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A recent study of healthy adults by researchers in Germany and Canada found that the brains of people who live in cities react more strongly to stressful situations than those who live in small towns.
“This study shows a link between our social environment and neurological functioning in areas of the brain associated with the harmful effects of stress and possibly other forms of mental illness,” says Jamile Ashmore, PhD, clinical director of the Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano Behavioral Health Center.
To test their theory, scientists used a model of social stress on two groups of study participants. One group consisted of people living in large cities, and the other included people from less densely populated areas. Researchers tracked brain activity as participants solved challenging math problems while simultaneously receiving negative feedback.
Results showed that people who lived in densely populated areas had increased brain activity in the amygdala and anterior cingulate, parts of the brain responsible for stress or what is often called the fight or flight response. Even those who no longer lived in a city, but grew up in one, experienced increased brain activity, suggesting that the environment we grow up in can play a role in how we will respond to stress later in life.
"These findings may partially explain why we see an increase in some forms of mental illness in urban areas. The fact that people who live in a city had increased activity in the area of the brain that typically controls fear, suggests that life in the city, surrounded by so many people, may condition your brain to react more strongly to stress,” says Dr. Ashmore. “It is possible that our brains develop differently when exposed to the many stressors of city living and these differences may make some more vulnerable.” Dr. Ashmore goes on to explain that the expression of many psychological disorders involves the interaction of a biological predisposition and current stressors. There is not much you can do about a biological predisposition, but you can learn how to better handle the stressors that life throws at you.
Although researchers don’t know for sure what in the city may cause the increased brain activity, they wonder if it’s the many noises, aromas and visual stimuli that decrease our brain’s ability to concentrate. On the other hand, rural settings, or those with more open spaces, don’t appear to tax and tire the brain the way cities do.
While it may not be possible for you to uproot your life to a more natural setting, there are a few things you can do to help decrease your stress level.
When you start feeling tense, take a break from what you’re doing and take a quick walk. While you’re walking concentrate on slow and deep breathing.
Take a minute to stretch. If you’re at your desk you can stretch your spine by putting both feet on the floor and inhaling while you arch your back so that it’s rounded. Exhale and release. Repeat this a few times and be sure to focus your thoughts on something pleasant.
If stress is taking control of your life, schedule an appointment at the Behavioral Health Center at Baylor Plano by calling 469.814.4850.
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