I grew up deep in the Ottawa Valley, which I affectionately refer to as Canada’s Tennessee. It was so rural, as a matter of fact, that our post office was a 15 minute drive away. Oftentimes we had bear, moose and deer on our front lawn in the morning, and our home sat on a huge 300-acre chunk of property on the edge of a small mountain covered with a sprawling wild forest and Mother Nature at her best. I spent countless hours in that forest as a kid, so I will always appreciate how that experience helped shape my development in my formative years. Yet, like millions of others, I left the woods for the wild of the city, and there are moments when I can’t imagine ever moving back to the country. But do our bodies and our minds pay a price for living in the city?
In an article published yesterday in Psychology Today, Colin Ellard, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, explains exactly what happens to the human brain when it is exposed to an urban environment for a prolonged period of time. Ellard notes how experts have known for years that rates of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression are significantly higher in people born and raised in the city. In a fascinating new study, researchers also discovered that urban dwellers are much more sensitive to social criticism than their country life counterparts. Ellard writes, “These reactions were actually visible in brain activity revealed by functional imaging methods. In this study, participants were asked to carry out difficult math tasks while being criticized harshly for errors. City dwellers showed higher levels of activation in the amygdala—a brain area known to be involved in regulating emotional responses to events—than those from the countryside. In a way, this finding is counterintuitive because one would expect those people subjected to the daily travails of living in a high-density environment to be more immune to assaults on the brain systems responsible for coordinating their emotional lives. But it’s possible that the constant barrage of attention-demanding threats and alerts that occur during an average day in the city overwhelms such systems. After all, human beings have evolved to cope with much more pastoral settings than those of mid-town Manhattan.”
So if you find yourself inside a skyscraper on the edge of a nervous breakdown after being bombarded with social criticisms all morning from your colleagues, Ellard has some solutions for you. The first thing you want to do is get into a park as soon as possible. Science has proven that exposure to nature — even for brief intervals — will immunize your brain against the effects of urban stress. What’s more, surrounding yourself with Mother Nature will also improve your cognitive function. But what if you’re inside your car in the middle of rush hour or stuck in another environment where Mother Nature cannot come to your rescue? In these situations, Ellard writes, it’s important to be one step ahead of your stressor(s).
One of the trickiest aspects to winning these mini stress battles that flare up around us all day long (when the nearest park is a mile away) is the fact that if our awareness of them is lowered they can slip inside our minds and trigger a negative emotion without us even knowing it. Before you know it you’re a miserable son of a bitch by 3pm and can’t connect the dots as to why. To learn how to get around this be sure to read the final two paragraphs of Ellard’s article in PsychologyToday.com. For more great stories from the world of neuroscience be sure to visit The Human Brain on FEELguide.