Jun 27, 2011
Bright lights, high-rise buildings, blaring car horns, fast-talking residents... Sound familiar? You must live in the city. While most city dwellers love their exciting, no-brakes lifestyle, there’s no denying that life in the concrete jungle can wear you out, and sometimes leave you feeling just a little crazy. Maybe even literally.
Researchers have known for quite a while that people who live in the city have a higher risk for psychiatric disorders, mood disorders and anxiety (http://goo.gl/IMMmp), and nearly double the risk for schizophrenia (http://goo.gl/CDJWY), versus those who live in the country or the suburbs. They just didn’t really know why – until now.
The answer appears to lie in how our brains handle stress, according to a study recently published online in the highly-regarded journal Nature (http://goo.gl/vpfjm). A team led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg's Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany scanned the brains of 32 college student volunteers who were tasked to solve math problems of increasing difficulty. At the same time, the students were subjected to negative feedback like being told they were doing poorly, or being asked to hurry up. The brain scans showed that this “social stress” caused different reactions in students who grew up in the city and those who lived their early lives in more rural areas.
Activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotion, was only seen in the city kids, while activity in the cingular cortex – which helps regulate the amygdala and processes negative emotions – was recorded at a higher level for them than their less urban fellows. In the simplest terms, the results show that living in the city makes your brain more sensitive to stress.
And living in the city usually is stressful – ask anyone who’s ever ridden a late-night New York subway train or attempted to cross the street in rush hour. As this Wired Magazine article (http://goo.gl/w1I3A) notes, “Too much stress may ultimately alter the brain, leaving it ill-equipped to handle further stress and prone to mental illness.”
Does this mean we all have to pack up and move to the country to preserve our sanity? Not likely. The scientists are looking to expand the study to the general population and also determine which aspects of city life – pollution, crowding, traffic, etc. – cause unfavorable changes in the brain. Hopefully the findings can then be used in urban planning or policy making to help make city life a little less taxing.
But what can city slickers do in the meantime? Try some quiet time! Put away your phone and your computer, and maybe put on some relaxing music and read. Or even just take some time to sit and meditate. It probably wouldn’t hurt to get out of the city every once in a while, too.
Also try Moody Me, MedHelp’s free mood tracker app to track your moods and manage stress. You can even take and store pictures of things that make you sad or happy! http://goo.gl/7zd8o
Do you find city life stressful? What do you do to manage? Let us know in the comments!