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Is Your City Making You Crazy?

Anxiety, mood disorders, and a heightened risk of developing schizophrenia: The psychological problems with urban living. (And some ways to potentially avoid them.)
(Photo: fuyu liu/Shutterstock)

(Photo: fuyu liu/Shutterstock)

Americans’ love affair with cities has never been stronger. Drawn by vibrant culture and commerce, more than eight of 10 of us live in a city now, and the latest census figures show that migration to urban areas is continuing at a ferocious clip. The allure of the city to the young seeking inspiration and fortune and the aging fleeing boredom and isolation seems more intense than ever before.

But is this romance proving too hot to handle for some? New work on urban sprawl from Smart Growth America and the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center adds to a growing body of research suggesting that the continued growth—and spread—of cities may yield adverse effects on our well-being. The growth of cities has been repeatedly linked to a variety of physical ailments, from obesity to shorter life spans; to that, add long-term detrimental effects on the physical and economic development of adolescents who move to newly developed areas of sprawl, according to the new findings. As cities expand outward, nearby economic prospects start to dry up, and are replaced or offset by the physical stresses of commuting.

The Smart Growth report is a thorough reminder of the challenges of city planning, but there’s another element important to urban life worth remembering: Your city, for all its excitement, may be driving you mad. From the strip malls to the concrete caravans downtown, city life is busy, crowded, noisy—and damaging.

A 2011 study published in Nature suggests that urban brains become physically more susceptible to stress, particularly social stress, than those of country dwellers.

It’s easy for city-dwellers to feel overwhelmed by the crowds jamming subways and restaurants. New York in particular has long been famous for crushing the starry-eyed dreamers who flock there. “It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck,” wrote E. B. White in Here Is New York. “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” As a friend recently put it: “I just wish I could turn off Manhattan for an hour each night so my brain doesn’t explode and spill out over Fifth Avenue.”

Some recent scientific studies have confirmed the psychological pitfalls of city life. Compared to their rural counterparts, city dwellers have higher levels of anxiety, mood disorders, and other psychiatric problems. The risk of developing schizophrenia is almost double for people raised in cities than those raised in suburban or rural areas. Cities are so tough on cognitive functions that urbanism experts consider sojourns to Central Park a matter of public health.

This is not just an issue of physical annoyances like crowded sidewalks, noisy streets, and traffic congestion. A 2011 study of German college students published in Nature suggests that urban brains become physically more susceptible to stress, particularly social stress, than those of country dwellers.

The pioneering research, led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg's Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, was designed to compare how rural and urban students reacted to social stresses. Students were placed inside a brain-scanning machine, then asked to take a computerized math test designed to be socially stressful. Each correct answer was followed by more difficult questions and negative feedback, both from the computerized proctor and scowling human instructors.

Meyers-Lindberg found this “social stress” manifested in two specific areas of the brain. During the test, the amygdala, which processes emotion, was activated only in people currently living in a city. The cingulate cortex, which helps to regulate the amygdala and processes negative emotions, was more prominent in city natives than in those who grew up in towns or rural areas.

“City brains had disproportionately amplified responses to social stress,” explained Wired’sBrandon Keim. “They’d become sensitized” by their urban environment.

OVER A CENTURY AGO, French sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote in his 1897 work On Suicide that “the social causes of suicide are themselves closely related to urban civilization and are most intense in these great centers.” While the average resident of New York may not feel perpetually on the edge, Durkheim’s analysis can resonate with many modern urban dwellers: Human beings became so socially entwined that disruptions in the social order result in severe discomfort and depression. The neuroscience of city-dwellers confirms this: People living in cities, those hypersocialized crucibles for human interaction, are biologically more sensitive to the chaos of social life, more readily transformed into walking vessels of anxiety, frustration, and anger.

Still more recent research on urban psychology indicates urbanites may be structurally protected from the suicidal tendencies Durkheim imagined. A new paper (PDF) out of Brazil's Universidade Federal do Ceara and the City University of New York suggests that as cities get bigger, certain kinds of death—traffic accidents and murder, for example—become more common, while others become more rare. To the researchers, this suggests that the decision to commit murder or suicide, “instead of being purely a consequence of individual choices, might have strong correlations with underlying complex social organization and interactions.” Strong support networks may be enough to protect city residents from the daily turmoil of urban life.

The development of the micro-apartment and the continuing influx of new city-dwellers might imply a coming urbageddon of sorts. But America is known more for its problem-solvers than its lemmings. Recent research suggests that physical activity, even in the confines of your local gym, can do wonders to help stave off depression and anxiety. Regular exposure to nature has been shown to increase cognitive functioning and insulate urbanites against the effects of clinical depression. And a healthy diet, regular exercise, and a consistent sleep cycle can mitigate the stresses that come from social life in America’s bustling metropolises.

As any fan of True Detective knows, pathology and dysfunction don’t need concrete and skyscrapers to flourish. With proper counseling, most modern-day pilgrims can expect to find happiness in their urban meccas.