I never gave it much thought until I moved to a very small town last summer, but I am now beginning to witness how rural living affects my own mental health. I have joked around here about escaping ‘metrofication’ but, as it turns out, this is no joke!
The research on this topic is stunning: Did you know schizophrenia is already one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, and its prevalence is increasing?
In 2010, the proportion of the world’s population living in cities passed into the majority. BY 2050, according to UN projections, this will exceed two-thirds.
Urbanization is a worldwide phenomenon:
In 2010, a group of Dutch researchers led by Dr Jaap Peen found that living in a city roughly doubles your risk of schizophrenia. The larger the city you were raised in, the higher your risk of developing schizophrenia later in life. At the same time urban living also raises your risk of developing anxiety disorders and mood disorders like depression, which is 40% more common in those raised in cities.
Interestingly, risk of substance abuse remains the same whether you live in cities or rural areas.
Exposure to nature and mental health:
Researchers in the US and elsewhere have found that exposure to nature seems to offer a variety of beneficial effects to city dwellers, from improving mood and memory, to alleviating ADHD in children.
Much of this research considers the question of “cognitive load”, the wearying of a person’s brain by too much stimulation, which is thought to weaken some functions such as self-control, and perhaps even contribute to higher rates of violence.
A German researcher, Dr Mazda Adli, studies the urban mixture of increased social density and social isolation, he calls this “social stress,” something we might call loneliness in a crowd. Social stress leads to irritability, mental disorders and higher rates of mortality in many species including human beings.
Social isolation correlates with mortality more strongly than smoking, obesity or alcohol abuse.
“Obviously our brains are not perfectly shaped for living in urban environments,” Adli says. “In my view, if social density and social isolation come at the same time, than city-stress related mental illness can be the consequence.”
The World Health Organization has identified stress as one of the major health challenges of the 21st century, and our brains are not well designed for living in a densely populated and over-crowded metropolis.
City living is correlated with increased stress exposure, and this has varying impacts on our health and well-being, depending on our upbringing and genetics. There is no denying that stress has an enormous impact on our physical and mental health.
From my perspective this is all too true. Since escaping the city over a year ago, I have noticed a major decrease in my own social stress, leading to better eating habits, sleeping habits and a general sense of well-being I did not experience in Fort Collins, CO, a small city.
And now that we live out in the country, I feel like I am finally starting to relax like I never have before! That ever present low-level stress felt in all cities is simply gone.