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Grace under pressure

Tuesday January 16, 2007

Patricia Linderman

Late one night in Beijing, Kira left her office to find the parking attendant waiting beside her car. Realising she was out of cash, she asked if she could pay the next day. The parking attendant refused, and Kira dragged herself back inside to use a cash machine. As if that wasn?t enough, as she handed him a 100 kuai note, the attendant insisted she wait while he went for correct change.

?As he turned to walk away into the pitch-black and totally deserted street, clutching the note, I imagined myself waiting in despair for twenty minutes if not more,? she reports. ?I felt panic rising up inside me and suddenly, an involuntary, high-pitched, animalistic scream tore from my throat. The attendant stopped dead in his tracks, pivoted around and handed the money back to me. No one said anything else. My throat hurt for two days afterwards.?

The dangers of excessive stress

At the most basic level, stress is simply pressure, or a challenge ? and thus a good thing in small doses. In fact, the excitement and opportunities of expat life may have played a large part in your decision to abroad.

Sudden stress ? a truck swerving into your lane on a crowded highway, for example ? triggers your body?s ?fight or flight? reflex: your heartbeat and breathing speed up and your muscles tense.

People may experience different levels of stress from the same activity, but each of us has a threshold beyond which continued stress overwhelms our ability to handle it.

The well-documented effects of chronic stress include headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. People suffering from chronic stress may also be irritable, impatient and impaired in their judgment, none of which are qualities conducive to professional or personal success abroad.

Why expats are stressed

Moving house, starting a new job (or becoming unemployed, as many accompanying spouses do), and being separated from loved ones are considered major life stressors. In addition, expats face their own particular challenges, including:

  • Becoming familiar with a new cultural environment and language (which has been compared to earning a Masters degree);
  • Setting up the endless details of everyday life in a new country, from opening a bank account to getting kids settled in appropriate schools; and
  • Living under restricted conditions, perhaps in a hostile and high-risk environment.

Even if you are highly enthusiastic about your overseas adventure, these accumulated stresses can easily result in an unhealthy load. Fortunately, there are numerous measures you can take to reduce your stress level and increase your ability to face the inevitable challenges of expat life.

Learn the rules of the game

In South Korea, Anne battled the fight or flight reflex on a daily basis when men pushed through doors ahead of her and her small children, glaring as they did so. Later, she learned from a Korean friend that in their culture older men take precedence over young women, and she should have held the door open for them.

Entering a new culture has been compared to joining a game of high stakes without knowing the rules. From your cultural point of view, things may well seem to make little sense and people seem not to behave as they should.

Meanwhile, harsh looks and even scoldings from the locals may show what they think of your own behaviour. Add linguistic misunderstandings to the mix, and you can expect regular doses embarrassment, shame and anger adding to the stress.

Working on your language and cultural skills, both before and after arrival, is key to fighting this major source of expat stress. Ask your employer to support formal training (which improves job performance as well as the whole family?s adjustment), and continue to expand your proficiency with books, language courses and advice from local friends and contacts.

Go easy on yourself

People who take on the challenge of an expat assignment tend to be highly educated and successful ? and set correspondingly high standards for themselves abroad. During the adjustment period, some of their stress can be self-imposed, as they blame themselves for delays in mastering the new situation.

If this sounds like you, reflect honestly on the difficulty of the tasks you are facing. Give yourself credit for any progress you make each day, even for seemingly small tasks, like finding out where to buy fresh fruit. Allow yourself six months to a year before starting the internal lectures about how much you ?should? be accomplishing ? or better yet, cancel them entirely.

Take control

In a study of nursing home residents, those who enjoyed some control over their rooms had significantly lower mortality rates. For expats, a feeling of lacking control ? a significant stressor for adults in general ? may arise from restrictions imposed by your employer, the host country, the security situation and/or the host culture.

?I found that I have to separate things into two categories,? reports Meg in Mexico, ?things I can control and things I can?t.? Focus on areas that are in your power, such as friendships and leisure activities, and try to let go of frustrations over things you can?t change. Remind yourself that you will eventually leave these things behind, and make some long-term plans for yourself.

Build a support network

According to Dr Anne Copeland of the Interchange Institute, ?Our research shows that the best-adjusted expats are those with people in their social networks to confide in, get advice from, or even just play tennis with.? This ideally includes people who are ?upbeat and happy in the new country,? she counsels.

If you have family members with you, you can stand at the core of each other?s support networks, as long as you take the time to share new experiences, sympathise with each other?s difficulties and solve problems together.

Move gradually outward

A rabbit released in a meadow will instinctively explore in expanding loops, returning to the original spot and then moving outward again.

?That?s exactly what I do in a new place,? reports Francesca, who has lived in six different countries. When she finds a park or restaurant she enjoys, she returns to it regularly to build a sense of familiarity, while gradually branching out into new experiences.

Your new housing could be your ?home base? for these explorations. Make it a low-stress haven by packing your suitcases with favourite foods and music, family photos, hobby supplies and a range of reading material. If you have a pet, bring it with you if at all possible. Busy singles in particular tend to neglect homemaking tasks, but research shows an association between setting up a home quickly and lower stress levels, for single as well as married expats.

Make time for stress-reducing activities

Although you may feel you have no time to spare, de-stressing activities can actually increase your productivity by improving your energy and attitude. The goal is to produce the ?relaxation response,? which lowers the heart rate and counteracts the ravages of stress. Choose activities that have worked for you in the past, or try some new ones such as:

Deep breathing
Sports (friendly competition)
Martial arts
Weight and resistance training
Swimming or water aerobics
Running or walking
Listening to calming music
Positive thinking

You may need to be proactive in finding opportunities; consider packing yoga and exercise DVDs among your supplies. One group organised a water aerobics class at a British diplomatic residence in Havana. In Moscow, a religious circle met in members? living rooms.

Of course, many of these practices offer significant benefits in addition to stress reduction. Investing an hour daily in a combination of these activities may seem like a chore at first, but it will become easier as you feel the benefits.

Avoid traps that don?t work

Many overwhelmed expats dull their stress with food, drugs, alcohol or habits such as compulsive internet surfing. Of course, antidepressants and other prescription drugs help many, but self-medication or an unhealthy addiction will ultimately lead to even more stress. If you need help and are having trouble finding it abroad, consider counselling by phone or even email.

If you have English-language television at home, you may find it an easy way to unwind. Typical media content can however produce stress, as can be seen with children, who are rarely relaxed and refreshed after watching hours of TV. Try the stress-reducing activities mentioned above and conversations or card games with friends and family instead.

The goal: long-term resilience

Living abroad involves excitement, challenges and frustrations, not just during the adjustment period but throughout your stay in another country. If you follow the steps above to keep your stress at a manageable level, you?ll be on your way to achieving long-term resilience; able to handle nearly anything life throws at you, anywhere in the world.

Inspired? If this strikes a chord with you, why don't you share your experiences with other Guardian Abroad readers? Visit our talkboards and spark up a conversation. Or if you're interested in submitting an article, look at our editorial policy to find out how.

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