All the Ways Living in a City Messes With Your Mental Health

"I wasn’t sleeping well, and I was feeling very anxious in big crowds of people.”

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Jun 19 2018, 4:00pm

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Leaving your hometown for the city has long been a rite of passage for young people, drawn to urban life for employment opportunities and a metropolitan lifestyle. But things are beginning to change. In recent years, the population of millennials in US cities like Los Angeles and Boston has fallen—and population growth in big cities has now shrunk for five years in a row, according to the newest census data. Last year, the number of people leaving London also reached a five-year high.

While some young people are obviously being driven out of cities for financial reasons, namely, soaring rents which bear no relation to the average person's income, others are leaving for another reason: to improve their mental health.

“We were planning on leaving London at some point, anyway—we’d been there five years and wanted a bit more space, but the move was definitely catalyzed by my anxiety,” says Sarah Graham, 28, who left London for Hertfordshire last year. “I was finding it increasingly stressful and difficult to use the tube, I wasn’t sleeping well, and feeling very anxious in big crowds of people.”

After Sarah moved, things changed almost overnight. “It’s dark and quiet at night, so my sleep instantly improved,” she says. “I feel totally relaxed walking around on my own, even at night, which I never did in London. It’s just a much friendlier and more laid-back environment, lots of green spaces, and a real sense of community, which I never thought I was particularly bothered about, but really appreciate now that I have it.”

Most people understand that city life can be stressful: Research has shown urban living has a significant impact on mental health. One Dutch study found that those living in cities were 21 percent more likely to experience an anxiety disorder, and carried a 39 percent increased risk of mood disorders. So why are cities bad for us, and should the average straphanger consider moving out?

"Living in a city is an unnatural state for human beings. [We evolved] living in small groups of around 100 to 150 people,” says Colin Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, who studies the impact of places on the brain and body.

“There are two ways in which [living] in large cities exerts a psychological toll: one is the physical stress of crowding, which includes noise, but also the feeling of being crowded at high density with other people. This alone is known to cause powerful stress responses—commuters on packed buses have higher levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.”


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A long, rush-hour journey on a hot train is enough to make anyone want to move, but research shows it can also increase the risk of depression. And millennials are commuting longer distances than ever, with young adults set to spend 64 more hours commuting in the year they turn 40 than baby boomers did at that age.

Many of us accept that it can be hard to find peace and quiet in a city, whether it’s sirens, construction, or aircraft noise. But research shows such sounds can be more than annoying— long-term environmental noise above a certain level can have a negative influence on your health. One study, for example, found “strong noise annoyance is associated with a twofold higher prevalence of depression and anxiety in the general population.”

Likewise, the “bright lights” of a city can sometimes do more harm than good. People in urban areas are exposed to nighttime lights that are three to six times more intense than people living in small towns, which can impact our sleep and make us feel stressed and anxious.

“The second psychological liability of city life comes from being in constant contact with strangers,” Ellard says. “This state of affairs can lead to feelings of social isolation and loneliness, and then of course have mental health consequences.”

On the surface, this may seem paradoxical: Cities are full of people—an antidote to loneliness. But living anonymously alongside millions of others can actually leave us isolated. Case in point: London is the loneliest place in the UK, according to a survey by ComRes.

Many people are drawn to the frenetic, 24/7 nature of cities, which counteracts the densely packed homes and lack of open spaces aside from occasional parks. But access to nature can vastly improve mental wellbeing, according to Andrea Mechelli, a neuroscientist at King’s College London. Mechelli recently published research which suggests that exposure to trees, the sky, and birdsong in cities is beneficial to mental health, but adds that researchers don’t exactly know why.

“We know nature makes us feel much better in those who have good mental health as well as those who have mental health conditions,” he says. “But what we don’t understand, is [whether it's] because we have some sort of biophilic connection with nature? Is it because we walk more and it makes us more active? It could be that all of these are at play, or some of these only.”

It’s not as simple as saying everyone should pack up and leave though, he adds, because some people thrive in an urban environment.

“One’s age, gender, background, interests, also things like where they grew up—all of these will affect how people respond to an urban environment,” Mechelli explains. “Someone might respond to a city feeling energized, whereas another might find it too much. Someone with a history of mental health problems may struggle with crowds or noise.”

It also depends on the city, too. Copenhagen is a happy city, according to United Nations data, and there are a number of reasons why. Many Danes cycle or walk daily, and exercise is known to benefit mental health.

Also, not everyone wants—or is able—to leave the city for a quieter life. It might mean changing your career, or having the option to work remotely. Being priced out of a city where friends and family live can negatively impact wellbeing for obvious reasons, too.

Moreover, Mechelli adds, moving from a rural to an urban environment can be beneficial. “If you form a minority—[whether it's] an ethnic minority or LGBTQ—going to a city means you’ll be more likely to meet people who are like-minded and share the same values, the same interests,” he says. “Another example is that in cities you have more job opportunities, and jobs are key to mental health.”

With this in mind, making cities less stressful is crucial. For Ellard, this means policies that encourage people to cycle or walk, as well as noise bylaws and more green spaces. Better urban design may help mitigate loneliness, too.

“There's a good deal of research showing that the design of residential areas can have an impact on how likely we are to get to know our neighbors,” he says. "Anything that can be done to improve the mood of the citizenry is going to make it more likely that we treat one another well, overcome the threshold of anonymity, and break through the loneliness."

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