Stress and anxiety in the life of an expat
Are stress and anxiety necessary ingredients in expat life? I guess many expats around the world would answer yes; Especially the stress part. I disagree, and I’ll tell you why below. I believe that stressors are unavoidable in our expat lives, but that stress and anxiety can be significantly reduced. I have linked the two words together because I find that they are often used interchangeably. “I’m stressed about my new job. My daughter is anxious to go to her new school.” First, I would like to separate these two concepts and identify the differences between them.
What is stress?
This is perhaps one of the most overused words in the English language at this particular time. Stress is actually a physiological response to a perceived threat. We haven’t really come a long way as a species since the days of the caveman. At that time, if a cave dweller met a lion in the forest, his entire body would prepare him to flee or fight. His muscles would tense, hormones like adrenaline would be released into his body, his heart rate and blood pressure would rise, and his breathing would become shallow and rapid. This ‘fight or flight’ response served him well. It helped him mobilize to fight the tiger or flee from it, during which time the tension that had built up in his body would be released. As soon as he was out of danger, assuming he survived, his body would return to homeostasis, to his normal state.
This is exactly what still happens to us when we perceive a threat to our well-being. Except that, guess what? Our threats now rarely refer to physical danger, so there is no way to unleash the accelerated flight or fight response in the body. Now, our threats are mostly emotional or psychological. We feel threatened if we have a fight with our boss and think we might get fired. Or if our son is not adjusting well to his new school, the perceived danger is that he will never be able to adjust to new life situations. These threats exist in the mind, not in the physical world, but the body doesn’t know the difference. Then the body speeds up its activity preparing to fight or flee, but it is not possible to break free since there is nothing physical to do. Stress is the accumulation of this physical tension.
How to handle stress:
You can try this for yourself. The next time you notice that you are ‘stressed’, notice what your shoulder muscles are doing and notice how shallow your breathing has become. As an antidote, you can slow down your body by taking deep breaths or speed it up to release tension. To slow down the body, try to take about 10 breaths. We can focus our attention on the belly and notice how with each inhalation the belly expands and with each exhalation it contracts. It really doesn’t take more than 10 of these full breaths for the body to return to its normal state. Another effective technique is to lie down or sit holding a pillow against your chest. Take a deep breath, squeeze the pillow as hard as you can for a count of four, and release. Try to do this 10 times. Or, you can engage in physical exertion to speed up your body and release pent-up tension, while occupying your mind with something other than the object of your stress. For example, you can try running up and down the stairs 20 times, while counting down from 100 in threes; 100, 97, 94, etc go for a run, or do anything else that expends energy, while focusing your mind on counting. Try these techniques; They are easy to do and they really work. When we don’t release this pent-up energy, our bodies can remain in a state of perpetual stress.
This leads us to anxiety:
Anxiety is often called “free floating.” There are so many potentially stressful situations in our lives as expats, and the time period between them is often so short, that at any given moment we may not even know what is causing us stress. When this happens, we may experience floating anxiety. So the difference between stress and anxiety is this: When we experience stress and catch it early enough, we can usually identify the trigger. When we feel anxious, there is usually no trigger that we can identify. We just know that we are worried, uncomfortable and preoccupied with our thoughts.
What to do with anxiety:
The trick to dealing with anxiety is to become aware of the thoughts that worry us. It is one of the best kept secrets in the world that it is not the external situation that is causing us difficulties; it is what we tell ourselves about the situation that is the problem.
I will use the example of my daughter not studying for her university exams, since that is what worries me at the moment. I see that she spends a lot of time on Facebook instead of studying. I tell her something about this and we have an argument that causes her to leave the room. I’m left with an underlying sense of uneasiness and I’m not sure why. So I pay attention to what I have been thinking and see that I am thinking that she will not graduate from college, that she will never get a good job or be financially independent, and that her options in her life will be limited. And more I am thinking that this is because I am a lousy mother and I have not instilled the proper study habits in him.
So what can I do? I simply have to notice the thoughts I am having, without judging them, and then ask myself what is really true about this situation. What is the plain, unadorned truth at the time? What is really true is that I don’t know what his life will be like in the future, and I certainly don’t know what his life will be like in relation to this particular exam.
Hanging out in the unknown:
Turns out this is the hardest place to be; For all of us. Although we cannot see the future, it seems that we are programmed to hate not knowing. I would rather assume (until I am examined) that my daughter will have a difficult time in life, than admit that I simply do not and cannot know what her life will be like in the future. And sure, you can tell, but actions have consequences and lead to results. And while this is true, there are so many circumstances in between that one can never really know what will happen in the future. We can’t know anything. So we make up stories in our minds that create fear and anxiety instead of being willing to be in the unknown. We do this, I think, because admitting that we don’t know requires a certain kind of abandon that is terrifying until we get used to it.
Letting go does not mean not acting:
I am not suggesting by this that we do not take action. I can’t get into bed, pull up the electric blanket and do nothing else. (Although sometimes I would like to.) I have to take the action that I feel is necessary in the moment. So I go into my daughter’s room and speak to her using the Compassionate Communication model. This involves me observing what just happened, my feelings and needs, and then making a request to him, starting with “would you be willing to…?” I tell her that when I see her on Facebook instead of studying for an upcoming exam (observation) I feel worried, because I need harmony and peace in our house. I ask her, “Would you be willing to agree to spend an hour a night on Facebook between 9 and 10 pm, after I’ve finished studying? She says no, she’d like to be on Facebook when she first gets home.” to relax”. , but she agrees to only do it for an hour. I have taken what I think is the right action and I feel much lighter and relieved.
Stress and anxiety in the life of an expat:
What I have discussed so far applies to people everywhere. So how do stress and anxiety differ in the life of an expat? On the one hand, documented research has shown that major life transitions such as the death of a spouse, divorce, a geographic move, a new job, and a new school for the children create the most stress in the lives of a person. For many people, these major stressors occur a few times in their lives. For expats, moving and changing jobs can happen every 3-4 years! Therefore, it becomes imperative that we learn tools to manage stress.
We need to be particularly sensitive to what our body is telling us in terms of muscle tension, shallow breathing, or “rapid” energy, so that we can stop and at least take a deep breath to relieve the tension. Otherwise, the built-up stress can begin to take its toll in forms such as high blood pressure, overeating, or drug or alcohol abuse.
Floating anxiety tends to arise in situations where there are a lot of unknowns, because remember, the mind hates not knowing. For expats, there are often many unknowns in our lives, especially as we contemplate moving. We don’t know what our new home will be like, if we will make friends, or if our children will adjust to their new schools. In the absence of hard data, our minds go in and create worst case scenarios, then act as if these scenarios have already happened, and the mind is on. We need to be vigilant in observing our thoughts and continually asking ourselves what is true in this situation. If you find yourself in a state of perpetual stress and anxiety, it may help to seek out a professional counselor or therapist. We can’t get rid of the stressors in our lives as expats, but we can learn self-management techniques for the mind and body, thereby reducing the negative impact of stress and anxiety on our lives.