You may love your urban neighborhood, where you can walk to your favorite coffee shop and browse nearby bookstores. If you crave Korean food at midnight, you’ll be likely to find it somewhere. Several museums may be just a short subway ride away, and you have your choice of live shows. You can also appreciate the diversity of residents who make the city a true melting pot.
But at the same time, the constant cacophony of honking horns and ambulance sirens can sometimes make you long for a quiet walk in the woods. Between crowds of people and bumper-to-bumper traffic, just crossing the street can be an ordeal. The stress of living in a big city can add up, affecting both your physical and mental health.
The German medical journal Deutsches Ärzteblatt, sent to all doctors in Germany, aggregated studies from around the globe on how living in cities affects mental health, finding overall that the risk for such mental illnesses as anxiety, psychotic, mood and addictive disorders is often higher in cities. Studies have found that post traumatic stress disorder, anger, and paranoia occur at higher rates in urban than rural areas in several Latin American and Asian countries.
Noise, Light and Air Pollution
According to studies in such medical publications as the British Medical Journal, the noise and pollution associated with living near major streets and airports can cause higher levels of stress and aggression than living in quieter, cleaner areas. One German study found that those who particularly disliked incessant traffic had more than twice the risk for impaired mental health, and this was higher for men than women. A study of school children in two large Korean cities published in the journal Noise and Health found that those who lived in the noisiest areas even exhibited more behavior problems.
Meanwhile, while scientists have known for decades that air pollution can be harmful to both cardiovascular and respiratory health, it’s only been more recently that a connection has been drawn with mental health as well. Tiny pollutants in the air called fine particulate matter are the main concern.
A study of 19,000 women ages 70 to 81 found that long-term exposure to high levels of this type of pollution significantly worsened their cognitive decline, as demonstrated in tests of mental acuity. On the other end of the age spectrum, research reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that children exposed to greater levels of pollution scored lower on tests of memory, as well as verbal and nonverbal IQ.
Living in a city that never sleeps may seem exciting at first, but it turns out that urban light exposure at night may disrupt circadian rhythms and change sleeping patterns, which can in turn negatively affect mental well-being.
Being packed like sardines in a subway car or living with crying babies and squabbling neighbors above and below you can also impact health. Physically, for example, you’re more likely to come in contact with easily passed along germs. But crowding has also been shown to negatively affect mental health in numerous studies dating as far back as the 1970s. One looked at the mental health needs of 1,645 Florida adults, and found that the 8% living in crowded conditions scored much higher on a depression scale.
Meanwhile, an analysis of five studies in the Schizophrenia Bulletin shows that being born or raised in a city is a risk factor for later in life being diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Researchers hypothesize that high population density and crowded households are contributing factors.
Related to crowding is the issue of poverty. With high housing costs, low-income families and individuals in both cities and suburbs often live in small spaces, which can exacerbate stress.
Reducing Urban Stress
If you find yourself feeling like city living makes you want to scream, the easiest way to remedy that is to move to the suburbs or a quieter rural area. With the rise of remote work, this solution is also becoming more and more practical for different people working in different industries.
There are also less radical solutions, like prioritizing your physical health which can boost your mental health. Investing in room-darkening window shades and noise-canceling headphones can also help to block out unwanted noise and light. Further, many cities abound with yoga and meditation classes for both social interactions as well as dedicated relaxation time. Some studies also show that CBD oil, derived from the cannabis plant, may reduce stress if you’re feeling particularly tight, emotionally, by allegedly interacting with receptors in the brain’s hippocampus to stimulate positive emotions.
With the number of restaurants available in any urban area, healthy food can also be easily found. Next, go out and get some exercise, as most cities have pockets of green space where you can walk or jog or just soak up some peace and quiet.
So, city dwellers, enjoy all the perks of your urban environment, but be mindful of the stress urban environments can cause, and take steps to keep both your mind and body healthy.