In my whole life, I've met one person who said they didn't have anxiety. She was very tall and beautiful and had relatives with jobs like "potter" and "beach conservationist". The rest of everyone I know—and I mean all of them, every lump of meat on two legs I've ever spoken to—has had a clutch of tension that festers in their gut and says things like: What if you're smart enough to know what's good, but not smart enough to ever make anything truly great?
Fun fact, that's my own personal poisonous epitaph. My therapist told me not to tell other people it because it's such an insidious negative thought.
As a very anxious person, the only thing I think about more than the soothing bon mots of my shrink is moving out of the city. Take this morning for example: my boyfriend was breaking down the finances we'd need to live in an inner city apartment for the rest of our lives. He was saying stuff like, "The idea of kids having their own bedroom is very recent. You only need privacy when you learn to masturbate and even then you have the bathroom."
I didn't hear the rest because my brain started to wander to a familiar place, a few hours out of town in any direction, where the air smells like honeysuckle and all the trees look like the ones from my grandparent's backyard. Where the grass doesn't make me itchy and my children grow up to be more Anne of Green Gables than the middle bit of Candy where they move out of the city and eat that frozen heroin turkey.
I think these things because I've never spent more than a day away from a good wifi connection. I think these things because I've never been camping somewhere that doesn't have a pool table. I think these things because nature to me is a curated sunflower garden with an entry fee. I think these things because I am an anxious, bougie asshole.
Or am I?
Moving to the country, to live a Kourtney Kardashian style fantasy life, might not be the delusion my enemies think. According to a new study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development which looked at how our access to nature impacts our brain health.
The study found that people who live in cities are at higher risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia than their country cousins. But city residents who live near a forest were more likely to have a physiologically healthy amygdala structure and cope well with stress. Team leader Simone Kühn explained: "Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development."
"Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development."
Considering almost 70 percent of the world population will be living in cities by 2050, the research was conducted with the idea it could inform future urban planning. We might not all be able to live in nature, but cities can be built to bring a bit more green to us. Which is pretty sweet news, because my god, if the tram gets any fuller I'll need more than a pine-scented-forest-fringe to keep me from murdering my fellow city dwellers.
This isn't the first time the connection between cities and stress has been made by someone who wasn't your mum, texting: "I'm very worried about you after seeing you tonight, please tell me you have some holiday time coming up." There is a whole field of research called ecotherapy which draws connection between our relationship to nature and our wellbeing. And before we had Lexipro we had old timey cures, like taking the country air. Or as Henrick Ibsen called it, friluftsliv—a word he just made up and which means open-air living.
A little more recently, like last year, Harvard University published a study looking at the relationship between access to nature and mortality rates. They surveyed 100,000 female nurses living across the US over eight years and found that those living in the greenest areas had a mortality rate that was 12 percent lower than those in built-up cities. They also reported that those close to nature had significantly improved mental health.
Peter James of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental
Health, who lead the study, said they weren't "expecting the magnitude [of the results.]" But that they showed "there's a direct cognitive benefit and restorative quality of being in nature, that we've evolved in nature to enjoy being in nature."
Now, that's all good and well, but what if you want the mental health benefits of open air and access to bottle shops that specialises in natural, orange, cold harvested German wines? Don't worry, there are options that don't involve going full Under The Tuscan Sun. A 2015 Stanford-led study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reported that people who worked for 90 minutes in nature showed a decrease in activity in the part of the brain associated with depression.
Of course, any findings like this are tricky, as you could argue individuals with stress-free amygdalas could be more prone to gravitate to nature's cool embrace anyway. While those of us with frontal lobes like over-cooked eggs flock to the city, for the relentless thrill of action and the ultimately hollow promise that maybe you'll make it, you'll be the one who beats this city, who gets that apartment with a communal pool and european style laundry. But there isn't a whole lot of arguments against spending an hour a week somewhere you can actually see the sky. So maybe pack a bottle of orange wine and let the friluftsliv times flow!
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