There are varying opinions about the impact of living in urban and rural settings and mental health. Many people don’t consider the relationship between their environment and mental health, but the environment where an individual spends most of their time can impact their mental wellness. Physical and social aspects of places where people live, work, and play may determine how a person sees the world and whether they experience anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. What an individual becomes accustomed to can still factor into their mental health and wellbeing.
Some people thrive in situations that would leave others hopeless and depressed, so not all people are vulnerable to circumstances that may be challenging to others. There are situations where individuals may find themselves living in a place opposite to their preferred environment. For example, individuals seeking job opportunities often move to places that may not be their first choice, but those areas may offer the best opportunities based on their education and credentials.
City Living: Advantages and Disadvantages
Young people from suburban and rural areas often dream of moving to a big city for career opportunities, nightlife, and other amenities. Sharing a walk-up apartment with friends or living in a tiny studio seems a small price to pay to be at the center of everything in a city like New York. However, being “cooped up” in a tiny center-city apartment and high population density don’t bring warm vibes for some individuals.
Urban living has its perks and drawbacks. There can be endless things to do but little access to wide open spaces, exposure to air pollution, and rampant crime depending on the area. The individual living in a small apartment in New York or other urban areas may love city life. However, population density mental health issues can arise from being awakened by sirens, gunshots, or other loud noises. Such events can take a toll on individuals, putting them in a state of hypervigilance and urban stress. Constantly experiencing these events can result in feeling anxious and depressed due to fear of being the target of harm.
Rural Living: Advantages and Disadvantages
Wide open spaces, rolling hills, and abundant vegetation are some of the features that attract people to rural living. Living in the country means having space to grow a garden and stroll without bumping into people on a busy sidewalk or worrying about heavy traffic. Rural living offers a slower pace and the solitude many people treasure. Living in a rural area may also mean seeing extended family members and friends only a few times a year.
In a rural area, having dinner at a restaurant with friends is not as easy as walking a block or two. For people accustomed to city life, living in a rural area can bring challenges, such as having to travel some distance to a town or urban area for necessities like groceries. Visiting a doctor or dentist may mean a long trip, and for individuals with mental health challenges therapists and rural or suburban mental health facilities may be nonexistent. Resources and support for victims of domestic violence are scarce in remote areas.
Limited broadband Internet and cell phone service heightens isolation in rural areas. Similar to living in a small apartment in a city with noise and people everywhere, living in a rural area can mean constantly fearing an emergency and being unable to get help. Like their city-dwelling counterparts, rural residents can be at risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
How Our Brains Work and May Influence Feelings about Where We Live
The limbic system in the brain is associated with emotions and determines how we store and retrieve information. The hippocampus and the amygdala, both part of the brain’s limbic system, are two structures thought to play roles in how we perceive experiences. The hippocampus, which consists of left and right hippocampi, helps us store memories, and the amygdala helps us prepare for danger when a memory is associated with an adverse event. For example, if a vicious dog bites us while we’re on a walk, thinking of taking a walk in the future will bring that experience to mind. If we decide to take a walk and we hear a barking dog, our flight or fight response may kick in, which is the amygdala’s way of helping us prepare to flee.
The same principle can apply to the stimuli in places where we live— seeing a story of an assault and robbery on the news can create an unpleasant memory when an individual lives in a high-crime area. The city-dweller who must walk home from work after dark may feel stress daily due to fear of being robbed. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and physical health problems.
A memory of getting lost in the middle of nowhere or feeling isolated can make living in a rural setting tough. For a young person who grew up in a city where emergency assistance may be only a few minutes away, living in an area where emergency responders might take 30 minutes to arrive can be unsettling. Stories of individuals being assaulted or getting sick and not being found for days can become etched in the mind and be a source of anxiety and stress.
What Studies Say About the Need for Both Socialization and Personal Time
Socialization is how children learn many behaviors, such as talking and forming relationships. Being around others helps individuals to learn and grow. A 2017 study at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that socialization helps slow cognitive decline. Socially active people also seem to be at lower risk for depression than those who spend too much time alone, so some people living in rural areas with few opportunities to socialize may struggle with loneliness and depression.
While people typically enjoy socialization and its health benefits, most also crave some “me time.” Mental health experts suggest that having some alone time can improve mental health. Living in a busy urban environment without the opportunity for solitude means not having the time to be mindful and de-stress. A little silence can be healthy because it helps lower blood pressure, reduces tension, and improve focus.
How to Recognize When Your Environment Is Unhealthy for You
If you reside in an urban environment and find that you are most unhappy, maybe it’s time for a change. Sleeplessness because of noise and constant worrying that you will be a crime victim could indicate that urban mental health issues are causing too much stress.
If you long for lots of human interaction, living in a rural area may cause anguish and lead to feelings of loneliness and depression. If that describes you, it may be time to rethink your living situation. If you worry about not being able to get adequate healthcare or frequently fear for your safety because you reside in a remote area, that could be an indicator that rural living may not agree with you.
Take a Break from an Unhealthy Environment
When the place where you live causes you to feel uncertain and stressed, and you can’t move to a location that’s more to your liking right now, a temporary change of scenery can make a difference. Just like a vacation from work can help you return with new energy, a break from your living environment can give you a new perspective.
If you live in the city and need to get away from the flurry of urban activity, why not spend a few days in a rural setting where you can enjoy solitude, listen to the birds sing during the summer, or admire leaves changing during the fall? If you have had too much of the quiet rural life, plan a getaway to an urban area where you can try some fabulous restaurants, see a show, or do a walking tour and get a taste of the urban lifestyle.
Trying life in a different place, even for a few days, can have a positive effect. You might grow to appreciate where you live, or you may move to a place more aligned with your preferred lifestyle. Your experience may lead you to plan more getaways and enjoy the best of both environments.
Get Help if You’re Dealing with Environment and Mental Health Issues
If environmental stress causes you to feel anxious or depressed, there is help. Counseling, therapy, and other treatments can help you cope with the events that may be causing you to feel unsafe. Call and speak with an FHE staff member. Our counselors are ready 24/7 to discuss your concerns and how we may be able to help.