Leaving your hometown for the dazzling lights of urban life has been a rite of passage for many, especially in young adulthood. Young people venture out to experience a more fast-paced life and explore their opportunities to grow, whether professionally or personally. In New Zealand, the population of millennials and migrants has surged now 33% of the population reside in metropolitan cities Like Auckland where I live, known as the city of sails.

There is a segment of the population, however, who is not as impressed with the buzz of the big city, mainly because of soaring rent prices, overcrowding and road traffic. I personally enjoy living in Auckland because it’s convenient, central, and a lively place to be. And while many others would probably agree with me, I’m also aware that the constant chatter of urban areas like this one can place a strain on my psychological wellbeing.

So what is it about the environment of a metropolitan city that triggers stress and what causes anxiety? There are several factors that can have a significant long-term impact on our psychological well-being. One Dutch study found that those living in cities were 21 percent more likely to experience an anxiety disorder, and carried a 39 percent increased risk of mood disorders. Converging evidence has also revealed that growing up in the city doubles the risk of developing psychosis (e.g. schizophrenia) later in life. These findings confirm further research reported in the journal Nature. There, researchers at the University of Heidelberg and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill University found that people who lived or were raised in cities show distinct differences in activity in certain brain regions than noncity-dwellers.

Certain aspects of urban life may be stressful and contribute to poor mental hygiene. For example, social environmental factors like inequality, isolation, racism, cut-throat competition and poverty can be damaging to a person’s quality of life, as well as their well-being. Undoubtedly, mood disorders and the rate of suicides are so higher in big cities. Cities are full of people—an antidote to loneliness. But living anonymously alongside millions of others can actually leave us feeling isolated. Case in point: London is the loneliest place in the UK, according to a survey conducted by ComRes.

Then there are the physical environmental factors like overcrowding, high population density, and noise and  air pollution; these are all likely to cause a powerful stress response in the body. Many of us will accept that it is daunting to find solace in the city amidst sirens, construction noise or loud aircraft. In truth, the world is louder than it’s ever been before. This can lead to hearing loss and a variety of stress-related disorders. Unfortunately for many city-dwellers, this also leads to a compromised quality of life.

However, this isn’t to say everyone should pack up and leave for a less stressful way of life. Instead, life in the city can be balanced in a way that optimizes our well-being. This means creating policies that encourage people to cycle or walk and spend more time in green spaces.

Improved urban designs will play a vital role in combating stress and enhancing quality of life. The redesigning of residential villages can have an impact on getting to know your neighbours, which also serves to mitigate loneliness.

But what can you, as the local urbanite, do about lowering the stress from living in a city? Here are few tips for boosting urban mental hygiene:

Become mindful of your habits and movements.

Take time to pause and reflect on what patterns of behaviour can be modified. For instance, try to take a short walk after lunch to the nearby park/beach, instead of at your desk.

Take some time to rest your senses.

Sensory overstimulation can lead to anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. So try to reduce sensory overload and take rest intermittently. Do you really need to be in front of the computer continuously for hours on end, or you can take breaks in between? When taking ‘sensory breaks’, do some deep breathing for a few minutes;  Deep breaths help to calm not just the body, but the overstimulated mind as well.

Get good sleep

Getting regular quality sleep is crucial to combating stress and helps you maintain your body’s circadian rhythm. Getting good sleep means following proper sleep hygiene: Use blackout window shades or curtains, ear plugs, an eye mask and limit device activity in the later part of the day. More than lowering your vulnerability to stress, a good night’s sleep fosters psychological well-being and overall cognitive and physical performance.

Get your daily dose of Vitamin “N”

There is growing evidence that demonstrates strong  links between exposure to nature and improved mental health. Green surroundings nourish the soul. Your time in nature can be as simple as planting a small tree, potted plant, or just experiencing whatever green space is available near you. The result is a calmer return to mundane activities, as you are more recharged and relaxed. Even hugging a tree can increase levels of the hormone oxytocin, aka the ‘love’ hormone. This hormone is responsible for feeling calm and emotional bonding. When hugging a tree, the hormones serotonin and dopamine that are released also add to that feeling of happiness.

Stretch and exercise.

A run around the track or an hour of yoga is great, but you can also fit exercise into your day in smaller doses. Any form of physical activity is good for the body and mind, and it’s our best natural way of combating stress and lowering cortisol levels. No matter how you slice it, you feel better when you move.

And when all else fails? Build in brief escapes from urban living by head to the mountains, coast or beach if you can.A short getaway may be all that’s needed for long-term stress relief. Even for die-hard city lovers, when it all gets to be too much, taking a complete break from the bright lights might just be what the doctor ordered.

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