Stress and the City
How urban life affects the brain and what to do about it.
Posted Aug 21, 2012
More than half of the people of the world live in cities, and all signs suggest that the urbanization of human populations will continue to accelerate in coming decades. In some ways, this is a good thing. One can make the argument that increasing population densities in urban cores is easier on resources than the kind of sprawling car-centric city planning that we’ve seen in so many places, especially in North America. It’s this kind of argument that is behind legislated city planning by-laws that place financial penalties or outright bans on development in the suburban hinterland of a city, while providing incentives for development in the downtown core.
For some of us, the push for higher density is welcomed. We yearn to see central business districts teeming with pedestrian traffic both day and night. We relish the idea of having a greater variety of destinations for shopping, eating, and playing, and we like the idea of being freed from our cars and able to lead more of our lives on foot. Others are more attached to the low-density lifestyle with room to spare, a double car garage, wide boulevards and plenty of parking at the mall. There’s no denying the attractions of both types of lifestyle and it’s likely that each appeals to a particular demographic. For families with young children, for example, the merits of being able to load up the van with the encumbrances of family life as compared with shepherding young kids on foot through busy city streets is not hard to see.
Regardless of which side of the densification divide you might choose to plant your flag, however, there’s no denying that living the city life is taxing on both the body and the brain. It has been known for quite some time that rates of mental illness tend to be higher in busy urban centers than they are in the countryside. Many studies have shown that people born and raised in cities have higher rates of psychosis, anxiety disorders, and depression, and such effects may be independent of confounding factors such as family history and socio-economic status. There’s much that we don’t know about the causes of such associations between place and mental health, but it’s distinctly possible that the stressors of daily life in the city may contribute to the prevalence of such disorders.
One recent study that received an enormous amount of media attention showed that, compared to rural dwellers, city dwellers were much more reactive to social criticism and that these reactions were actually visible in brain activity revealed by functional imaging methods. In this study, participants were asked to carry out difficult math tasks while being criticized harshly for errors. City dwellers showed higher levels of activation in the amygdala—a brain area known to be involved in regulating emotional responses to events—than those from the countryside. In a way, this finding is counterintuitive because one would expect those people subjected to the daily travails of living in a high-density environment to be more immune to assaults on the brain systems responsible for coordinating their emotional lives. But it’s possible that the constant barrage of attention-demanding threats and alerts that occur during an average day in the city overwhelms such systems. After all, human beings have evolved to cope with much more pastoral settings than those of mid-town Manhattan.
So what’s a city dweller to do? There’s now good evidence that exposure to nature, even if brief, can help to immunize our brains against the effects of urban stress and can also improve cognitive function. So one kind of answer would be for city dwellers to be vigilant in the protection of urban oases of green-space whenever they see them under threat. We need our city parks not just for good aesthetics or as festive public spaces but also because they have been proven to heal our minds and bodies.
But other than making sure that we don’t miss a critical public meeting of city legislators about a proposal to change our green-spaces, what can we do to help us regulate the stresses of dodging traffic, negotiating crowded sidewalks, and dealing with honking car horns and the sirens of emergency vehicles on a 24/7 schedule?
An important first step might be to arm oneself with knowledge. When we try to regulate our stress levels by avoiding triggers, we most often think in terms of people or events. I don’t like getting my hair cut, for example, so I make sure that when I go to my hairdresser I make it part of a longer and more enjoyable adventure. I can feel my blood pressure go up when I have to deal with a particularly difficult person at work, so I prepare myself by using some relaxation techniques before I engage with them. But what if we tried thinking about environments of stress rather than the episodes and exchanges that irk us? You might find it takes some practice to become sensitive to the influence of where you are on how you feel. You might even want to take advantage of some of the interesting technological aids that are coming onto the market to help you self-monitor stress levels (I’ll talk more about these in a future post).
But if you take the time to understand what makes you tick and how it relates to where you are, you might find that you can alter your patterns of behavior in ways that lessen your everyday stresses. Are there new routes you can explore that take you into or near urban parks you wouldn’t normally encounter? If you can do this, are you able to monitor how the new route makes you feel? Can you gain refreshment simply by avoiding the well-worn habits of your usual day in the city by exploring a new neighborhood? Do you dare to confront the anonymity of life in the city by greeting a stranger on an elevator? Can you find a busy public space and sit for a few minutes people-watching? As with so much of life, the key to greater satisfaction and enjoyment often lies in taking the time for mindful observation of one’s own habits and movements.