Donders Wonders

Is city living bad for your mental health?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Many people want to live in a big city, but is this a good choice for your mental health?

Image from Pexels. A city that is illuminated by its skyscrapers at night.

 I was born and raised in a city with more than 500.000 inhabitants, a medium sized city so to speak. Ongoing noise from cars, trains, and people are normal here. Silence is sparse. The same holds for darkness. Street lights counterwork real darkness throughout the night, making it difficult for us to spot the full glow of the stars. Yet, I like living in this enriched environment, with its never ending social possibilities and constant impulses.

Urbanization (when the population living in urban areas increases) like in western countries in North America and Western Europe, also extends to developing countries. Although urban living is associated with wealthier lifestyles with improved health care and sanitation, research also shows that being born and living in a city can be bad for our mental well-being.

City living changes your brains response to stress
According to meta-analyses (a meta-analysis includes many different studies and statistical tests to see whether the results from those studies overlap) city dwellers have an increased risk in developing anxiety disorders by 21%, and mood disorders by a staggering 39%. Individuals that are born and grow up in cities even seem to have double the risk of developing Schizophrenia.

The exact relation between urban living and mental disorders is not yet clear, but many researchers proposed that the link might be due to social evaluative stress, which includes social defeat and chronic stress. To study the link between social evaluative stress and urbanization in the lab, participants with different urban and non-urban or rural backgrounds were exposed to a simulation of social stress.

The researchers found that those individuals who lived in urban areas showed heightened activations in brain regions that regulate stress responses. Notably, these very same brain regions are altered in mood disorders like anxiety and depression. It is not yet known whether the city dwellers’ altered brain responses to stress are the cause for the increased mental health problems in cities. More research is needed.

The future
In 2050, 69% of our world population is estimated to live in urban areas. Many people come to urban areas to increase their job opportunities. However, we should also realize that these enriched environments can have, at least for some of us, negative outcomes like increased stress and mental problems constituting an environmental risk factor. Many questions remain to be further explored, e.g. will humans be able to better adapt to urban environments? Are some of us better at adapting than others? Does urbanization lead some to mental illness? Or can an urban upbringing make you more resilient to mood disorders?

Written by Mahur. Edited by Roselyne.

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