Moving to another country for work brings about a whole host of challenges.
Of course, we all know of the practical challenges: finding somewhere to live, finding a school for your children, organising your finances, meeting your new colleagues, trying to not eat the wrong food and fall gravely ill, etc. But every one of these challenges brings about a whole host of emotions and doubts. Our brains are complex and intriguing things, when we’re focussed on completing an important task, we can garner extreme focus and poise, pushing the emotions to the back of the queue – “Sorry anxiety, I am far too busy to deal with you right now! I’ve got to figure out where I parked my rental car!”
It’s very easy to undermine the importance of a healthy mind. Especially when important tasks need to be taken care of and need the utmost attention. In high-pressure environments and high-stakes assignments, there isn’t much time to reflect or understand what you are feeling.
The point of this article is not to scare anyone off or even to warn you of the negative emotions involved, but to make sure you are ok. Whether you are going on assignment, thinking about it, or already there, we hope this can help you:
The Comfort Zone
Our comfort zone is made up of several factors which include familiarity, routine, control and calmness. Our brains release chemicals based on our thoughts, surroundings and situations. Some make us happy, some make us sad.
If you are in your “comfort zone”, i.e. familiar surroundings with family or friends, your brain will release happy chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. This can lead to a feeling of relaxation, euphoria, even!
No prizes for guessing what happens when we are forced out of our comfort zone… that’s right! Other chemicals are released into your brain, ones that don’t make you feel quite as relaxed. Adrenaline and glutamate, for example.
The reason these chemicals are released is to prepare us for something. Something harmful, uncomfortable or frightening. Our bodies get all tense, our palms are sweaty, vomit on our sweater already, etc.
With this scientific explanation considered, it’s easy to see why we may feel different when we move to a new country or city. Even if it seems like everything is organised and going to plan, you still might get that feeling in the pit of your stomach which tells you “something isn’t right”.
It’s also very easy to start doubting yourself when these feelings come to the surface. “Have I made the right decision?”, “Do I belong?” … this leads to a feedback loop in your mind which can be continuous unless you know how to deal with it. You may start feeling like a fraud, or maybe you’ll think that you are weak and not cut-out for the remote-working life. These aren’t the thoughts of a weakling, a coward or a failure. They are the thoughts of a human! Don't be hard on yourself, and there are ways to deal with it.
First, we need to understand what anxiety is. It is a feeling of fear, dread, an apprehension that puts your sense on red alert. It’s there to protect you from potential threats. But, as smart as it is, our brain can be pretty dumb. It can create these feelings in instances that are not life and death, but your body will react the same way.
Neurochemical reactions going on inside our brain are responsible for these feelings. The amygdala, a small part of the brain that communicates the process of sensory signals and the other parts of the brain that decides what to do with these signals.
It can tell the brain to be alert for danger or to relax. In the case of anxiety, your fight-or-flight reflex is fired up and brings about the familiar feelings of stomach trouble, sweaty palms, shaky hands and a heightened sense of awareness of every little thing going on around you.
As an individual, you may feel silly if this life or death reflex is being triggered because you can’t find your new office or figure out how to turn on the cooker, but your brain doesn’t know the difference, fear is fear and the unknown is still the unknown. Whether it’s a battlefield or a 3-pin plug.
The fact is that anxiety pops up when our brain thinks it is protecting us. Undesirable situations that I mentioned above may seem small, but anxiety digs deep into our psyche and is a result of ego and identity. If we identify as a stranger in a foreign land, that’s how we’ll feel. So while you are feeling anxious about whether or not people will be nice to you on your first day in the new office, it’s because you aren’t confident in your ability to interact or you’re not sure people will like you because maybe you don’t like yourself?
That’s another discussion for another day, but the important thing to remember is anxiety passes, you’ll know when the situation is life-and-death and when it isn’t. You can prepare your brain accordingly.
Anxiety is an impulsive invader, who will jump on you and exaggerate your fears in a millisecond. Not much you can do about it grabbing hold of you, but you can manage it.
Deep breathes actually work because it is like anxiety has come along and messed up the puzzle pieces, the deep breaths put the puzzle back together. Logically.
Practising mindfulness is also a great way to go and perhaps something to get into before your assignment. Being able to understand your emotions and where they are coming from is key in managing your own anxiety.
Stress is different from anxiety. Very different. Stress can be made up of anger, sadness, shame, hatred, disenchantment, boredom… they all stress us out!
