I’ve had occasion in recent months to talk to several people about the stress caused by living in an urban environment.  While some of us thrive on the life, energy and dynamism of a city, many of us feel drained and stressed by the challenges of living in a densely populated area.  Most of the people I have spoken to about this live in the bustling, booming megacities of the developing world, and find that they cannot cope easily with the combination of heat, pollution, congestion and noise.  Cities like Manila, Bangkok and Mumbai teem with life and death, and all the messiness that goes with both.

So in a world where it can take you half the day to get from one side of town to the other, where the heat means that you have to sleep with the windows open for ventilation but the noise of traffic and barking dogs keeps you awake, where the water supply is at best intermittent and the sewerage worse, how can we keep our sanity?

The first thing we need is a sense of calling.  If we live in a city and hate it, if just being there lowers our spirits and raises our blood pressure, we need to consider carefully if we’re in the right place.  Has God called us to live in a place we loathe?  If it’s not a natural fit, we might be better off serving Him somewhere else, say in a smaller town up country.  Can the things that took us there be changed?  Is there now an acceptable standard of schooling in other towns which wasn’t there when we moved in?  Can more of our office work be done remotely?  Have road, rail or air connections improved?  But if we are convinced that we are where God has called us to be, then we need to develop a strategy to help us cope.

If it’s a struggle for us to live in the place we’re called to, like for everything else we need to receive grace.  God knows and understands the challenges.  We need daily, maybe even hourly, to ask him to give us the resources we need to help us cope.  We need to pray for patience, tranquillity, a forgiving spirit, and the grace to practise the presence of God in the most unexpected situations.  God is already in the slums, the traffic jams, the markets and the immigration offices – we just need to meet up with him there.

Practical strategies for coping with the stress of living in a city include:

Find people you enjoy being with.  One of the delights of a city is that it is full of people.  While they may be the ones we squash up with on the bus or sit next to in traffic jams, there are also many people with whom we can form vibrant and stimulating relationships.  Make connections – in churches, shops, offices and clubs – so that you can be glad you have so many good friends around you.

Find places you enjoy going to.  These can be malls, restaurants, cinemas, museums or art galleries.  They’re usually air-conditioned and often have a sense of calm about them.  Nice things happen there.  There’s no hustle and bustle in a museum, just silence and beauty.  Meditating on a work of art, treating yourself to an ice cream or enjoying a movie can provide a quick getaway from it all.

Find places you can take refuge.  Sometimes, to relieve the stress, you just need to get away.  This can be as little as just taking an hour out.  For example, drop into a smart hotel for a cup of tea in the midst of a busy day at government offices.  Break up a hot and tiring bus journey by taking five minutes to enjoy a local park as you change buses.  Visit a country club.  A round of golf, a dip in a pool or just relaxing in a pleasant environment can help.  Or, for a longer getaway, go for a short break.  Many mission agencies run holiday homes which are also available to outsiders.  In many countries there are Christian retreat centres where you can enjoy peace and quiet for a few days, recharge your batteries and listen to God.  If all else fails, find a small guest house or a cheap hotel for a weekend break.

Many of these places that I’ve mentioned may not exist in smaller towns in the country where you’re serving, so don’t take them for granted.  Recognise that they’re one of the privileges of living in a city which helps offset the challenges that you face there.  However, not all of us can afford them, so we also need to find a strategy for finding a refuge in daily life.  Here are some tips:

  • Ask friends to give you a really good set of headphones for Christmas.  They can completely shut out the noise of daily life, and you can relax by listening to your favourite music on them.
  • Keep lots of plants in your home so they humidify the air and create beautiful sights and smells.
  • Look for beauty in unexpected places, like market stalls.
  • If you can’t afford air conditioning, hang a wet towel in front of a fan so you get moist, cool air.
  • Keep a bucket with a lily and a goldfish in it instead of having a garden.
  • Buy a cheap drink from a supermarket and go and drink it in an air-conditioned mall.
  • Get some earplugs and wear them in bed.
  • Visit a local beauty spot and drink in the view.

If the stress of living in a city is getting too much for you, don’t suffer in silence.  Talk it over with a friend, colleague or church leader, and work out how many of these solutions are practical for you.