Urban decay?

The headline in the paper read, “Maybe it’s just crazy to live in a city”. Needless to say, it grabbed my attention.

While it was already known that mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia are more common among people who live in urban areas, new research (published in the journal Nature) looked at the brain to see how and why that happens.

Using fMRI scanners, researchers found heightened activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala when they assigned urban-dwelling participants to complete stressful tasks. One job of the amygdala is to assess social threats. People who lived in rural areas or small towns had lower levels of activity in the amygdala during the stressful tasks; in fact, the reaction increased as the size of the participant’s city increased. Researchers believe that city living may increase risk for mental illness by increasing sensitivity to social stress.

What is social stress? Basically it is any stress that occurs as a result of interaction with other people. For some it might amount to stress from events such as job interviews, public speaking, mingling at a cocktail party, or going on a date. For others, it might be triggered even in everyday interactions with people. Besides the greater risk for mental health issues, it is also linked to physical health conditions.

What is it about city life that makes it more stressful? The immediate things that come to mind are noise, pollution, and pace of life. But if the focus in this research was on social stress, how is that different in an urban environment? Certainly, crowding is one factor. Other possibilities are more diverse populations, more activities to choose from, and perhaps more roles to play. Each of these has the potential to increase the number and complexity of interactions with other people on a daily basis.

In rural areas or small towns, people may tend to see the same faces every day, have fewer choices to make about interactions, and have more personal space around them. Their potential for negative social stress is less.

Know yourself

The important thing to remember is that we all have different requirements from our environments. Some of us would be utterly bored with living in the country; others cringe at the thought of living in a city. Figuring out what suits you best sometimes takes trial and error. When I was younger, I lived in New York City for 6 months and developed the worse case of insomnia I’ve ever had. I came to the conclusion that the unremitting noise and stimulation hour after hour, day after day, was too much for me. Yet, if I spend too much time at a quiet beach retreat, I’m ready to go back to “real life” after a week or so.

This relates to something called the Yerkes-Dodson principle which shows the relationship between arousal and performance. It’s what is also called finding your “optimal level of stimulation”:

The line where stress increases to the point where performance (or quality of life) declines may be farther to the right or left, depending on each person’s capacity for stimulation.

Make space for yourself

Even if you thrive on the stimulation of city life, it’s important to protect yourself from the cumulative effects of urban stressors. For some, this might mean taking regular breaks from the city by getting away to a more rural, peaceful environment. If that’s not possible, then creating an oasis at home can help. Maybe that’s a certain space in your home that is calm and soothing. Maybe it is a space in your mind that’s created by a daily practice of meditation. It could also be achieved by finding or creating a smaller community for yourself within the larger community, people with whom you feel protected, safe, and comfortable. Whatever form it takes, the goal is to have a “place” where the stimulation is dialed down for a while.

What is your oasis? Leave me a comment to tell me how you create that space.

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