CONSIDER THE STEREOTYPE of the laid-back, sweet life in San Diego: Sun-drenched days. Flip-flops on everybody’s feet. Ocean waves lapping on tranquil shores. We’re the bikini-clad poster girl for easy living. But are San Diegans really as stress-free as the postcards would lead the nation to believe? Sperling’s BestPlaces certainly plays us to typecast.
The Portland, Oregon–based research firm ranked San Diego 75th out of 100 large metropolitan regions in its periodic survey of most stressful cities.
Coming in at number one was Tacoma, Washington; at 100, the least stressed residents were found in Albany, New York. Los Angeles ranked 32nd; Orange County was 98th.
Researchers considered nine variables in determining stress levels in each region: divorce and unemployment rates, commute time, violent and property crime figures, suicide rate, alcohol consumption, mental health and number of cloudy days. Of these variables, unemployment rate, crime, commute time and suicide occurrence were weighted heaviest, while divorce and mental health were of moderate importance.
Number of cloudy days and alcohol consumption carried the least significance.
While regional statistics—such as unemployment figures and crime rates—can be useful indicators, an accurate measure of stress is difficult to achieve in a diverse population.
Ask 100 San Diegans what stresses them out, and you’re likely to hear 100 disparate answers. Okay, traffic is going to be a theme. And while there may be some degree of truth to the reputation of San Diegans as laid-back, relatively easygoing folk, there also is an undercurrent of stress that’s more difficult to quantify.
No study is perfect, of course,” says survey guru Bert Sperling. “But I still think ours gives an excellent benchmark for measuring stress in each city . . . I think we hit all the silverbullet issues.” On the whole, Sperling says, Californians are “relaxed and have a good mental outlook,” and San Diegans seem to fit this profile.
However, to gloss over the very real experience of stress in San Diego is to offer an incomplete rendering.
KATHY LEAVENWORTH makes a living helping San Diegans manage stress. A wellness education specialist with Sharp HealthCare’s Center for Health Promotion, Leavenworth teaches a monthly Coping with Stress workshop, an informational two-hour session that gives participants specific tools to help alleviate stress. Although she sees a growing need for this type of course, she says people often don’t make stress management a priority in their busy lives.
“I imagine people living in San Diego think, ‘Why am I stressed? I live in San Diego, and the sun is shining,’ ” says Leavenworth. “I see a lot of people who look high-functioning on the outside but are experiencing a cumulative stress.”
Anthony Moya is as “high-functioning” as they come.
But the lawyer and 47-year-old father of two was feeling the acute pressure of mounting stress. Moya was “experiencing such a rush of things going on” in his life, he enrolled in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program offered by Scripps Health’s Center for Integrative Medicine. He says the eight-week course, which incorporates meditation and yoga to help students manage stress through self-awareness, “changed my life.” Told of San Diego’s low ranking on Sperling’s stress list, Moya shoots back: “I’d say something is wrong with the analysis.”
Timothy McLarney agrees. President of Encinitas-based True North Research, McLarney is an expert in survey research methodology. He authored a study for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) on the quality of life in this region, and says the Sperling study is flawed in a few significant ways. For one, the cost of living should be a heavily weighted variable.
“I think the cost of living is a huge omission,” says Mc- Larney. “When you step back and consider what people are stressed about, it’s often money—the ability to pay the bills and afford a certain quality of life.” The American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association Cost of Living Index ranking for San Diego is almost 40 points higher than the national average; that has to be worth more than a couple of positions up the Sperling stress scale.
Another factor McLarney says ought to be considered is how stress is measured as a function of commute time.
Spending an hour driving from Encinitas to downtown San Diego is stressful enough; consider the frustration of arriving only to neighboring Del Mar in the same amount of time.
“Commute time in relation to how far a person is traveling is really key in determining how the commute contributes to stress,” says Mc-Larney. SANDAG public opinion polls identify traffic congestion as the region’s number-one problem—more serious than housing, education, crime and growth—giving new meaning to the “slow-paced” life in San Diego.
“Commuter stress is something I see more of today,” says Dr. Robert Bonakdar, director of pain management at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. “For people who have to go to high-density areas, it’s getting worse and worse. I see a lot of patients who are about to leave the area because they can’t deal with the number of people moving here.”
WHAT SAN DIEGO LACKS in traffic infrastructure, it more than makes up for with its weather. Residents indulge in a veritable climatic wonderland, ranked in the 8th percentile for sunny weather in the Sperling study.
But how much time are San Diegans really spending outside soaking up all those rays? For a supposed subculture of sunbathers, not long. Dr. Daniel Kripke, a UCSD professor of psychiatry, studied a random population sample and found, on average, San Diegans are outdoors in daylight less than one hour per day.
“It is true that some people are outdoors for hours shopping, playing golf, strolling on the beach or whatever, but these people are not the average,” reports Kripke, who has been doing research on light therapy for 20 years. “There are an impressive number of people who are in daylight only 10 or 20 minutes a day, or even less. Some San Diegans go through most days experiencing no daylight at all . . . sometimes they experience only dim indoor lighting.”
Former Pacific Beach resident Paul Cummings paid a visit to Dr. Kripke (who oversees one of the country’s top centers for light therapy treatment) when he recognized how depressed he became when the coastal morning fog lingered too long. “It’s the marine layer that’s the killer,” says 49-year old Cummings, who moved east to Descanso to escape the morning gloom. “Many people think of Alaska or Washington when they hear about light therapy, but some people just need a certain amount of light, and the marine layer can create a real funk.”
