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In “The Tale of Johnny Town mouse” by Beatrix Potter, the story tells of the different experiences of “Johnny, who was born in a cupboard” and “Timmie-Willie, who was born in a garden” when they visit each other’s environment.

If you ask someone who lives in a big city, how they would like to spend their down time or where they plan to retire to, how many times have you heard the wish expressed for a simpler and quieter life in the country?

When my father retired from his busy veterinary practice, my parents moved to live on a farm in a remote beauty spot.

The question then often asked is, if we have spent all our lives living in cities with their hustle and bustle, would we then we would miss all that busyness, the people and all the social activities that city life can bring? Would we have become so habituated to all the noise, the traffic, the urgency of everything we do, that our brains don’t notice it anymore?

Perhaps not.

The results of an international study recently published in Nature showed that where we spend the first 15 years of our life makes a big difference to how “wired” we are for potential stress for the rest of our lives.

Being born and brought up living in a city, is likely to put you at a greater lifetime risk of mood disorders anxiety and schizophrenia.

Why is that?

We have specialised brain regions that deal with our emotions such as fear and anxiety and stress control.
One area is called the amygdala. This structure is associated with recognising threat or danger to us and instigates an emotional response to it. These threats come partly in the form of exposure to noise and pollution. Other threats include time pressure and being around lots of people.

The other brain area now identified as being relevant here, is called the anterior cingulate or ACC. The ACC acts as more of a global regulator of stress and was shown in the study to be more highly activated and to remain so, if you are born and brought up in a city environment.

In other words our brain then becomes attuned to a higher level of vigilance. It remains on high alert and is more easily triggered by stresses. Over time this can them manifest itself in the form of anxiety and other mental health disorders.

What are the implications of this?

Well the suggestion here, is that while we remain living in a noisy city environments, whether by choice or necessity, it is really important to schedule in some breaks to “get away” to somewhere with more peace and quiet. Your brain needs that time out to quieten down the emotional load. It’s all about balance.

Half of the world’s population now lives in cities. So developing and maintaining healthy urban environments is crucial for our mental health and well-being.

Have you scheduled in your next break yet?

Florian Lederbogen, Peter Kirsch, Leila Haddad, Fabian Streit, Heike Tost, Philipp Schuch, Stefan Wüst, Jens C. Pruessner, Marcella Rietschel, Michael Deuschle, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg. City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature, 2011; 474 (7352): 498 DOI: 10.1038/nature10190

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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