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Chicago's rising unemployment rate, expensive gas, high population density and relatively poor air quality create a perfect storm of stress, according to measures we used to calculate the country's anxiety hot spots.
New Yorkers can relate, though. Locals in the country's most densely packed metro have to fiercely compete for subway seats, cabs, apartments, elite preschools, dinner reservations and bartenders' attention. This constant grind compounds the area's other anxiety factors including costly housing (the country's third least affordable) and allergy-inducing pollution. Throw in Wall Street's woes, and you've got a Molotov cocktail of concern.
Behind The Numbers
To find them and others, we examined the country's 40 largest U.S. Census-defined metropolitan statistical areas and looked at quality of life indicators. We tracked housing affordability based on the August 2008 National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo housing opportunity index and unemployment rates for the same month based on data provided by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. We also worked cost of living into our ranking by factoring in the price for one gallon of gas on Sept. 4 per a daily survey conducted by insurance company AAA.
But consumers aren’t fretting about these pressures in a vacuum. A city’s environment can play a big role in how its citizens are able to cope with stress.
In order to capture the way a city’s environmental factors can impact nerves we looked at 2007 air quality using air monitoring data that states submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 2003-05. Then we pulled the number of sunny days per year using 2007 data furnished by the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information service. Finally, we looked at population density based on 2007 data furnished by the U.S. Census Bureau to find the cities most squeezed for livable space.
What's Causing Constant Worry
Though "stress" was first used by endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1936 to mean "the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change," it has since become a catch-all for anything that causes one angst. Antidotes for its toxic effects have spawn several cottage industries from high-end spas and snake-oil supplements to the brands of self-help gurus such as Australia’s own ‘Rhythm of Life’ pontificate, Matthew Kelly.
But Selye’s observation about the role of change in stimulating stress was spot on. Residents of the cities on our list acutely experience the shifts wrought by global and local economies in turmoil. In fact, it's “bedrock security issues” like housing affordability, job security and cost of living drive anxiety, says Edward Hallowell, M.D., a former professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Mass. Nowhere is that felt more than in the Windy City. Chicago has a 7.3% unemployment rate, the eighth most polluted air in our ranking and in city where everybody drives to get around, a gallon of gas costs a nickel under $4 dollars.
Individuals living in Los Angeles experience a 7.5% unemployment rate and the second least affordable homes relative to income in the country. The metro features the worst air quality in the country; indeed, Angelinos often need to stay in doors when the smog gets really bad. Throw in the country's seventh highest gas prices and this car-dependent city has a lot stress about.
It's not much better further North. Drivers in the San Francisco metro pay the more per gallon of gas than anywhere else in the country. Tack in 359.8 housing units per square mile, the ninth highest population density of the 40 major metro areas we looked at, and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety.
Rust-belt cities Detroit and Cleveland have high rates of unemployment due to the decline of the American auto industry, and they have nasty pollution problems as a result of it. On the upside, the flight from these cities has meant a fall in home prices, which is good for prospective, if only a few, home buyers.
At No. 6, San Diego was the most unexpected city on our list. How could a laid-back beach town be stressful? Well, it's got the fifth least affordable housing of the 40 major metro areas surveyed, a 6.4% unemployment rate and car-happy residents paying $3.81 for a gallon of gas. But, they don’t let those numbers get them down. Pleasant weather and beautiful beaches contribute to a serotonin-soaked attitude that appears to take the edge off of tough times.
Hallowell says that some stress, abundant in these human bee hives, can be a good thing. It can boost productivity (think Michael Phelps on a starting block), which leads to self-satisfaction and peace of mind.
When you are feeling anxious, Hallowell recommends reaching out to friends and family because “maintaining these strong relationships is key in our very crazy-busy disconnected society.”