According to a study from the United Nations, more than half the world’s population lives in urban environments, and that amount is only expected to grow in the coming years. People have been living in cities in some form or another for thousands of years, but since the industrial revolution started in the 18th century, cities have grown at an absolutely explosive rate. While city living does come with an abundance of advantages – more job variety, better infrastructure, and a lot more opportunities to be social and creative, to name just a few – there are some pretty significant downsides as well. These drawbacks can be physical, such as air pollution, but they can also take a toll on one’s mind. The increased stress, anxiety, and the feeling of being both physically and socially crowded can have serious negative consequences on a person’s mental wellbeing.

Stress in the city

Researchers have found some pretty clear differences in the brains of people who live in urban environments versus those who live in a more rural setting. Since as early as the 1930s, city living has been linked to higher rates of schizophrenia. People who live in the most urban environments are more than twice as likely to develop schizophrenia as those who live in the most rural environments. More recently, cities have been linked to other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

In one study, for example, scientists measured participants’ brain activity while putting them through a stressful situation. They were asked to answer confusing math problems in a race against the clock while the researchers berated them, urging them to concentrate harder and telling them they were among the worst performing members of the study. Picture a high school math test, but with Gordon Ramsay as the facilitator. The researchers found that country dwellers were a lot better at handling stress than city dwellers. Two brain regions in particular had noticeably different levels of activity. The amygdala, which is associated with survival instincts and generating fear and other emotions, was much more active in people who were living in urban environments at the time of the experiment. Similarly, the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, which helps to regulate the amygdala, was more active in people who had grown up in an urban setting.

A recent study from the UK found that people who went outside for just two hours each week, either all at once or spread out over several instances, were significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological wellbeing than people who spent less time outdoors. It’s important to note that these outings had to be something more than simply hanging out in the backyard. Another survey found that more than one in nine children in England hadn’t even set foot in a natural environment, such as a park, forest, or beach, in over a year, and on average were spending only half the amount of time playing outside as their parents did when they were younger.

Screening the problem

It’s difficult to point to a single factor that has contributed to this massive behavioral shift, but the most obvious culprit is technology. As the prevalence of technological gadgets in our everyday lives continues to grow, it becomes harder to resist their tempting allure. They have also become much more portable in recent years, whether it’s phones, tablets, video game consoles, or something else entirely. While there might be conflicting evidence about how damaging all that extra time in front of screens is to people, if at all, one thing is clear: The lack of time spent outdoors and in a more natural setting definitely isn’t a good thing.

Richard Louv first coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” in 2005 to describe the alienation from nature that is affecting so many people. Although it’s not recognized as an official mental disorder by any official governing bodies, it’s still a useful way to describe a very real phenomenon that affects millions, possibly even billions of people around the world.

Fear of the outdoors

Author and Naturalist Stephen Moss doesn’t think technology is solely to blame. In fact, he believes it could even help us get more in touch with nature. “I think technology is a symptom, not the cause, of people spending less time outdoors. Technology can be a great asset in bringing like-minded people with a passion for wildlife together; but of course it can also become addictive and take your mind away from the real world.”

In addition to the rise of technology, there are other factors that families have pointed to as contributing to their reduced outdoor time. Cities are decreasing the number of open spaces like parks in favor of putting up apartment buildings, child-care institutions like nurseries and schools are becoming more fearful of being sued if a child gets hurt while playing outdoors, and over-reporting of kidnappings and other crimes are making parents more wary of letting their children out of their sight for too long. This is despite the fact that there’s no actual evidence showing that the number of kidnappings is increasing.

 

A girl on a swing at the Rosa Khutor alpine ski resort in Krasnaya Polyana.
Photo by Dmitry FeoktistovTASS via Getty Images

Changing seasons

Unfortunately, the current trend for schools, particularly in the United States, is to have children spend more time in the classroom taking tests and interacting with technology, and giving them less free time to play outside. Around 40% of US primary schools provide less than half an hour of outside time per day, and almost 90% provide less than an hour. Similarly, many businesses operate under the premise that working harder, longer hours will produce higher output, and ultimately benefit the business, despite the wealth of evidence showing that people who work longer hours get no more work done than those who keep a healthy working schedule.

Fortunately, attitudes are beginning to shift in the right direction. Tech companies have started prioritizing nature retreats for their employees, schools are attempting to move some of their lessons outdoors, and there are even doctors who now prescribe “ecotherapy” as a treatment to improve people’s mental health.

Take a break

Steve Silberberg runs a small business called Fitpacking, which offers a service he likes to call the “Digital Detox.” He spends a lot of time away from cities, with a lot of different people, and he’s noticed a few common trends among the various groups that he leads into the wild. He finds that even after just one week of being in nature with a small group, people’s attitudes start to change. “You’re starting as a group of strangers, and you have shared experiences, and so therefore the camaraderie builds. But I think part of that is the absence of devices, and what you’ll see is people actually become more creative. You’ll see people burst out into song, or make up stories, or any number of things. Like looking at a bunch of flowers for 5 minutes at a time. That’s something that people would typically just walk by, and they start noticing smaller things.” He’s also seen how people react to undesirable situations differently, such as learning to appreciate a heavy rainfall.

As Stephen Moss puts it, “In the end, being in nature – even for a short time – on a regular basis helps you escape the cares of the world and engage with something unpredictable, and ever-changing, and which you can’t control. For me, that’s wonderful.”