7 brilliant ways to beat stress in Shanghai

Time-tested methods to improve your mood and help combat the big city blues

Hey, you! Why so tense? Is it the 90-hour workweek or the battle you face on your daily commute (here's looking at you, Line 2)? The fact that you got duped into paying 8,000RMB a month to live in a damp shoebox? A mix of the above? Shanghai might be one of the best cities in the world, but there's no doubt about it, it's also one of the most stressful. Take a peek at our tips (with a little help from the experts) on how to keep smiling and beat the big city blues.

Learn how to keep your cool on Line 2. By Cat Nelson


I’m not a saint. Let’s get that out of the way early. I’m from California and while I like to think of myself as an easy, laidback and chilled-out type, if you speak with some of my colleagues I’m sure another story might be told. 

And Shanghai doesn’t necessarily help the case – it’s a full-on city, with passionate people working around the clock, perfectly primed for Type A’s or anyone with a proclivity towards stress. Top that up with a healthy dose of 24 million other people, and it’s the perfect storm. There’s really nothing like a pulsing sea of humans to make you confront your existence. Have you ever been on Line 2? 

So I talked to local Shanghai life coach Ans Hooft, who specialises in stress counselling, about how to cope with the city’s physical crush of people and its emotional-mental beating that is the 24/7, WeChat-pace of life here. 

‘The thing that I work on with people is the way that you talk to yourself, because you usually are the one stressing yourself out,’ says Hooft. ‘You can give yourself a panic attack by thinking, “Oh my God, all these people. I can’t breathe and I’m going to have a panic attack.” If you become aware of that, that’s step one and, then you can change those thoughts and talk to yourself in a more rational way.’ 

Hooft suggests trying to see the funny side of a situation. ‘That is something that works immediately. Like: Isn’t this hilarious? If I told this to people at home, people wouldn’t believe me. And I’m witnessing it. I’m living here.’ 

Finding the humourous slant to someone standing and clipping their nails on the metro while somehow simultaneously, and unbeknowingly, jabbing me with the sharp end of an umbrella? I mean, I can try... ‘In general, if we’re trying to be a bit more friendly towards ourselves and towards the people that we see doing silly things or what we think is silly,’ says Hooft, ‘then we make our lives a little bit easier.’ Just the reminder that what you might think is silly or inappropriate may not seem so to someone else goes a long way. 

I decide to try to put her positive thinking pep talk into action. In the eye of the storm of People’s Square station at rush hour, I remind myself of how empty New York City felt when I went back for the first time after living in China for three years, and I smile. It feels like progress in the face of the usual mantra of cursing that tumbles through my head alongside the jostling. 

On the escalator, I take a deep breath when it’s like everyone’s feet (on both sides!) have been glued to the steps. ‘You have to find out what works for you,’ Hooft advises in speaking about de-stressing. ‘And that can be different for everyone.’ Stuck on the slowly moving escalator, I whip out my phone and start replying to WeChat messages for work. Hooft’s other advice aside (unplug a bit, essentially), it helps me de-stress from the traffic jam at hand. Suddenly I nearly run straight into someone coming off the moving stairs, and now I’m that asshole stranger on the street banging around impolitely in the world. It’s a good reality check in reminding me that everyone’s just doing their best.

Remember, not all good things come in expensive packages. By Elysia Bagley


‘Money can’t buy happiness’ is one of the oldest and most clichéd phrases that we spout on the regular. But in a city that preaches luxury as a way of life, how do we find happiness beyond the dollar signs? Shanghai is notoriously expensive, more so every day, and with that comes tremendous pressure to carry the latest 8,000RMB iPhone in a Hermès handbag while sporting your adidasxYeezy trainers and sipping a glass of fancy Champagne. 

An associate of mine once picked up my year-old phone, laughed, and commented that it was too old. Malls brim with designer brands that most people can’t afford, club floors are for VIP tables instead of dancing, great meals need to be followed by a week of instant noodles. That Shanghai prestige is like the devil on your shoulder telling you to empty your wallet. 

But some wise person once said something like, ‘we spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t even like.’ And while I don’t know that we should all fight the evils of consumerism by forsaking any purchases beyond what we absolutely need, this quote rings true, and I think it’s essential to take stock of what you need to be happy. 

