Shanghai Stress: A Psychologist’s View

Shanghai Living

Shanghai is a truly amazing metropolis, with 24 million souls all running hard to get ahead. It has been called the New York of the 21st century, and I think there’s some truth to that (except in NYC I didn’t have to go home when my contract was up!). The lights on the buildings at night, the charm of the Former French Concession, the Bund, Xintiandi – there’s nothing like it in the world.

But as with all good things there is a price to be paid, and in this case it’s stress. This is somewhat obvious even upon touchdown at Pudong Airport, when one is herded through long lines of exhausted passengers, stared down by customs agents, has to struggle with luggage and more long lines to the taxis, then finally sit with a surly driver who may or may not understand where you want to go.

After that the thrills and opportunities of life in Shanghai are constantly counterbalanced with the stressors inherent in this great portal city that seems to attract people from every country and corporation.

So how is one to deal with the stress inherent in life in Shanghai?

I have the pleasure of working as a clinical psychologist at Shanghai DeltaWest Clinic in Gubei, so my job is to help people answer this question. In doing so, I have come up with a list of stressors and related stress reduction strategies. I have found these helpful for me personally, as well as for my patients, so I share a few here in the hope that you may also find them beneficial.

  1. Stressor – 24 million neighbors all working hard with no let-up, no break, no space for peace or solitude. (An article in the July 2013 China Weekly documented that increasing numbers of employees here are actually dying of medical complications from stress and exhaustion!)
    Stress reduction – make a determination to schedule regular breaks into your daily calendar, entering them as you would any other appointment. This should include time to work out during the week and time to socialize or explore during the weekend. For married couples this should include evening chat time after kids are in bed, a weekly date-night-out, and regular times for intimacy. I know, I know… you think there’s no way you can schedule in a “balanced lifestyle” such as this. But do you have time for a nervous breakdown? A balanced lifestyle is not really a luxury – it’s a medical necessity.

  1. Stressor – unhealthy environment in terms of air pollution, food quality and medical care. (At least we’re not in Harbin, where pollution recently hit unheard-of heights and shut down the city under a blanket of smog darkness for 3 days)
    Stress reduction – take reasonable actions to address each concern, then stop worrying, knowing you’ve done your best and this is part of the price of doing business in Shanghai.
    • Regarding air pollutants, it does make good sense to have adequate air filters and perhaps some plants as well in the home. One strategy is to run the filter only at night in the bedroom so as to refresh your lungs without having to keep your windows always shut. Waking up in the morning well-oxygenated reduces stress.
    • Regarding food quality there are many sources of quality foods, especially on-line, that will deliver to you. You and/or your Ayi should research the options and spend time making sure that your food intake is tasty and healthy. Happy stomachs reduce stress!
    • Regarding medical care, it’s important for those with western expectations to choose where to go for inpatient and outpatient care before it’s needed. There are several options to choose from, with expert western-trained doctors in well-equipped and friendly environments ready to be of service. Knowing you have selected your doctor(s) and have plans for what to do in case of medical need definitely reduces stress.

  1. Stressor – social isolation resulting from lack of time and/or interest in connecting deeply with family, neighbors and/or colleagues. This includes not having a close “kindred spirit” to talk with about whatever is on your heart – someone who “gets” you, whom you trust, and who will keep confidence. It’s of course great if your spouse is one such, but who can you talk with about spousal frustrations? Best to have both in-family and out-of-family social resources. (Superficial social encounters such as work-mandated dinner meetings don’t count!)
    Stress reduction – take the time to identify a few people or couples that you enjoy spending time with, and in whom you can confide. Then invest in those relationships, and say “no” to other social opportunities (time is limited). It’s critical to be able to share whatever may be stressing you out, and to accept the invaluable support of a true friend (and in turn to offer that support as well). There are, however, a few caveats to keep in mind:
    • Try NOT to select someone who is about to be repatriated! You need friends who will be with you for the duration.
    • If you are married, please select someone from your gender pool! Otherwise you will likely find that the benefit of a kindred spirit is outweighed by the resultant marital discord.
    • Don’t look for someone who will automatically try to “fix” things – just someone who will listen and “be there” for you.
    My hope is that these suggestions will help you not just survive, but thrive here in Shanghai. There are professional opportunities and cultural resources here that cannot be matched anywhere in the world. Don’t let stress be a spoiler.

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