Are stress and anxiety necessary ingredients of an expat’s life? I would guess that many expats around the world would answer yes; especially to the stress part. I disagree, and will tell you why below. I believe that stressors are inevitable in our expat lives, but that stress and anxiety can be significantly reduced. I’ve 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 about going to her new school.” So first, I’d like to tease apart 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 point in time. Stress is actually a physiological response to a perceived threat. We haven’t really advanced much as a species since the time of the caveman. At that time, if a cave dweller met a lion in the forest, his whole body would prepare him for flight or fight. His muscles would tense, hormones like adrenaline would be released in his body, heart rate and blood pressure would elevate and his breath would become shallow and rapid. This ‘flight or fight’ response served him well. It helped mobilize him to either fight the tiger or run 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, its 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 are now rarely about physical danger, so there is no way to release the accelerated flight or fight response in the body. Now our threats are for the most part emotional or psychological. We feel threatened if we have a fight with our boss and think we might be fired. Or if our child isn’t adjusting well to her new school, the perceived danger is that she may never be able to adjust to new situations in life. These threats exist in the mind, not in the physical world, yet the body doesn’t know the difference. So the body speeds up its activity preparing for flight or fight, yet no release is possible as there is nothing physical to do. Stress is the build up and accumulation of this physical tension.
How to handle stress:
You can test this out for yourself. The next time you notice that you are ‘stressed’, see what your shoulder muscles are doing, and notice how shallow your breath has become. As an antidote, you can either slow the body down by deep breathing or speed it way up to discharge the tension. To slow the body down, try taking about 10 breaths. We can focus our attention on the belly and notice how with each inhale the belly expands and with the exhale it contracts. It really doesn’t take more than about 10 of these complete breaths for the body to come back to its normal state. Another effective technique is to lie or sit down holding a pillow to your chest. Take a deep breath in, squeeze the pillow as tight as you can to the count of four, and release. Try doing this 10 times. Or, you can do physical exertion to speed the body way up and discharge the built up tension, at the same time as you occupy 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 backwards from 100 in three’s; 100, 97, 94, etc. going for a run, or doing anything else that expends energy, while focusing the mind on counting. Try these techniques; they are simple to do and they really work. When we don’t release this accumulated energy, our bodies can remain in a state of perpetual stress.
This brings us to anxiety:
Anxiety is often referred to as ‘free floating’. There are so many potentially stressful situations in our lives as expats, and the period of time between them is often so short, that at any given time we may not even know what is causing us stress. When this happens, we may find ourselves experiencing free floating anxiety. So the difference between stress and anxiety is this: when we experience stress, and catch it soon enough, we can usually identify the trigger. When we feel anxious, there is usually no trigger we can identify. We just know we are worried, uncomfortable, and preoccupied with our thoughts.
What to do about anxiety:
The trick to dealing with anxiety is to become aware of the thoughts we are preoccupied with. It is one of the world’s best kept secrets that it is not the external situation that is causing us difficulty; it’s what we are telling ourselves about the situation that’s the problem.
I’ll use the example of my daughter not studying for her college exams as that’s what’s up for me at the moment. I see that she’s spending a lot of time on Facebook instead of studying. I say something to her about this and we have an argument which results in her leaving the room. I’m left with an underlying feeling of uneasiness and I’m not sure why. So I pay attention to what I’ve been thinking and see that I’m thinking that she won’t graduate from college, won’t ever get a good job and be financially independent, and that her options in life will be limited. And furthermore I’m thinking that this is because I’m a terrible mother and haven’t instilled in her the proper study habits.
So what can I do? I have to simply notice the thoughts I’m having, without judging them, and then ask myself what is really true about this situation. What is the simple unadorned naked truth in that moment? What is really true is that I don’t know what her life will be like in the future, and for sure I don’t know what her life will be like in relationship to this particular exam.
Hanging out in the unknown:
It turns out that this is the most difficult place to be; for all of us. Even though we can’t behold the future, we seem to be hard wired to hate not knowing. I would rather assume (until examined) that my daughter will have a difficult time in life, than admit that I simply don’t know and can’t know how her life will be in the future. And sure, you may say, but actions have consequences and lead to outcomes. And while this is true, there are so many intervening circumstances, that one can never really know what will happen in the future. We can’t know at all. 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 we don’t know requires a certain kind of letting go which is frightening until we get used to it.
Letting go doesn’t mean not acting:
I’m not suggesting by this that we don’t take action. I can’t just get into bed, turn the electric blanket up and do nothing further. (Although at times I would like to.) I have to take the action I feel is necessary in the moment. So I go into my daughter’s room and talk to her using the model of Compassionate Communication. This involves stating my observation of what just happened, my feelings and needs and then making a request of her, starting with “would you be willing… ?” I tell her that when I see her on Facebook instead of studying for an upcoming exam (observation) that I feel concerned, because I need harmony and peace in our house. I ask her, “Would you be willing to agree to spend one hour a night on Facebook between 9 and 10 p.m., after she has finished studying? She says no, that she would like to be on Facebook when she first comes home to unwind, but agrees to doing it for one hour only. I have taken what I believe is the appropriate action and 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? For one thing, documented research has shown that major life transitions such as death of a spouse, divorce, a geographical move, a new job and a new school for children create the most stress in a person’s life. For many people these major stressors occur a few times in their entire life. For expats, moving and changing jobs can happen every 3 or 4 years! So it becomes imperative for us to learn tools for managing stress.
We need to be particularly sensitive to what our bodies are telling us in terms of muscle tension, shallow breathing, or “speedy” energy, so we can stop and at least do some deep breathing to relieve the tension. Otherwise, the accumulated tension may begin to take its toll in ways such as high blood pressure, overeating or alcohol or drug abuse.
Free floating anxiety tends to arise in situations where there are many unknown factors, because remember, the mind hates not knowing. For expats, there are frequently many unknowns in our lives, especially when contemplating a move. We don’t know what our new home will be like, if we’ll make friends, or if our kids will adjust to their new schools. In the absence of concrete data, our minds come in and create worst case scenarios, then act as if these scenarios have already happened, and the mind is off and running. We need to be vigilant about watching our thoughts and continually ask ourselves what is true in this situation. If you find yourself in a state of perpetual stress and anxiety, it can be helpful to seek out a professional counselor or therapist. We can’t get rid of stressors in our lives as expats, but we can learn self monitoring techniques for the mind and body, thereby reducing the negative impact of stress and anxiety on our lives.