Is the City Making Me Crazy?

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I grew up in Northeast Iowa, in a town with a church, bank, mechanic, feed store, post office, two bars… and that’s about it.  I went to college in the slightly larger, much more magical town of Decorah, Iowa.  When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, I swore I could feel my blood pressure rising each day.  Sirens made me crazy, the sidewalks and stores were more dirty and crowded than I had ever experienced, and people didn’t seem as friendly.  I felt more stressed in Chicago than I ever had before, I talked faster, walked faster, and was generally more irritable.

After a few months I decided I did not want to continue living in a city after finishing graduate school, although it seems my career path may require exactly that.  But don’t get me wrong, there were also wonderful new experiences: tons of delicious exotic food, live music, summer festivals, live sporting events… I didn’t dislike the city of Chicago itself, but I was frustrated that it was making me feel different to live here.

A recent paper published in Nature supplied some scientific evidence to support my gut feelings.  This study monitored the brain activity of participants from cities, towns, and rural areas while they were subjected to social stress.  City living was associated with increased activity in a region of the brain known as the amygdala in response to social stress.  The amygdala is critical in stress responses and, according to the paper's authors, “has been strongly implicated in anxiety disorders, depression, and other behaviors that are increased in cities, such as violence.” This sensitivity to social stress increased stepwise from subjects living in rural areas, to those in towns, and was the highest in city dwellers.

I was pretty sure I could feel myself developing an anxiety disorder after living in the city for only a year (although I concede to all the city-lovers out there, it is possible there are other factors at play).  Induced by “city-living” or not, I certainly felt more anxious than I used to, and I wanted a way to fix it.

Enter scene: Pubmed (on online database scientists/ graduate students use to find research papers).  Using Pubmed I was able to find various publications demonstrating that subjects who practice “mindfulness training” had reduced amygdala activity and significantly lower stress levels.  In one study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, subjects underwent an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention.  Following this intervention the subjects reported lower “perceived stress levels,” which correlated with decreases in right basolateral amygdala gray matter density, an area specifically involved in the initial response to a stress stimulus. Aha, a solution! But, what is this mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) anyway?

A little more research revealed that MBSR involves focusing your mind on the present moment, lending your awareness to immediate perceptions, physical states, thoughts, and imagery, without judging yourself.  A useful and simple beginners video explanation can be found here.

I intend to give this mindfulness training a try, in hopes of keeping my “small town amygdala activity” in a life destined for city-living.  And who knows, maybe if I can just get that crazy little amygdala under control, I might end up loving the city after all…

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