By Ed Hitchins
With planes overhead, traffic jams, and non-stop human and vehicle congestion, Torontonians have enough excuses to stress out already. Try to imagine handling the situation if you are coming from another pocket of Ontario. Better yet, another country.
Ahn Tram is new to Canada and sits in a library looking down at her cell phone seemingly isolated and alone.
“Stress is the feeling that I feel like I want to do something, but I can’t. I cannot engage and communicate with people to express my feelings. I can’t communicate well with people due to my barrier,” Tram says with a nervous, high pitched laugh.
Her “barrier” is language. She moved from Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam, about 18 months ago, following her boyfriend who already moved to Toronto. The second-year college student said the stress she feels comes from her inability to comprehend the things that she must adjust to in Canada.
“Before, when I was at home, I was a receptionist. I could talk to people and be very personable,” said Tram. “I had my own job, my own life. But now, I have to come here and go to school before I can work. Sometimes I do an assignment and I have to ask my partners on projects to not talk so fast. I get so frustrated and [it stresses] me.”
Mikki Decker can relate. A move from the town of Bowmanville, located just east of Toronto, wouldn’t exactly make one think ‘culture shock’. However, as Decker moved from the town of about 34,000 to the Mississauga municipality of Malton, she saw things in a different light.
“I started out in just a room in a shared student apartment,” said Decker, who will have lived in Toronto three years this coming September. “It was a whole new culture in Malton. I was in the minority and it was a huge shift for me. This initially wasn’t a problem but it was a change.”
One such incident involved a young man literally following Decker to her residence uninvited. Decker said while the experience was scary, she had to become quite assertive and stern in directing him on his way. Now, she doesn’t travel alone.
Both Decker and Tram came to Toronto from different, yet similar paths: Neither have been away from home before. Both had to experience the culture and fabric of Toronto, and both experienced heightened levels of stress from differing, yet similar obstacles.
Dr. Alistair Dias of the University of Toronto says that when facing stress in the big city, it all comes down to what you are doing when adapting to new environments.
“What did they come to the big city to do? Do they have a new job, a new school? Adapting to those new environments is going to be a challenge,” Dias said. “It can be fairly overwhelming when you’re bombarded by people you haven’t met before. Maybe you’re experiencing things you haven’t encountered before in a new space.”
“In a place you’re coming from, you know where to get help usually. You have people to support you, where your resources may be. In a new city, you don’t know where those things are going to come from. It’s up to you to find that space.”
But does that mean moving to a big city could cause health related issues? According to a study published by the University of Mannheim in Germany, it’s possible. In 2012, the study suggested that subjects who moved from rural to urban areas with more than 100,000 people had a higher rate of such mental illnesses as schizophrenia and depression.
Dias says that while these things could happen, there are genetic triggers that are also at work here. “Maybe something happens in the big city that triggers the panic attack. Schizophrenia is not just related to stress.”
However, Dr. Mel Borins, author of A Doctor’s Guide to Alternative Medicine: What works, what doesn’t and why, suggests the results of the study are not shocking.
“That makes sense,” Borins said. There seems to be people under emotional stress. Things like depression and anxiety are very common. People are having trouble coping with all the demands placed on them.
“Another thing is the whole electronic era: people sleeping with their cell phones, people continuously online… Some people have to go on vacation from work, yet be on call.”
Borins suggests people “take time to laugh, time to cry. Eating a balanced diet also helps. Everything in moderation.”
Both Tram and Decker have support to help them cope with their stress. For Decker, it’s the love of her pet bunny, Riley. She says that her long eared friend helps with all sorts of panic problems or when she’s specifically feeling stressed and she got him for that reason.
As for Tram, the support and love of her boyfriend and having the support of his family is what gets her through the day, balancing a full time course workload and a part time job at Humber’s Math Centre.
“If I ever get stressed out, I tell my boyfriend I need my space. He asks me what is wrong and I tell him. He is extremely supporting helping me get through,” says Tram.