Most people define depression as an internal mental imbalance. But recent studies show that your living environment can influence your mental health profoundly. In 1900, only 14 percent of the world’s population settled in urban areas. Today, over half of global society resides in bustling cities. By 2050, the United Nations predicts that figure will jump to a whopping 70 percent.
Blaring sirens. Traffic gridlock. Suffocating smog. These are just some of the harsh realities that city dwellers have faced every day for decades. Research on how crowded and hectic urban life affects the human mind reveals that city dwellers are more sensitive to stress than rural residents. Some studies have shown that urbanites are 39 percent more likely to suffer from mood disorders like depression. Others have calculated the risk of children born in cities developing serious emotional disorders is twice if not three times that of their rural and suburban peers.
Discovering That Social Stress Strains the Brain
Compared to countrified residents, scientists found higher brain activity markers in city dwellers that hindered their ability to regulate stress. A research team from the Central Institute of Mental Health at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and the Douglas Mental Health Institute in Montreal, Canada, hypothesized that urban dwellers’ unique responses to social evaluative stress increase their depression risk. Occurring during daily interactions, this type of stress includes fears and concerns about others’ opinions of you and making mistakes in public.
First, the investigators induced stress on participants from urban and rural areas. Subjects took the Montreal Imaging Stress Test (MIST), which required solving mathematical problems within a limited time. Researchers told them repeatedly that they weren’t performing well. Stressed participants were unaware that the test ensured they couldn’t be correct more than 40 percent of the time.
After the test simulated social evaluative stress, the study team conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to investigate neural responses. They monitored heart, breathing and hormonal levels simultaneously to confirm elevated stress levels.
Researchers focused on the amygdala and perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC ), complex brain structures that store memories, regulate emotions and influence human responses to impending peril. Your amygdala is your danger sensor that assesses threats and generates fear. It reacts during stressful or frightening situations most often. Your pACC helps regulate your amygdala. It controls emotions and deals with adversity. Previous research has associated these brain areas with various mental health illnesses including depression.
City dwellers showed the highest levels of amygdala activity. Their brains had more sensitive, hair-trigger responses to tense situations, compared with those living in the suburbs or more rural areas. In contrast, town and village residents experienced the lowest amygdala activity levels.
The most intriguing findings were the significant pACC changes in subjects who grew up in cities, despite their current residences. Adults with urban childhoods showed the most active pACCs, and those with rural upbringings demonstrated the least. To confirm the social stress link, scientists replaced the MIST with simple memory tests that didn’t increase stress among city dwellers.
According to Professor Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, growing up amid environmental stress could cause the excess brain activity that may be the root of many mental health problems. Urban over-crowding also may be a significant factor. Encountering someone who’s invading your personal space switches on your amygdala-cingulate circuit. Compared to rural residents, the study authors concluded that continued strain from urban life makes people more vulnerable to stress and psychological illnesses including depression throughout their lifetimes.
Examining How Large Cities Promote Mental Illness
Dr. Mazda Adli, a psychiatrist and stress researcher at Charité hospital in Berlin, Germany, considers loneliness in big-city crowds a plausible cause of psychological turmoil. When social density and isolation co-exist in high-risk people, they can expect to suffer the consequences of city-stress-related mental illness.
Current research also is analyzing the impact of cognitive load. Overstimulation from busy city life wearies your brain, which may weaken some functions such as self-control. It might even contribute to higher rates of violence. In terms of public health, Adli believes that the adverse effects of urbanization may be comparable to climate change.
“Achieving healthy cities is truly a political and city planning necessity,” Adli said. “We need collaboration between neuroscientists, city planners, architects, new media, the different urban disciplines and politicians.”
Recognizing Your Depression Symptoms
According to marriage and family therapist Kati Morton of Los Angeles, California, noticing the signs of depression as soon as possible is extremely important. Typical symptoms include:
Hopelessness or constant pessimism
Restlessness or irritability
Aches and pains
Anhedonia, the inability to gain pleasure from normally enjoyable experiences
Overeating or loss of appetite
If these describe your situation, you’re not alone. The emotional toll city life takes on its citizens keeps medical doctors and psychologists busy. Many resources and therapies are available. Tricyclic antidepressant medications include Aventyl (Nortriptyline). Seek professional help and treatment today so you can work toward recovery together.
Appreciating Urban Advantages
City life isn’t all bad. It tends to offer greater opportunities for education, employment, entertainment, standards of living and health care than country folk have. Scientists also have found that a short escape from the city works wonders for your stress level and mental health. With an occasional getaway to the more peaceful countryside, you can enjoy the best of both worlds.