Would you love these expensive things if no one else knew you had them? Would you drink Champagne on The Bund if it wouldn’t be documented via Instagram? Will it all still make you happy next year, or even next week? When it comes down to it, my favourite possessions are not the ones I’ve spent the most money on, but rather, those I use every day or which hold a pleasant memory. 

A cosy hoodie, my 50RMB Feiyues, the 10RMB basket of xiaolongbao on the corner, a good mug... It’s things inherently valuable that contribute to my happiness.

Happiness is just as much about giving as about taking, and these volunteering groups are always on the lookout for help. By Helen Roxburgh


Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones provides migrant and rural schools with volunteer English teachers. They also operate the I Care Project to help improve the vision of disadvantaged children in China, and the Stepping Up digital literary programme to help improve the technical skills of migrant schoolchildren. There are lots of ways you can get involved alongside teaching, including fundraising, translation, photography and more.

Find out more at steppingstoneschina.net

Giving Tree

Operating under Community Center Shanghai, Giving Tree pairs donor organisations such as businesses with migrant children schools to provide both students and teachers with bags of essential items for ‘winter warmth and school success’. You can help by joining a local participating organisation’s Giving Tree team and help fill and transport bags, or lend a hand at the organisation’s distribution centres. 

Find out more givingtree@communitycenter.cn. 

Best Friends China 

Staffed by animal-loving volunteers, Best Friends China assists the animal rescue community in Shanghai and aims to improve coordination for animal adoption across the city, while also helping with educational programmes. 

Find out more at bestfriendschina.org

Green Initiatives

A non-profit organisation, Green Initiatives is on a mission to ‘promote awareness, facilitate action, implement projects and stimulate change toward sustainable models of growth and consumption.’ The group has a plethora of environmentally friendly operations, including community and student outreach programmes, regular events and campaigns, film screenings, and a ‘green directory’ detailing eco-friendly organisations and outlets in the city. The easiest way to get involved is to attend one of the monthly meet-ups.

Find out more at greeninitiatives.cn

Renewal Centre 

The Renewal Center is an organisation that helps displaced people in Shanghai find shelter, food, community support and employment. Every homeless person who comes to Renewal is offered a hot shower, a change of clothes, laundry facilities, and usually a hot meal. The organisation relies on support from partners and volunteers to help run the centre and give support and friendship to the city’s homeless. 

Find out more at renewal.org.cn

Shanghai Young Bakers 

Run by Shanghai Charity Foundation and Chi Heng Foundation, Shanghai Young Bakers provides disadvantaged youths with the opportunity to gain full French and Asian bakery training, enabling them to forge a career and pull themselves out of the poverty cycle. 

Find out more at shanghaiyoungbakers.com.


Lifeline Shanghai is an English-language telephone hotline offering free, confidential and anonymous emotional support every day, from 10am to 10pm. Lifeline is staffed by volunteers and relies entirely on the support of sponsors and people giving up their time for free to maintain their services. Volunteers can support Lifeline’s work in a number of capacities, including becoming one of their trained telephone operatives, outreach and fundraising and more. 

Find out more lifeline-shanghai.com.

It may sound clichéd to say ‘laughter is the best medicine’ but, it really does have more than its fair share of health benefits. But where can you get a dose of this marvellous medicine in Shanghai? By Adam Hopkins


Kung Fu Komedy 

Mainland China’s premier comedy club, Kung Fu Komedy has in recent times attracted US headliners such as Mark Normand, Zainab Johnson and Joe Machi, as well as putting on theatre shows for British superstars Russell Howard and Eddie Izzard. It hosts open mics every Wednesday and Sunday, showcases every weekend, has Mandarin performances on Friday nights, and puts on regular improv shows, debates, game shows and more.

Check out kungfukomedy.com for more. 

The Shanghai Comedy Club 

A roving laugh factory Shanghai Comedy Club hosts weekly Friday night showcases as well as open mics on Tuesdays and Sundays at Cages. Also attracting international headliners – recently the likes of Adam Hunter and Jackie Fabulous – the club is also known for its infamous OBOM (open bar open mic) at Palmetto, offering audience members the option of free-flow drinks as part of a bumper comedy line-up. 

Check out theshanghaicomedyclub.com for more. 

Mental Health Counsellor (and comedian)
 Drew Fralick on the benefits of laughter


‘Laughter and humour are considered high-level coping strategies and allow us to process stress in helpful ways. When laughing, chemicals in the brain are released which calm us down and lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone). Also, laughing or making a joke about something gives us mastery over an otherwise painful situation, which can have advantages for our health and psychological state. Plus who doesn’t love a good “why can’t taxi drivers in Shanghai understand my toneless Chinese?” joke?’

