Living in a city is different from our how our ancestors lived, who were in a more nature-filled environment. Only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities back in 1800, compared to over 50 percent today. As researchers of a 2019 study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine state, our attention system was “designed for interacting with nature.”
There’s no doubt there are pros and cons to city living. You step outside, and you’re closer to shops and entertainment, but there’s also an abundance of people, cars, lights, noise, and buildings.
Whether by choice or not, by 2050, it’s estimated about 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities. If this is the case, the abundance of city living is about to get even louder. So, does city living impact your mental health and what can be done about it?
Does Living in the City Affect Mental Health?
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Researchers of a 2021 study published in the Public Health Reports journal explain how people who live in urban areas have an increased risk of serious mental illness. Researchers found that “compared with people who live in rural areas, city dwellers have higher rates of schizophrenia, distress, post-traumatic stress disorder, and paranoia.”
Likewise, there have also been reports that city living can be associated with high rates of anxiety and depression. However, some studies report there are conflicting results and other limitations that play a role, such as income level, sex, and ethnicity.
According to a 2017 study published in Deutsches Ärzteblatt International journal, there is greater risk for poor mental health for those living in lower income neighborhoods.
“The experience for people living in cities is very different depending on socioeconomic status and social inequities,” says Liza Suarez, an associate professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“When you have means, you have more control over your environment, and it really changes your experience of life. When you don’t feel that you have that control, it’s associated with depression and anxiety,” Suarez explains.
Read More: Is City Living Bad For Your Health?
How City Life Affects Our Wellbeing
In contrast, Sheehan Fisher, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, says city living has benefits, such as the ability to engage with diverse individuals, food, and culture. But stress can impact the body and mind, which means city living — usually a more stressful environment — can do the same.
It might not be surprising that researchers of a 2018 study published in the Behavioral Sciences journal found cortisol, a stress hormone, was lower for participants who visited nature versus visiting those who visited urban environments.
Read More: The Biology of Stress in Your Body
Noise and Pollution
Some studies even found living near a major street or airport — where there’s more noise and pollution — can be associated with increased stress and aggression. Other researchers have found an association between areas with poor air quality and increases in certain mental health disorders.
Rumination and Changes in Brain Activity
Constantly thinking of something negative is called ruminating and can also impact your mental health in the city. A 2015 study published in this Psychological and Cognitive Sciences journal found that participants who walked in nature versus an urban environment ruminate less.
The researchers found differences in brain activity between the participants. For example, participants who went for a stroll through nature had “reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness.” Another small study from 2011 also found differences. For example, urbanites had higher activity levels in one area of the brain known as the amygdala, which is a key area for emotional regulation and processing fear, compared to those living in smaller towns and rural areas.
How to Cope With Urban Stress
While everyone’s experience can vary, being around greenery and practicing mindfulness can be beneficial for our physical and mental health.
Spend Time Outdoors
Researchers have found that “greenness” and accessing an abundance of green spaces can help with anxiety and depression symptoms, and help us focus better. Concentrating better subsequently helps us with achieving certain goals, which can also impact how we feel.
So, an “urban vacation,” or lunch in the park, could be something to do if you live in a city, researchers recommend. Fisher has been living in Chicago for the past 12 years, and he started going hiking during the pandemic when there were many restrictions.
“I didn’t realize how much I needed that,” Fisher says, adding how hiking provided a relaxing and calm environment for him.
If you’re able to access greenery, this typically will lead to a more calm or mindful state, explains Fisher. If this isn’t an option, Fisher says you can try practicing mindfulness in the home by cooking or doing yoga.
Studies have even found that simply watching nature scenes decreased participants’ (university students) cortisol levels and enhanced their mood. Other studies found that simply looking at nature artwork positively impacted cortisol levels.
There are many other ways to take care of your mental health, which can be vital for your overall health and well-being. Learning when to seek professional help is important, too. As Fisher says, “You have to be purposeful about focusing on your mental health within a city environment.”