Mental health is becoming an increasingly important topic these days. More and more people are facing mental health challenges. Mental health, in general, is less taboo today. While being able to have an open conversation about mental health is valuable, having the ability to talk about depression, anxiety and other issues are just one part of the equation. If we, as a culture, want to improve the mental health landscape then it is important that we understand the triggers that people are facing.
Mental health is an immensely challenging problem, and it accounts for billions in lost productivity, as well as presenting a significant risk to life. There is evidence to suggest that there is a genetic element that predisposes some people to mental health issues, however, there are other elements that influence someone’s risk as well, including the environment that we live in.1
We Live in a Stressful World
The world that we live in today is a stressful one. We live in big cities rather than small villages. We are constantly connected to other people, which can be a boon when the communications are positive, but a huge source of stress at times as well. We live in crowded spaces and work sedentary jobs. Even our diets are different now to the ones that our ancestors enjoyed, and different does not always mean better. Our world is structured around doing more things, faster, and this puts a lot of strain on us physically and mentally. We may live longer, and we may even have access to more information and more possessions, but the price is that we find ourselves enjoying those things less.
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There has been a lot of research done on the way that our environment affects our mental health. There are many factors that can contribute to mental well-being— including the family environment, education, employment, residential status, income, and more. Here is a quick look at a few different environmental factors and how they could affect our mental health.
Noise and Anxiety
Most of us accept that noise is an annoyance and something that can be frustrating to deal with. Some would even agree that noise can be a stressor if it is very loud, occurs at annoying times, or goes on for too long. Researchers have found that persistent noise annoyance can be linked to anxiety and depression.2 A study conducted in 2016 by Beutel, Junger et al., examined a large number of people aged between 35 and 74, and looked at the noise annoyance that they experienced in day to day life, as well as whether or not they were suffering from depression or anxiety.
The researchers counted things such as road traffic, industrial noise, noise from neighbors, aircraft, and railways as well as other noise sources as being potential causes of annoyance, and discovered that those who reported strong annoyance experienced a two-fold increase in prevalence of depression and anxiety compared to those who did not report such annoyance.
Aircraft noise was the most commonly reported source of annoyance, but the researchers were careful to note that the results of the study did not directly link aircraft noise with an increased risk of depression. It is clear, however, that repeated exposure to noise is an issue, so those who are trying to avoid such triggers may want to consider double or triple glazed windows for noise insulation, as well as white noise generators, or earplugs.
One source of noise that was not discussed in that particular study was tinnitus. This is a ringing in the ears that can be caused by nerve damage or damage the ear itself. People with tinnitus often report depression or anxiety caused by the persistence of the sound, which can impair their ability to focus or relax during day to day life.3
The population of most parts of the United States has increased dramatically over the last few decades, and as it has increased, so to have crime rates and reported rates of mental health problems. One study looked into the effects of population density and crowding on the health of people in the Netherlands, as well as social adaptation. Researchers looked at 125 different geographic areas and found that in crowded areas, overall health was poorer.4
Crowding can cause problems in a number of ways. One issue is that people who live in villages tend to know most of their neighbors, and even if they aren’t friends there is still a sense of familiarity and a sense of community. In more densely populated areas, this does not exist as strongly, which means that crime rates are higher and people report feeling more isolated too. In one study into urban poverty and the effects of population density on crime it was reported that poverty and crime go hand in hand, and that one option for improving crime rates in high population, low-income areas, was to focus on creating a network of neighborhoods, and to vary the things that people are exposed to, in essence offering positive influences for those people. If someone sees only negative behavior, then they are more likely to emulate that behavior. If, however, someone sees positive influences in their day to day life then it gives them something to aspire to.5
Temperature Changes and Weather
There has been a lot of talk about suicide rates in different parts of the world. Alaska is known as a state where depression and suicides are common, partly because of the cold weather and lack of sunlight at certain times of the year, and partly because of the lack of amenities for young people. Alaska has the highest rate of suicides per capita in the country.6
It’s not just cold, dull weather that increases the risk of suicide, however. There has been some recent research that has highlighted the fact that higher temperatures can also increase the risk of suicide. If the average temperature rises by one degree, then that is enough to increase the suicide risk by 2% in the United States. A study of the relationship between suicide counts and temperature in England also found similar results.7
It’s unclear exactly what it is about elevated temperatures that causes so many people to feel suicidal, but some scientists warn that the impact of climate change could be as dangerous as the impact of recent economic recessions, in terms of increasing self-harm. Rising temperatures can make people uncomfortable, physically, and reduce their quality of sleep. This can reduce a person’s mood, and make them feel more stressed and anxious. For those who are already suffering from stress or anxiety, the increased temperatures could amplify those feelings, and be the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back.