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – you might just learn something. By Mandy Tie

When I first moved to London a couple of years ago, I thought the city was impersonal. Now living in Shanghai, I realise that London is actually quite warm in comparison. From my experience, trying to strike a conversation with strangers in Shanghai is like talking to a brick wall or digging a hole – there’s either no reaction or you feel like you’re prying (even though you’re just asking for a name). That, over time, can kill your enthusiasm for curiosity. 

To my own surprise, the time when I’ve found it easiest to talk with strangers for a prolonged period is actually in taxis (yes, I’ve had my fair share of late-night journeys from Puxi to Pudong). Sometimes drivers would start the conversation, other times I would. And the truth is, I got to know a great deal about these drivers: where they’re from, their children’s occupations, their plans for upcoming holidays and their favourite soap. And they learnt a lot about me. 

The drivers enjoyed answering my questions and always offered me discounts at the end of the trip. Of course, beyond monetary measures, I find this practice of curiosity immensely rewarding. With every question, I get a better understanding of things like the city’s demographic makeup, cultural clashes between different regions of China and the best places to score a late-night snack. 

So although people may say that ‘curiosity killed the cat’, I don’t buy that, I’ve learnt so much by staying curious, keeping it personal and asking questions. And I’m not going to stop.

Learn to beat those nagging and negative thoughts. By Jeremy Mitchell


I’m a fraud. I have fooled companies into paying me for work I am wildly unqualified to do and tricked a wonderful man into marrying me although he could have his pick of any woman in the world. The sad part is that my career and my fiancé simply top the ever-growing list of things that I am sure I am not good enough to have. 

In my rational mind I know that this crippling feeling of not being good enough is a figment of my imagination. I know that I have worked very hard and continue to work for everything that I have. Although I know this to be true and there are physical markers of achievement and proof around me that support this fact, I still cannot banish my own self-doubt. 

To better understand where this feeling comes from and how I can ultimately expel it from my mind, I consulted United Family Hospital's Clinical Psychologist Dr Shang Rasul Frederiksen.

'According to some of the world’s famous experts on the issue of self-esteem, the feeling of not being enough comes from our subconscious mind. Usually, it is expressed as self-bashing, anxiety-triggering thoughts,' explains Frederiksen. Sometimes the feeling of self-doubt echoes voices of our childhood – perhaps an anxious grandparent or disappointed parent, and other times we might compare ourselves to others. 'It is important to understand that the purpose of this inner voice is not to hurt us or to make us feel bad about ourselves. The purpose of this inner voice is ultimately to protect us, through making us want to be more invisible and avoid anything that potentially can make us target for the criticism and rejection,' she continues.

Being the only person with access to the soundtrack of my own self-doubt I have allowed it to overwhelm me at the smallest sign of change and scare me away from taking chances. I have always thought this voice in my head was my truth teller and that she knew something I did not. But if this is not the case, how do I learn to change my perspective?

'The best way to combat this inner critic is by doing the opposite: self-acceptance and self-compassion,' Frederiksen tells me. 'If not being good enough means that you completely messed up a presentation for work because you did not prepare, then you can plan to prepare well next time. By beating yourself up and concluding how worthless you are, you do more damage to yourself and your work motivation will suffer.'

When I try viewing this voice as a friend, not a foe, I’m able to have a positive dialogue with myself. Even though it still shouts at me to take the safer route, one that couldn’t possibly lead to me failing, when I am faced with a big decision, I am able to listen to her doubts and concerns without them crippling me. I am able to weigh my options and feel confident enough to listen to the braver part of myself every now and again. The part of me that knows some risks are worth taking even if you end up falling short. 

Of course, it's not always that easy. When these thoughts start creeping in Frederiksen suggests mindfulness as one way to stop them taking over. 'Practising mindfulness daily has been proven to work well with self-critical individuals. Research shows that mindfulness lowers self-criticism, reduces stress, anxiety, and depression,' she explains. 'It teaches us to detach from our thoughts and feelings and have the ability to choose not to relate to unhelpful thoughts that keep us stuck in stress and anxiety.' 