Then there are people like Natalie Buccini, whose frenetic schedule limits her time spent outdoors. The 39-year-old labor and delivery nurse and mother of two teenagers works the night shift at Scripps Hospital Encinitas, while also earning a law degree. That leaves little time to enjoy the coastal lifestyle of her Carlsbad neighborhood.
“It seems like all my waking hours are spent in the dark,” says Buccini, who sometimes heads to class after working a 12- hour shift. Number of cloudy days doesn’t factor into her perceived stress level.
Self-reports of alcohol consumption were also considered in determining how stressful life is here. The rationale: The more stressed people are, the more they drink; the more they drink, the more stress they create in their lives. But do drinkers really know how much they are consuming? Aaron White, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University who has studied such self-reporting habits, says a typical drinker overestimates how big a “drink” is and underreports how much alcohol he or she consumes.
“My guess is that lots of people think they have one or two drinks per day, when in fact they have much more,” says White. Of the nine variables considered in Sperling’s study, San Diego scored the highest (most stressful) on alcohol consumption (number 72).
A SELF-REPORT OF MENTAL HEALTH can also be problematic in obtaining an accurate reading of San Diegans’ stress. Karen Luton, executive director of the Mental Health Association in San Diego County, says there is a public stigma associated with mental illness that, in many cases, contributes to self-denial.
“People think to themselves, ‘I’m living in what is supposedly paradise, and I’m not happy; everyone else looks happy, so what’s wrong with me?’ ” says Luton, who is currently being treated for depression.
“There’s a coverup, because you’re ashamed you have any kind of mental illness.” She estimates 20-25 percent of the county’s population is seeking, or in need of, mental health assistance.
Finding and keeping a job certainly can be overwhelmingly stressful. The unemployment rate in mellow Albany, New York, is 3.8 percent. Slightly more (4.8 percent) San Diegans are without jobs. But measuring stress as a function of current unemployment numbers isn’t so black and white, says Gary Moss, labor market information specialist with the San Diego Workforce Partnership (SDWP).
“We’re at nearly full employment, but we’re seeing a lot more competition for middle- and upper-level jobs, and that creates a lot of stress,” says Moss. “A lot of people may have to settle for jobs that don’t meet their salary demands; they’re underemployed and underpaid, especially when you consider the cost of living here.”
Commercial airline pilot Kenneth Croff of Rancho Peñasquitos benefited from SDWP’s job placement services after being laid off in the aftermath of 9/11. “There are a lot of pilots living in San Diego, so the market for aviation-related jobs is really competitive,” says Croff, who got a parttime telemarketing job to help support his wife and two kids during the employment search. He eventually landed at the Transportation Security Administration, but not until after a turbulent ride through unemployment.
“We just kept our heads above water,” he says.
A stress management specialist and health consultant at Scripps, Karen Sothers has taught yoga, relaxation training and meditation for more than 20 years. She’s witnessed an increase in the number of San Diegans seeking outside help to reduce stress in their lives, and says measuring the level of stress in a community should address perception.
“Researchers look at a lot of external events, when, in fact, our experience of stress is determined by our perception or appraisal of an event,” says Sothers. In other words, it’s all about perspective.
Steve Alper, a therapist, teacher and consultant who has developed stress reduction programs at Kaiser, UCSD and Scripps, supports Sothers’ assessment.
“Stress depends on individual temperament, perceptions and attitude,” he says.
Sperling acknowledges that in Honolulu (way down at number 92 on the stress list), “it seems they have a unique attitude that allows them to be less affected by the stresses of today’s busy lifestyle.” Call it the aloha factor.
In San Diego, if you want an accurate reading of how stressed out people are, a look at resident satisfaction with local government and leadership (or lack thereof ) may be warranted.
“Certainly the politics of a city play into stress levels,” says city councilmember and former mayoral hopeful Donna Frye. She says residents whose futures are tied to the city’s troubled pension fund are likely feeling the heat.
“City employees are going to be a lot more stressed than non-city employees,” she says. But Frye keeps returning—as most longtime residents will—to the “many beauties” of San Diego that offset the stresses of living here. “It’s the yin and the yang,” she says.
Fair enough. Maybe some San Diegans don’t know how good they really have it—especially the ones who complain when the temperature dips to a “freezing” 60 degrees. But if you take a close enough look at local stressors, it’s not hard to find the sun-burnt underbelly on our bikini-clad, postergirl image.
SAN DIEGO’S PERCENTILE RANK by category, among the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S. (a higher number equals a more stressful rating):
Divorce rate 55th
Commute time 53rd
Violent crime 46th
Property crime 16th
Alcohol consumption 72nd
Mental health 12th
Cloudy days 8th
TOP 10 MOST STRESSFUL REGIONS, according to Sperling’s BestPlaces (bestplaces.net):
1. Tacoma, WA
2. Miami, FL
3. New Orleans, LA*
4. Las Vegas, NV/AZ
5. New York, NY
6. Portland/Vancouver, OR/WA
7. Mobile, AL
8. Stockton/Lodi, CA
9. Detroit, MI
10. Dallas, TX
TOP 10 LEAST STRESSFUL REGIONS, according to Sperling’s BestPlaces:
100. Albany/Schenectady/Troy, NY
99. Harrisburg/Lebanon/Carlisle, PA
98. Orange County, CA
97. Nassau-Suffolk, NY
96. Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN/WI
95. Ann Arbor, MI
94. Omaha, NE/IA
93. Norfolk/Virginia Beach/Newport News, VA/NC
92. Honolulu, HI
91. Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, NC