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How to Beat City Stress

Are concrete jungles all they're cracked up to be? Research suggests city living might be more stressful.
How to Beat City Stress

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On the way to Greatist HQ this morning I said hello to my favorite subway rat, walked through a cloud of meat-on-a-stick smoke, then nearly fell into an open sidewalk grate trying to skirt around a pile of human vomit. It was a typical day at work in New York City.

As it turns out, my frantic and malodorous experiences may be a typical part of urban living. Research suggests city life may actually cause more stress than living in other environments [1]. (My rodent friend agrees — it’s hard knocks looking for stale pretzels on the subway tracks.) So is it time to swap those skyscrapers for a quiet cottage by the sea?

More Urban, More Problems — Why It Matters

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft

While modern life seems to sling stress our way, there’s evidence that cities present stressors above and beyond those present in rural and suburban living  [2]. Multiple studies have linked city life to a higher occurrence of mental health issues, from anxiety disorders to aggression. (Road rage, anyone?) [3] [4]. In countries with a high standard of living, city residents are as much as 21 percent more likely to develop chronic anxiety than rural dwellers [5]. And even if urbanites hightail it to the nearest patch of green, there’s a chance the stress could follow. There’s evidence that in some residents, city living may even alter the brain to process stress less effectively [1]!

Cities can do more than just put people on a short fuse. Urbanization is also associated with higher rates of depression [6]. But before leaving the bright lights for those bare necessities, it’s important to note that scientists haven't proven urban life actually causes stress [1]. Some researchers suggest stress-prone people might naturally gravitate toward urban regions  [6]. So much for that weekend escape!

City Mouse vs. Country Mouse — The Answer/Debate

While cities could mean more stress, rural life isn’t always a breeze. Country living brings its own unique stressors — farmers, for example, are especially prone to psychological distress due to drought or other natural events  [7]. And even when rural residents face tough times, they could be less likely than city dwellers to seek mental help [8]. Swamped city-dwellers might actually have an easier time opening up and sending out the S.O.S. (Stop Our Stress!)

Luckily, it’s possible to fight stress before it takes its full toll, no matter where we live. Try these tips for a less-stressed urban life. (They work outside the city, too!)

  • Say om. Studies suggest learning how to meditate can help reduce city dwellers’ stress levels [9] [10]. So even when a speeding taxi almost mows you down, you can focus on breathing and staying zen.
  • Go green. If the nearest patch of grass is covered in canine excrement, it might help to bring nature indoors. Research suggests workers who have potted plants on their desk are more productive and get sick less often.
  • Walk (or bike) it out. Beyond pollution and blaring sirens, the commute alone can be a huge source of stress in cities [11]. If possible, skip the subway or bus and walk or bike to work instead. You’ll not only get the benefits of exercise, but you’ll help save the planet, too.
  • Get professional help. If these tips aren’t doing the trick, it might be worth trying therapy. A mental health professional can help figure out the best way to combat city stress.

Are you a city slicker or a country kid? How do you deal with stress where you live? Tell us in the comments below!

Originally posted August 2011

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Works Cited +

  1. City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans Lederbogen, F., Kirsch, P., Haddad, L., et al. Central Institute of Mental Health, University of Heidelberg/Medical Faculty Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany. Nature 2011; 474(7342):498-501.
  2. City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans Lederbogen, F., Kirsch, P., Haddad, L., et al. Central Institute of Mental Health, University of Heidelberg/Medical Faculty Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany. Nature 2011; 474(7342):498-501.
  3. Urban-rural mental health differences in great Britain: findings from the national morbidity survey. Paykel, E.S., Abbott, R., Jenkins, R. Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Addenbrooke's Hospital. Psychological medicine 2011; 30(2):269-80.
  4. Is the prevalence of psychiatric disorders associated with urbanization? Peen, J., Dekker, J., Schoevers, R.A. JellinekMentrum Mental Health Institute Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Germany. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology 2007; 42(12): 984-9.
  5. The current status of urban-rural differences in psychiatric disorders Peen, J., Schoevers, R.A., Beekman, A.T. Actia Psychiatrica Scandinavica 2010; 121(2):84-93.
  6. Urbanisation and incidence of psychosis and depression: follow-up study of 4.4 million women and men in Sweden. Sundquist, K., Frank, G., Sundquist, J. Family Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. British Journal of Psychiatry 2004; 184: 293-298.
  7. Social networks and mental health among a farming population. Stain, H.J., Kelly, B., Lewin, T. J., Higginbotham, N. Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, University of Newcastle, Bloomfield Hospital, Orange, NSW, Australia. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology 2008; 43(10): 843-849.
  8. Service use of rural and urban Medicaid beneficiaries suffering from depression: the role of supply. Lambert, D., Agger, M., Hartley, D. Maine Rural Health Research Center, Muskie School of Public Service, University of Southern Maine, Portland, Oregon. Journal of Rural Health 1999; 15(3): 344-355.
  9. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health-related quality of life: findings from a bilingual inner-city patient population. Roth, B., Robbins, D. Psychosomatic Medicine 2004;66(1):113-23.
  10. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and healthcare utilization in the inner city: preliminary findings. Roth, B., Stanley, T.W. Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic and the Department of Public Health in San Francisco, CA. Alternative therapies in health and medicine 2002;8(1):60-62, 64-66.
  11. Rail commuting duration and passenger stress. Evans, G.W., Wener, R.E. Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Health Psychology 2006;25(3):408-412.