She says meditating daily, even for ten minutes, can help – just as long as I stick at it. She tells me things like sleeping enough, eating right, socialising, exploring new things and helping others have also been proven to help. Her final piece of advice? 'Be in the present moment and stop trying to be happy or super confident. You can't wait around for happiness in order start living.' And I can't argue with that.

Step away from your phone and take a break from technology. Here's how to unplug and rejoin reality in the city that never stops. By Amy Snelling

Sweat it out


Leave your phone and headphones at home and make your workout a sociable one at Shanghai's many exercise clubs. Feel the burn for free at Shanghai born-and-bred HIIT fitness group FitFam's regular workouts, stretch it out at one of community Lululemon's sessions (WeChat: lululemonathletica), or hit the road with one of Shanghai's top running clubs

Not only does exercise release endorphins to make you feel better within yourself, focusing on a physical activity is a welcome distraction from the triggers and stressors that contribute to the symptoms of various mental health issues.

Join a class


While apps and online courses can be a great way to pick up a new skill, there's something refreshing about the old-fashioned learning style of joining a class. Whether you want to learn a new language, take things to the next level in the kitchen or unleash your inner artist, Shanghai has an adult class for that. As you fight the urge to Instagram your latest creations, you'll find that challenging yourself or throwing yourself into something new is a great way of taking your mind off things – aka WeChat, emails and work.

Explore the great outdoors


Getting out of the apartment and into a green space away from screens can be a challenge in a city,
 but that doesn't mean it's impossible. Take a day trip to the Chenshan Botanical Gardens, Shanghai's largest botanical garden (
three times the size of the 
Shanghai Botanical Gardens), it's a great setting to get back to nature. As well as all sorts of flora and fauna to wander through, it has a
 waterfall, a huge boating lake. 

See Shanghai like a tourist


Tapping away from an office chair all day, it's sometimes easy to forget where we are. So, here's a quick reminder: we live in a fantastic, heaving metropolis that's changing every five minutes and we're missing it from behind the screen. Play tourist for the day at Shanghai's top sights (here's how to do it in 24 hours) or delve into the city's rich history at the best places to get a taste of the past in the present.

When dedicating a day isn't possible, sack off scrolling through WeChat moments on the subway and travel the city by bike or on foot

Check out the city's brilliant events


We're spoilt for choice for things to do in this city, but somehow – despite promises we make ourselves of going to see that new art exhibition or finally booking in an evening at the theatre – it's all too easy after a long day in the office to sink into the sofa with a phone in hand. Fight the feeling, click off Taobao, and get involved at some of the best arts and community events in Shanghai right now

Parkway Health's Dr KC Lee explains why it's important to take some time offline

'Despite our technological advancements, we still only have 24 hours a day. Yet research indicates that the time that we spend on digital devices has increased significantly. That could only mean that time has been cordoned off from other areas in our lives.

Digital devices are helpful in many aspects, they are also designed to be engaging and ‘attractive’, the colours on a brand-new OLED screen are not something your dog or a game of (offline) chess can compete with in terms of attraction. However, the joys of playing chess with someone you like face to face, or exploring the neighbourhood with your dog, is probably not something you’ll be able to find on digital devices. 

Being able to be "offline", or even declaring to want to be offline – especially given the current work reality –can be an immensely empowering experience. It helps us establish boundaries, and help us put the focus on ourselves, and other areas in our lives we want to put our focus on.'

And why it's bad to spend too much time online... 

'When we spend an excessive amount of time [on digital devices], it becomes engrossing and all-encompassing. It can warp our sense of reality, identity and create a sense of isolation (ironically while being more "connected"). This may result in poor functioning when it comes to relationships, making engagement in ‘real’ life difficult. 

Many of our basic functions in life – like dating, finding a partner, negotiating work arrangements – involve practise in real-life scenarios, something that is desperately lacking in online environments. While some of these aspects can be simulated online, it hardly covers the many nuances of human interaction and relationship building. 

Someone that’s always online could miss out on the many joys of interacting with others in person, even the challenging ones! The opportunity to learn and practise social skills, rapport building, handling conflict and expressing ourselves appropriately are all essential skills if we want to succeed in life: in relationships, career and family environments.'

Let's talk mental health

Happiness isn't a 1+2=3 conversation, and there are a lot of problems or concerns that won't be solved in a day. If you're looking for someone to talk to, there's help at hand in a multitude of formats and languages. Here are some of the best options for support in Shanghai.