London is many things, but it is rarely peaceful and calming.
A study by the Mental Health Foundation in 2018 found that 74% of people polled in the UK described that, over the past year, they had felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
It's easy for stress levels to explode in an instant. A simple car horn in the street can trigger a release of epinephrine, among other chemicals, which pushes the human body into its fight or flight response. A state that normally takes between twenty and sixty minutes for the body to completely return to normal. This is a perfectly natural physiological response, but while our ancestors might have faced the odd wild animal attack, with life remaining somewhat mundane, the 21st century Londoner receives an astonishing number of chemical jolts every day.
Thankfully very few people choose to either attack the Uber that has just beeped at them or turn and hightail down the road — but our bodies still react in the same way. If these hormonal changes are constantly activated, without the necessary release, the results begin to take a serious toll on us.
One option for this problem is to up sticks and transfer our lives to the sparsely populated Scottish Highlands and grow a hermit like beard. As determined Londonistas, this isn't going to fly for us. So for those who choose life in such a chaotic and stressful city, what can we do to alleviate some of this madness?
Participate in zen meditation session
Arriving at Old Street doesn't lend a sense of tranquility. The seemingly never-ending construction efforts gives the impression of utter mayhem. But tucked away on Banner Street is the Bunhill Meeting House, a quaker meeting house that also serves as a location for numerous community gatherings.
I am met by Edgar, who spends twenty minutes explaining how the zazen, seated meditation, was to be done and taking me through the routines. While we are talking the room begins to fill up behind us.
The zazen is kept simple, with those practicing sitting — normally facing a wall — with their eyes still open, while attempting to suspend thoughts, judgments and passions. Zazen is a far cry from guided meditation which has grown enormously in popularity in recent years.
Edgar tells me before we begin:
There is little scaffolding here compared to other traditions where the practice/meditation is more guidance
The room around me quietens, and finally a chime sounds to commence the zazen. I try to meditate at least a little every day, but this was my first experience with a group of people.
The brain does peculiar things when you are staring at a wall, trying to not do anything peculiar. My mind begins to wander aimlessly. Should I get the bus or tube home? What am I doing tomorrow morning? But each time I tried to navigate a way through and clear my mind.
"Let go of your passions, desires and arguments", comes Edgar's soft voice behind me.
A bell rings behind me to announce the end of the first 30 minutes. This is followed by 10 minutes of walking mediation, then another 30 minutes of seated meditation.
Edgar tells me after:
It seems to be beneficial for the vast majority of people, but those with mental health disorder ought to be careful.
Meditation is slowly growing in popularity, but still remains a distant, suspicious activity for many. Unsurprisingly many will see staring at a wall for an hour as a complete waste of time. However studies done in the U.S have reported that the time the body takes to return to normal after the fight or flight response can be greatly reduced with meditation.
It would be fair to say my tube journey home has a mellow feel to it. The clarity and calm that comes after meditation is often difficult to describe. The is no ecstatic feeling, but instead a sense of deep contentment — the usual manic thoughts slowed down, and often just simply let go.
Drink a CBD Coffee
The following morning I find myself on the Euston Road, just after rush hour, but still far from a peaceful place. I ambled up to Great Portland Street station, where adjacent is a tiny branch of the popular Black Sheep coffee shop.
As a person who "experimented" with CBD's more mind expanding cousin THC when I was younger, I've followed the boom of CBD closely. Once a controversial product because of its links with THC, the legal component of the marijuna plant is taking off in a wide variety of forms, and the scope of potential benefits is expanding.
In 2017 the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that CBD could provide relief for a variety of conditions including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, cancer and diabetic complications. Not to mention helping depression, anxiety and general pain.
Many assume the law to be complex on this issue, but it's surprisingly straightforward. Any CBD product sold must contain no more than 0.2% THC, a figure so small it would be impossible for the human body to feel any effect.
"Can I have a medium cappuccino" I ask, before dropping my voice perhaps unnecessarily "with a shot of CBD oil please".
"Yeah of course, anything else for you?" the lady behind the counter replies without hesitation.
"A pain au chocolate please" — I'm half French — and life's too short after all.
