Stand-still traffic, air pollution, crowded streets, endless gray sidewalks. Sound familiar?
This is just a glimpse of what life can be like when living in a big city, so it comes as no surprise that people regularly get stressed out. But the problem may go deeper.
Some studies have shown that city dwellers may have a 21% greater likelihood of developing anxiety disorders, and a 39% increased risk of mood disorders, compared to people living more rurally.
Given that 66% of the world’s population is expected to be living in cities by 2050, the impact of urban life on mental health has become more important than ever.
“City living affects the way our brains deal with stress,” says Dr. Mazda Aldi, head of the Fliedner Clinic, and a stress researcher at Charité hospital in Berlin, Germany.
“This is not harmful per se and it doesn’t mean that city living damages our brains, but it alters the way we deal with stress, and together with other risk factors the mixture might become toxic.”
Those risk factors include whether an individual has a genetic disposition to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders or schizophrenia and the greater that predisposition, the less external stress it takes to trigger those conditions.
The underlying reasons are unknown, but what is clear is that densely packed urban areas can be a recipe for stress, and therefore poorer mental health, so here are some tips from the experts to better cope with life in the big city.
Go to the park
If you live in an apartment surrounded by busy roads full of traffic, beeping horns, people shouting, and litter on the street, this could cause stress and have a negative effect on your mood.
Spending time in, or ideally living close to, green spaces is one way to combat stress, according to Dr. Andrea Mechelli from Kings College University.
“There is a really strong effect from green spaces, and in general access to nature. We know that people who live near a park, for example, they have less risk of developing depression,” he says. “Overcrowding, noise and possibly even pollution may have a negative impact,” particularly on those who have mental illnesses.
Know your neighborhood
Feeling at ease, or at home, can also improve your mental state.
“Know exactly where shops are, have a good mindful awareness of your neighborhood. That also increases the feeling of relatedness to your city,” says Aldi.
Doing this can increase how related you feel to your environment, which can make you feel socially connected and secure. In turn, this makes you more likely to participate in the community, says Aldi, which can also benefit your brain.
Have an escape strategy
If it all gets too much, have an escape route handy. That might be a nearby park, or even just your home. Having a door you can close on external stressors can help you feel in control and will distance you from the everyday stress of city living, says Aldi.
“As long as you have good control over city stimulation and stress, it cannot be harmful,” he says. For most people, it’s possible to have spaces where they feel secure and safe in urban environments. But for some groups, such as people with migration backgrounds, it can be much harder to feel a sense of control over their environment.
Step away from the car
“Using the car is extremely stressful for people in cities, whereas walking or cycling to work for example, is much better for your mental health,” says Aldi.
“We know that driving a car in the high time of city traffic puts your stress hormones in a similar situation as a fighter jet pilot’s.”
Underground? Look around
Being stuck underground in a hot, overcrowded train carriage is most people’s idea of a nightmare.
The key to combating stress in this environment is to become really aware of your surroundings. “What usually helps is to very mindfully observe your environment. Don’t get introverted, but just observe your environment very carefully, because that usually gives us back a sense of control of the situation,” says Aldi.
What’s that noise?
“In dealing with noise it’s always helpful to know what the source of the noise is,” says Aldi.
If you’re struggling to sleep because of loud noises outside your home, the best thing to do is find out what’s making the noise. Even though you may not be able to stop it, knowing the cause can reduce your stress, because it increases your feeling of being in control.
These are just a few things that urban dwellers can resort to in time of frustration. But experts are working to make city life even smoother.
“Were just beginning to gain an understanding of how city living effects our mental well being and our emotions,” says Aldi. “But this is so important, to understand how exactly city stress translates into brain health. We absolutely do not know enough about this connection yet.”