Are you thinking about moving abroad? Are you in the process of moving? Have you moved recently? Do you want to know what to expect?
Summer is the time when many international moves happen. People move to start a new school/university, to start a new job and ensure the kids start new school at the right time of the year, or simply because it’s usually just a calm time at most organisations enabling you to do so.
Are you one of those people? Are you planning your move now or have just moved recently? Have you noticed that you sometimes behave differently from how you were ‘back home’?
Below you will find some useful knowledge on what you might expect after moving and references to other useful articles dedicated for the newly-moved.
Stress triggers in expat’s life
As an expat you might need to deal with numerous challenges, including:
– remembering about a number of things to do
– having countless long To-Do lists to be completed within unrealistic deadlines
– partner and/or children hating the idea to move abroad
– you hating the idea of moving abroad but having to do that anyway
– learning new language intensely
– having to speak foreign language constantly
– being surprised about how living in this country is different from your previous visits as a tourist
– and many more…
Probably the most challenging thing is that very often there is no way out, you need to somehow make it work, especially if you’re not in this move alone.
Psychology of stress
Stress can be very shortly described as your perception of pressure and your body’s response to that perception. We talk about stress in situations when we are afraid of something, get angry or are extremely excited about something new. Although that is not why the life-saving stress responses were developed in human beings.
On a body level, the responses to stress are related to releasing relevant hormones, mobilizing the whole body in order to either be able to escape the danger we’ve encountered or be able to fight it and therefore safe our lives. After each such intervention, our body is drained. After all, we have just made it with our lives!
These days, stress responses that evolution provided for us are no longer just used for this purpose. We experience stress in situations when we are faced with something challenging, where we don’t believe we’ve got enough resources to deal with it. I bet you’ve had those a lot in your life before! Exams, first dates, job interview, wedding, death of someone close, health issues, pregnancy, moving abroad… We refer to these threatening, challenging or tough situations as stressors.
Phases of stress reactions
I wanted to provide you with a quick overview of a stress reaction, just to make you aware of how big a deal it is.
According to doctor Hans Selye, a big figure in the world of stress research, there are three main phases of stress reactions.
Alarm – This is the moment where you start experiencing the stress as you know it. You start noticing that your hands may be sweaty, your heart beats faster, hormones like adrenaline or cortisol are released, maybe you just freeze and are not able to do anything (more about reactions in the next section below). That’s where your body knows that it needs to do something, it mobilizes to react to the stressor, even though you think you haven’t got enough skills or resources to deal with it.
Resistance – Once you have dealt with the stress (through whichever reaction, you fought it or ran away), your mind and body learn. They learn about whether this reaction was successful or not, necessary or not, whether the reaction worked or not. If the reaction was successful, your resistance to a given stressor increases and all the body functions go back to normal.
Exhaustion – If you are under chronic, long-lasting stress conditions (whether that is a long illness of yourself or someone close, a huge amount of pressure at work, unsatisfying relationship etc.), your body is in a constant state of mobilization. And therefore it is getting tired of being in that state without ever coming back to normal. The “stress hormones” are present in our bodies, mentally we can’t switch off and our thoughts are influenced by the stressor. Long-lasting stress might lead to a number of disorders and health issues, including but not limited to heart illness, depression, sleep and eating disorders or addictions.
So now – to the point. How do stress theories translate into the lives of expats, global nomads, immigrants (whatever we’d like to call ourselves)?
Reacting to stress – freeze, flight or fight
You might have heard about the distinction to three types of stress responses – freeze, flight and fight. In the alarm phase mentioned above you will identify that the challenge exists and use one of those responses to deal with that challenge. How you respond will influence further actions.
It’s helpful to observe your body and mind to determine which is your natural reaction to a given type of stressor and reflect on whether it has the right results. If not, there are ways in which you can try and work on these reactions, so that they are better adapted to a successful and positive result that you want to achieve.
[Reflection time] As you read the below points, take a pen and spend a couple of minutes reflecting on stressful situations that happened to you recently. Think about what were the initial thoughts and reactions to that stressor, what was the final action (or no action) taken in that situation and whether you think it was immediately effective reaction or not. If it was and immediately effective that means it reduced the stressed you were feeling. You can later think about whether this was the best reaction for everyone involved or maybe there could be a better reaction that could reduce your stress levels, but also have more positive impact in the long run.
The freeze reaction is one that basically leaves you where you are and you count for the best. It is a passive one. Some animals use it and it works for them, say for example they freeze when they encounter a predator, pretending to be dead. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t when the predator turns out to be a scavenger. Oopsy.
For you, this passive freeze response might mean that you just float wherever life takes you, you don’t make much effort to adapt, to learn the local language, culture, people, customs. You don’t have a purpose. I’m sure you don’t want to watch your life just pass by without you actively participating in it. This reaction to all the novelty might be helpful at the beginning where you can decide just to observe and see how things are in this new place. But in the long-term try to drop the freeze response and think of other alternatives 🙂
The word flight comes from fleeing, so escaping, running away from something. Your flight reactions may show in you escaping or postponing various things related to adaptation. Let’s say you move in to a new place, so obviously there is a hundred things you need to do to make it ‘your own’, you know you have to do it, you’ve read that it’s important to make the place your own to feel better and so on. But through that you also keep finding many excuses not to go out and explore, you are in a constant action mode, but focusing on avoiding everything else rather than actively making an effort to adapt.
If you find yourself going from one action to another, substituting the actions you’re really afraid of (eg. meeting new people, looking for a job in a new country, exploring the area) – that might mean you’re using the flight reaction to try and fight the real stressor.
While it might be a reasonable thing to set up the home when you first come to a new country, and do one thing at a time, long term flight response is probably also not a good one to use all the time. It reduces stress levels quickly for sure, but the stressors will still be on your mind in case you are just literally escaping from the thought of doing things you are afraid of. The stressors will still be there and you will need to face them at some point and use other stress-releasing techniques to do that.
Although fight response sounds like the most aggressive one, it is actually a very helpful reaction to have in your repertoire. It’s not to say it is the best one – sometimes it really is worth just keeping the status quo or focus on one thing and try to get the others off your mind.
The fight response is good because it involves action. And action changes your reality and creates new opportunities.
When you move to a new country, although you might not be entirely fluent in the local language if your way of dealing with stress would be fight, you would go to a meet up related to your hobby and try to speak to people there.
You would go once, or twice, you would face the stressor and each time you did it, you would feel more and more comfortable. In the long-term thanks to this reaction your body would “see” that this stressor is not actually life-threatening so there’s no reason to mobilize the whole body and be on stand-by. Your stress levels in the body would go back to normal and therefore be less harmful for your health (you’d create resistance to this stressor, see Selye’s theory above).
The bottom line here is – act, learn and make progress!
None of the above is the right response to stressors. Each has its own functions. It’s important to identify situations where you freeze, flight or fight and reflect on whether that acts in your favour or not. In some situations, the most positive way of reacting would be to escape. In others, you will need to take some action.