Whether it be from culture shock, the pandemic, or general fatigue of navigating life overseas, all of us expats feel stressed at some point or another. This can lead to burnout. So how do we break through the stress cycle? In their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Doctors Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain components of burnout, chronic stressors, emotions as tunnels, and ways to handle stress. Let’s look at their work through an expat lens:
First, the Nagoskis give us 4 burnout contributors. Here’s an example of how they might affect us as expats:
Emotional exhaustion may present itself to expats through a lack of a support system when settling into a new place, inability to find a job, navigating new cultural norms at work to establish and maintain professional relationships, supporting our partners and families in the transition, or suppressing our own frustrations in protection of our partners. The Nagoskis specifically mention the “Human Giver Syndrome,” which is the moral obligation of women to give our humanity, time, lives, body, and feelings in support of others. This syndrome is especially present in major life transitions, such as settling into a new country.
A common feeling upon arriving in a new country and culture, we expats often experience an inability to “adult.” Language barriers and different systems may turn the simplest 5-minute task into a draining hour-long venture, and what used to take an hour may now take days. We may feel unsuccessful, then, in adapting to our new homes, pursuing a new career, or supporting our loved ones.
Sometimes, nothing we do seems to make a difference. A lack of progress in language learning or inability to identify cultural access points for acceptance and community may leave us with feelings of hopelessness - and compounded stress.
As foreigners, we sometimes sense a decrease in empathy or acceptance from others in challenging situations. We might, for example, feel misunderstood being a frustrated foreigner when we deal with seemingly simple daily tasks such as paying bills at a bank or hooking up the internet. Or, we may feel left on the outside when we’re desperate to travel again amid the pandemic not due to longing for vacation, but for our family. These experiences may leave us feeling ostracized.
According to the Nagoskis, there are three external responses that cause stress and can eventually lead to burnout.
Examples of stressful and ongoing expat situations may include work projects or major career changes, cultural and language barriers that lead to lack of connection and the seeming inability to “adult,” and shifts caused by the move in family or relationship dynamics, roles, and norms.
Expats experience many challenges such as maintaining professionalism while adjusting to a new country, suppressing personal frustrations rather than disclosing them to a partner when the partner has made great personal sacrifices on their part in support of the move, and complying with cultural and gender norms.
Expats may experience crime, uncertainty and political unrest, or living in a hardship post while abroad.
In order to deal with these burnout components and stressors, we must first define stress as an emotion. According to the Co-Active Training Institute, we can describe it as “Energy in motion.” Emily and Amelia Nagoski take it a step further, describing emotions as cycles that happen in your body. Emotions are:
In other words, we are neurologically designed to produce an emotional response to external stimulus, as it has been those instinctive reactions that have historically kept us out of harm’s way. We are then, as the Nabroskis put it, “Emotional beings who, on occasion, think.”
An incomplete stress cycle leads to burnout. This is because exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion. And, here’s the catch: Even if we fix the problem and take away the external stressor that is causing the stress, it still doesn’t address the emotion. This is because dealing with the feeling is different than dealing with the action: Just because we remove the stressor doesn’t mean that we’ve completed the stress cycle, so when we don’t complete the emotional stress cycle, that’s when we face burnout.
As suggested by Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their podcast episode with Brene Brown, here are 7 ways for us to address and break the stress cycle, wherever in the world we are:
Yes, this is in reference to exercise, but it can also be any bodily movement such as stretching or going on a short walk. It doesn’t have to be intense, and arriving in a different country may provide opportunities to try out new forms of movement.
Focusing on our breathing regulates the nervous system. This includes breathing deeply and focusing on our inhales and exhales. Meditation is one useful way to tune into our breathing.
Social interaction helps to break the cycle, so reach out to a friend or partner at the end of the day to engage in pleasant conversations, whether it be a Zoom call with someone back home, your partner, or a new acquaintance in your host country.
Those deep, uncontrolled belly laughs not only feel good, but also help release stress. Download a good movie or book, or call a friend who is guaranteed to make you crack up.
Nagoskis’ research shows that a 20-second hug in a safe context, or hugging until we are relaxed, helps to break the stress cycle. If we’re alone, wrapping our arms around ourselves in a self-hug can emulate this sense of affection.
Turning toward the physical sensation of an emotion in a state of awareness helps to release stress. Get curious and way attention: What do you physically feel? Tuning in with physical awareness as our cheeks get hot, or as tears roll down our cheeks, lets the emotion run its course.
Whether it be music, art, journaling, or simply daydreaming, any form of creative expression or imagining can help us to relieve stress.
The Palouse Mindfulness Course provides free resources for physical activity, mindful breathing, and body awareness. Whether we choose these or any other method of breaking the stress cycle, we’ve got to find ways for us to handle stress in healthy ways. Not only will it lead to greater enjoyment, but it allows us to maintain our basic mental health during our expat experience.