Stress and Anxiety in the Life of an Expat


Is expat stress and anxiety necessary in the life of an expat? I would guess that many expats around the world would answer yes; especially to the stress part. I disagree, and will tell you why. I believe that stressors are an inevitable part of 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 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 tiger 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 our minds, 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. Anxiety is the build up of unreleased stress that remains static in the mind and body.  There does not even have to be an event that triggers anxiety.  This is sometimes referred to as ‘free-floating anxiety.’  Anxiety that remains pent up in the body can often lead to physical symptoms such as  headache, stomach problems, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle tightness and soreness, high blood pressure  and can even lead to stroke and heart disease. Anxiety is often the root cause of overeating, alcoholism and other addictive behaviors.  Anxiety usually covers some type of fear.  Therapy can be useful in uncovering and letting releasing  the root cause.

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. You can focus your attention on your 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, but at the same time you need to 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 which we experience as anxiety.  It’s much more efficient to deal with the stress rather than allowing it to build up to a near-constant state of anxiety.   Try releasing the stress when you’re feeling tense, rather than hoping it will disappear on its own.

Of course, these techniques work for everyone, and we all experience stress in our daily lives.  Expats don’t have the market on stress!  But we are often in situations which are new and where we don’t know the rules, and may not have a support system nearby, all of which seem to exacerbate the stress response.

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