Living near industrial activity has been found to contribute to poor mental health. There is a growing body of research which suggests that the poor, the working class, and people from ethnic minorities are disproportionately likely to live in an area that could be considered to be environmentally hazardous. Industrial activity tends to bring with it pollution and hazardous waste which could be detrimental to human health. Poor air quality can have lasting negative health effects, and research suggests that an individual’s perception of their neighborhood and their perception of their own personal powerlessness can have a significant impact on their mental well-being.8
Those who are well-off tend to like to live in suburbs, rather than cities. They tend to be far away from industrial areas and the noise and air pollution associated with them. Housing prices are cheaper in areas where there is a lot of industrial activity, which means that people who cannot afford to live elsewhere cluster there. The combination of the reduced feeling of well-being caused by living in such a “difficult” area, and the feeling of powerlessness that such neighborhoods create, can be very harmful. Town planners are working on solutions that will mask some of the industrial feeling of certain areas, and help to bring the feeling of the forest back to the cities, but it is going to be a long and hard road to solve the problem.
Improving Your Environment
Most of us do not get to choose which country we live in or even have much chance to choose what area of the city we live in either. We can, however, make small changes to our lifestyles, and to our living environments, which could help to improve our wellbeing significantly.
If noise is an issue for you, then learn a lesson or two from people who work nights and find some ways to reduce the amount of noise that you are exposed to. Fitting double or triple glazing to your windows is an effective way of reducing noise from nearby roads or traffic, albeit one that requires some financial commitment. If you cannot do that, or if the noise that you are dealing with is significant, then you may want to try using earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to cut out irritating background noise.
Dealing with noisy neighbors, especially ones that are active during the day, is something that is harder to manage because you will want to maintain a somewhat civil relationship with the people who live near you. In general, it’s a good idea to avoid confrontations, and either try to handle the issue through your landlord, or to try to find ways to just shut out the sound, unless it becomes an untenable problem.
Find Peace Where You Can
There are some things in your environment that you can change to mitigate issues with noise, or with unsightly buildings. You can make your home in a run-down area feel like an oasis of calm if you decorate it well and use it to entertain good people and create nice memories with your family. There are other things, however, that you cannot change. If you live somewhere that is on a floodplain or that has to deal with other forms of extreme weather, then that will always be a challenge for you. If you live somewhere that is currently going through a heatwave, then you can’t suddenly decide that it’s too hot now and you’d just “like to feel cooler.” That’s something that you’re going to have to find ways to cope with.
Rather than focusing on the things that you cannot change, focus on the things that you can. Find things that bring you joy and that you are able to do for yourself without having to spend a lot of money or invest a huge amount of time. It could be that going for a walk in the forest makes you feel much happier. Yoga may be a great form of stress relief for you. Making a conscious choice to spend 30 minutes each night reading a book might help you to relax and clear your head so that you can sleep at night.
Whether your little luxury is aromatherapy, massage treatments, yoga, video games, jogging, or reading a good book, the important thing is that you make the time to enjoy it and recharge your mental batteries. We are exposed to so many low-level stresses throughout the day, and having something to look forward to, something that we can call our own is a big help when it comes to staying happy.
It’s normal to feel stressed, but when stress becomes chronic and starts to impact on your day to day life, it is a serious issue. Prolonged exposure to environmental stressors can leave you more susceptible to developing anxiety disorders and depression. If you can remove yourself from environmental stressors then that can be a huge help, but if you cannot, then you should look for other ways to reduce the stress in your environment. Take care of the things you can control so that the things you cannot control will not seem to matter so much.