature, we are nature. Our bodies are essentially biological organisms that follow the same rules of nature as every other living organism on this planet. For instance, our emotions are adaptive mechanisms that developed to help us successfully navigate our surroundings, yet many of us are disconnected from our emotional input and thus disconnected from important “data” that could benefit us. Additionally, researchers are beginning to learn that just as we have a fight, flight or freeze system that responds in lightning speed to a real or perceived threat, we also have within us innate mechanisms to release unresolved stress and trauma that may be trapped in our bodies and psyche, as well as the capacity to change our brain through new experiences.
So what does this have to do with the stress of living in New York City?
Well, if our bodies have the capacity to self-regulate and heal given the right conditions, might New York City itself in its wild diversity, serve as a petri dish of experimentation for growth and change? Rather than protecting ourselves against what we perceive as life in a concrete jungle, might we learn to experience New York City as a diverse ecosystem in which to flourish?
A friend of mine who lived for several years in New York, but now lives in San Diego, was recently back in the Big Apple for a visit. He remarked that compared to San Diego, the people in New York felt more “alive” and the energy of the city seemed vibrant and “full of possibility.” Not many of us would think of New York as teeming with nature. However, I like to think that the variety and diversity of New York City is analogous to what makes nature thrive and is what makes New York an amazingly accessible city to cultivate vitality within ourselves; if we could only begin to relate to what we encounter here from another perspective.
Imagine that you were able to shut off your worrying mind for an entire day, and instead gave yourself the opportunity to experience your life directly, without thoughts distracting you, bullying you or scaring you? What if you were able to encounter people and situations in your day with openness and receptivity and trusted your ability to respond appropriately to challenges just as any natural life form is able to respond instinctively to its surroundings? How do you imagine you might handle stress if you weren’t constantly judging your experiences as “good” or “bad”, but rather experienced the moment-to-moment fluctuations of life with flexible adaptability and ease?
Because most of us are caught up in our thoughts and experience life conceptually, we miss out on the experiences that happen countless times a day that could lead to change. Just as therapy provides novel relational experiences that help to forge new pathways in the brain, so New York City offers variety and diversity that we could benefit from if we could get out of our heads and into our lives (to paraphrase the title of Steven Hayes’ excellent book). And we don’t have to go out of our way to find positive experiences, either. For example, just riding the subway everyday, I witness beauty and random acts of kindness that most riders are too lost in thought to notice. Our enjoyment of life is not about manipulating our externals, it’s about experiencing life as it’s happening and choosing not to argue. We are hardwired to notice what’s annoying, irritating and upsetting; it takes some practice to notice something to appreciate in every moment.
We humans have forgotten that we have powerful adaptive capacities beyond our cognitive abilities that we can tap into and rely upon to help us live in our modern world. The diversity and variety of life in New York City gives us New Yorkers a unique environment for ultimate growth, but we have to agree to engage with what New York has to offer in order to benefit. To engage fully, we have to recognize that we are standing in our own way and be willing to shift our perspective, let go of old beliefs, trust in our own innate capacity to heal and grow, and open ourselves to forming and transforming through our experiences, rather than trying to force our experiences to fit into our preconceived notions of how things should be.
When I first moved to New York almost 20 years ago, I experienced so much anxiety and stress from the intensity of the city, I broke out in a rash. I literally had an allergic reaction to the unseen forces that my friend from San Diego felt as “alive and full of possibility.” In more recent years, as I’ve developed a mindfulness practice and come to know myself through a much broader lens, my ability to navigate New York and enjoy all it has to offer has increased exponentially.
Nature’s strength is in variety and diversity. New York City’s is, too. If you find yourself fighting against and stressing over what New York City is serving up, try instead to think of the challenge as an opportunity to grow. Take some deep breaths and be willing to explore yourself as benefitting from your immersion in such a diverse and varied ecosystem, as one of millions of unique wildflowers in a field teeming with possibility. And instead of shutting down, stressing out, or clamming up, you might just begin to effortlessly bloom and grow.