In Regent's Park I sit with the sun on my face, and drink my coffee. There is of course no instant calming hit. The cappuccino has a faint hint of hemp to it, but otherwise tastes like coffee and milk.
It did however inspire me to research where the word cappuccino comes from. If you're interested, the word was used because the milky coffee combination created a colour not too dissimilar to the robes worn by Capuchin monks.
It's difficult to measure the effects of a single CBD shot in a coffee. I do have a strong sense of calm on the way home, but that could of course be a placebo effect. But I'd urge anybody to at least give it a go.
Visit a Japanese Garden
There's something soothing about gardens, and perhaps none quite as peaceful as a Japanese garden. There are a number of Japanese gardens in the city; Holland Park has the delightful Kyoto Gardens, while there is a Japanese roof garden close to Russell Square.
But hidden within Regents Park there is a Japanese garden I had never heard of. Entering from the south gate is a small area on the right hand side with a tumbling mini waterfall at its centre. Above are two benches in a peaceful small enclosed area and opposite is the small island itself, linked with a wooden bridge half overgrown with plants. The garden is simple and serene, as Japanese gardens tend to be.
The benefits of nature on the human body have been widely recorded. Everything from aiding mental fatigue to helping cognitive functions and even mental health — yet it remains often overlooked.
Sitting on one of the benches in the small enclosed area, on a warm autumn afternoon, I have the place completely to myself. After fighting the urge to take out my phone, I simply sit back listening to the water rushing down the waterfall, watching trees above gently rocking in the wind and promising myself that I would return more often.
Take a nap at P&R
My final stop is one of the newest establishments in London associated with de-stressing and finding some peace and quiet. Let me state from the outset, I'm a big advocate of naps. I find the simple act of lying down and closing one's eyes for 20 minutes a wonderful restorative activity. There are a catalogue of potential health benefits. From reduction in risk of a heart attack to improving mood, and even supposedly improving your sex life.
Naps are good. But London is a little light on acceptable napping locations, especially as we move away from the warm weather — enter P&R
Hotel rooms that can be hired by the hour are normally much more salacious than what you find at the Popnrest in Shoreditch. According to its website, it is "the first wellbeing and travel startup to provide private and peaceful spaces to recharge" with small pods are available from 30 minutes for £8 to £32 for 4 hours.
Ironically for an article about de-stressing, my initial experience with pop n rest proved stressful and after a complete communication mix up, I had to return for a second time. Situated on Bache's Street, tucked around the corner from Old Street, the business occupies part of the bottom floor of a building covered in scaffolding. I am greeted by co-founder Yoann who shows me around.
There is an undeniable 'start-up' feel to it. The reception area seems half finished, but through a door reveals a larger room with four smaller rooms leading off from it. The last guest has left just as I arrive, and the rooms are all empty.
"We get around 50 guests a week at the moment" Yoann told me, "and we opened our second location in Holborn today". The rooms are sparse with little in the way of amenities, though a trusty set of ear plugs stand ready on the bedside table. There is an air of calm about the place, with a small buddha statue sitting by the front door. But I'm not entirely sure who would stay here.
"Our guests are about 50% travellers, and 50% locals", Yoann continued, "today we have more people than ever suffering from anxiety and mental health issues, not to mention sleep deprivation — this is supposed to be an oasis of calm". This struck me as a bit of a stretch, but if you are a person who needs to escape the madness for an hour or so occasionally, then this is just the place for you.
Pop n rest is an interesting concept that I'm sure will appeal to many, but of all I had tried this week, I found this the most alien. I don't lead the kind of high pressured life that means I need to pre-book a nap in Old Street, but that's not to say there aren't likely thousands out there who would love this idea. However I couldn't quite escape the feeling that places like this are simply helping to paper over the cracks that are appearing in our culture in respect of how we approach stress in our lives.
Little moments of calm
London is not about to change. It is chaotic, noisy and stressful — but also wonderfully intoxicating. If we choose to live in modern cities we can't expect to be surrounded by the calming serenity of a Japanese monastery. But what we can do is try to introduce those little moments of calm into our days where we can.
Who knows, maybe even that rush hour commute nuzzled into some sweaty armpit might not begin to feel so bad.