Why Is Everyone in Philadelphia So Stressed?

It’s ruining our health — contributing to insomnia, mental illness, heart disease. It’s making us fat, forgetful and lousy in bed. Now science says it’s afflicting our genes, and altering the futures of our children. Can the key to conquering almighty stress really be as simple as these Philly physicians say?

You could even make an argument that stress drives our economy. A recent study of an Israeli town threatened by terrorists’ rockets, conducted by researchers from Temple University, found they bought more stuff than a cohort from a town that wasn’t under siege. Their purchases were an attempt, the researchers said, to “control their destiny.”

Mindfulness, Michael Baime says, is another means of taking control. Whatever your response to stress is — whether you overeat, get bitchy, get panicky, get sad — mindfulness lets you see that what seems externally imposed is really internal. You learn to attend to what happens in the moment, slow it up and say, “That thought is ridiculous.” You realize that what you fear won’t really occur.

Mindfulness programs have proliferated wildly of late. (See our sidebar for a few of the best local options.) When I ask super-scientist Tracy Bale about mindfulness, I expect her to pooh-pooh the idea. Shows what I know. “Look, you can’t change stress,” she tells me. “But you can change how you perceive it. If you control that, the brain isn’t going to respond the same way.”

Even so, it’s my car radio that really convinces me about mindfulness.

A year ago, the radio in my 2007 Honda started going out. And NPR or Dierks Bentley or Beyoncé didn’t just quietly stop. They stopped with a big, loud electronic POP that made my heart stop, too. I found myself driving Route 422 and the Schuylkill Expressway in a constant state of tensed fearfulness: Now? Is that POP coming now?

The dealer wanted $900 for a new radio. I don’t have $900. And so at some point, I began turning the radio off preemptively, before it had a chance to pop. No more Beyoncé or Dierks. But … no more Ed Cunningham, either. No more Sam Clover warning about bumper-to-bumper. No more “Holy Jesus, more Katy Perry?” accompanied by irritable stabbing at presets. Hey, doesn’t the sun look pretty going down behind those hills?

Now, I ride an hour and a half each way, every day, in silence. My kids think I’m insane. But I find I’m calmer when I get to work, and when I get home, too.

Even without car-radio stress, I still have my knot. I’ve got plenty of other anxieties. This article is a week late, for instance. And with the radio off, I hear all the other noises my car makes. Was that the alternator?

What’s startling even to those who teach mindfulness is how little it takes to stop the stress-hormone cascade. Remember the cancer patients in the Jefferson program? They don’t commit to a months-long treatment regimen. They go to three to five classes that are each less than an hour long. That’s all it takes to rewire their brains. And these are people who have cancer . Sort of puts a broken car radio into perspective, doesn’t it?

For the un-touchy-feely among us, science is sure to come up with new and better ways of blocking stress hormones medicinally (although, Baime points out, mindfulness has no side effects). Whatever new methods lie ahead, the next challenge will be how to regulate these hormones that give us heart disease and diabetes and anxiety disorders — but also spur us to excel and create.

Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.