So, what to do when we feel stressed? Figure out what you are stressed about. If you try, you can home in on what is upsetting you. It may be that you are angry that your desk wasn’t ready on your first day, sad because you miss your family, or shame because you wore your best suit on dress-down Friday.
Whatever it is, it can be dealt with. There is no point in just accepting that you are stressed, you really need to find out why, and tackle it. You will most likely find that it is something totally out of your control or it is related to one of the first two points mentioned. It’s worth mentioning that everyone gets stressed, especially when moving to another country for work. If you don’t get stressed. tell me your secret! The point is to not be hard on yourself if you feel your emotions are getting the better of yourself, again, it’s normal.
"The Expat Blues"
A common phrase around the travelling forums is “expat blues”. Which can be quite simply translated as “loneliness and reflection”.
Why do we want to go and work abroad for an assignment? Answers differ, but mostly it is to further our career, meet new people, see the world, look good on Facebook etc. Whatever the reason, it is always a positive one. But we fail to think about the negative things and like all things in life, there are negatives. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
It’s like looking forward to a night out drinking, you think about the fun you’ll have, the people you’ll meet, the laughs you’ll share, but no one spends their Friday afternoon thinking about the hangover they will have tomorrow or the shoes they are going to ruin.
So, be realistic and expect the lows.
The “expat blues” kick in usually after the few weeks or months. Once the excitement dies down. The moment when you find yourself at home, by yourself, with nothing to do. All of the welcome parties are finished, and the settling in period is done. This is the moment where the demons run wild. You’re not preoccupied so now it’s their chance to remind you of the bad things: “your family aren’t here”, “your things aren’t here”, “you don’t know anyone around here”, “you can’t speak the language and you won’t learn!”. Don’t fully dismiss the little rascals, but don’t let them win either.
Even the most sociable socialite can end up wanting to hide away and be alone. That’s the kicker. You end up wanting to be alone… because you’re lonely! We must push past the discomfort and try to immerse ourselves in experiences like this. Once again, expect the negatives, know that they are lurking, and when they arrive, you’re better placed to deal with them.
Can I avoid any of these emotions?
You can’t fully avoid emotions, and if you don’t feel any, you’re probably a psychopath. But yes, there are things you can do to make your thinkin’ muscle stronger and be better prepared for when you feel anxious, stressed or lonely.
Mindfulness is the ability to be able to maintain awareness of our thoughts, feelings (mental and physical) and surroundings at all times. The aim to be able to successfully link your thoughts into your senses and understanding them. It allows you to actually “live in the moment” and understand your feelings. Feeling a bit sick with worry? You’ll be able to tap into why and, hopefully, stop it.
To become mindful, you’ll need to meditate. Which, until recently, has always sounded like some kind of hippie nonsense to me… but it works! The app stores are littered with apps on guided meditation and it is definitely worth giving it a try!
Yes, the “E” word. We all know we should do it, some of us do it, some of us eat crisps. But the fact is, we should all be doing it. Not just to try and live longer and look good, the evidence of the positive mental effects can’t be ignored. Studies have shown that exercise can be as effective as some antidepressants. How? It’s those chemicals again! Doing some kind of physical activity releases dopamine. This makes us feel good. It also releases endorphins which are chemicals that cause relaxation and supress pain.
The endorphins give us feelings of happiness, relaxation and euphoria. This means that we are less affected by the stresses of day to day life, have a higher tolerance to fatigue, and actually feel more inclined to socialise because your self-esteem will be boosted. It’s like the perfect medicine for someone living alone in a new place, as it covers the bases of health, happiness, and socialising.
Another potentially obvious answer is to eat healthily. Which is easy right? Well, not when it’s cheaper and easier to get a McDonald’s than it is to buy a and cook a healthy meal! I was always told: “healthy body equals a healthy mind” … and I dismissed it as “you’re just trying to make me eat peas”. But the truth is, those people were right, and I was wrong, I know... shocker!
A good diet, which differs depending on your size, gender, health issues and activity, is extremely important in maintaining a healthy mind and making sure you are at your best to deal with the difficult things coming your way. Sleeping better, mood improvement, deeper and longer concentration and heightened self-esteem will all be new features of your life on assignment.
If you follow these principles, you will be better equipped to deal with anxiety, stress and the "expat blues"!
Stay Happy Out There!