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An Expat’s Learnings from Lockdown

5 ways for expats and global citizens to stay centered and open-hearted.

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Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

It wasn’t until 121 days in isolation that Buenos Aires truly began to feel like home. On the evening of March 19th, Argentina’s COVID cases hit 128 and the Ministry of Health announced a mandatory lockdown in which no one was to leave home except for medical care or groceries, effective at midnight and reinforced by fines and jail time. Originally intended to end on March 31, these restrictions stretched to April 12, then April 26, and on and on until July 17, at which point businesses very gradually began to open and masked faces were once again spotted meandering the streets.

Until lockdown, I had used the term “home” interchangeably, using it to refer to both Buenos Aires and Montana, depending upon my direction of travel. But through the quarantine, something shifted. Argentina took center stage as “home base.” It didn’t happen easily. As a fast-paced extrovert I initially kicked and screamed, cried and proclaimed that an isolation to such an extreme was nothing short of solitary confinement. Of course I could acknowledge that many around the world had it rougher, and much worse, than me. Still, it was hard. Critical self-talk compounded the negativity as I beat myself up for handling the isolation worse the others.

Gradually, however, my resistance ebbed as I began to transform my apartment from a place where I occasionally crashed at night to a space that truly reflected a home. It morphed into a greenhouse, a gym, an art gallery, an experimental kitchen…a space all my own. And along with these physical changes, COVID-19 carved within me deep learnings of how to stay not only centered but also open-hearted — no matter the circumstances. I hope to carry the following five practices with me into the future as both an expat and global citizen.

Photo by Ben Blennerhassett on Unsplash

Learning #1: Be Still.

Stillness allows for growth, reflection, visualization, and planning for how to live our lives in true alignment to our values. As expats, we get caught up in globetrotting from country to country, leading fast-paced lives in new cities, and squeezing each moment out of time with friends and family whenever we do manage to make it home. Amid all of this, it’s important for us to carve out time for ourselves to be still, meditate, visualize, and align our paths forward.

Photo by Jeriden Villegas on Unsplash

Learning #2: Practice Self-Compassion.

Kristen Neff (2011) defines three components of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness: Being gentle and understanding with yourself rather than harshly critical
  2. Recognition of common humanity: Feeling connected with others in the experience of life and rather than feeling isolated and alienated in our own suffering, remembering that our experiences are shared by others
  3. Mindfulness: Holding our experiences with balanced awareness, rather than ignoring or exaggerating our pain

Rather than beating ourselves up, we should comfort and encourage ourselves the way we would with a friend, remind ourselves that our experiences are not uniquely ours but shared across humanity, and practice meditation to remain grounded.

Marshall Rosenberg (2015) lists four questions to ask ourselves in order to strengthen our self-compassion: 

  1. What am I observing?
  2. What am I feeling?
  3. What am I needing right now?
  4. Do I have a request of myself or of someone else?

Upon implementation, these practices did in fact help to navigate lockdown, and I hope to continue to strengthen these practices and carry them with me into the future. Self-compassion is helpful to us wherever we are in the world, and no matter what we are experiencing.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Learning #3: Complete the Stress Cycle.

Especially in stressful conditions such as lockdown, it’s vital for our mental health to break the stress cycle using one of the following methods:

  1. Physical activity
  2. Breathing deeply
  3. Positive social interaction 
  4. Laughter
  5. Affection
  6. Crying (release it and be done!)
  7. Creative expression or imagination

In their interview with Brene Brown on Unlocking Us, Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain that even after we remove the external stressor (problem that is causing us stress), we’ve still got to deal with stress as an emotion that remains in our bodies. They share that stress, like other emotions, is a tunnel that we have to travel all the way through in order to get to the light at the end and that “exhaustion happens when we get stuck in (that) emotion.” Even in ongoing situations such as COVID, our bodies can gain relief and avoid burnout when we practice our choice of any of the activities listed above. 

Whether we are living in hardship posts, struggling to “adult” in a new culture, or navigating loneliness as we build new communities abroad, we expats can maintain long periods of stress by consciously putting these practices into play in order to break the stress cycle.

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

Learning #4: Notice and savor.

In her course The Science of Well-Being, Laurie Santos teaches that the ability to notice and savor microscopic moments significantly increases our happiness levels. As expats, this may look like warm exchanges with the local butcher, jokes with the men at the verduleria, 15-minute conversations with a neighbor, or savoring a morning coffee on the patio before work. We might also find joy in soft light illuminating leaves on the trees in fast outings to the grocery store, in birds chirping, in the sun warming our cheeks or the breeze ruffling our hair. These small observations of appreciating daily occurrences actually help to restore and maintain feelings of joy and gratitude.


Relatedly, Santos says that we humans have what’s called a hedonic adaptation, through which good things become the new normal in our minds and we therefore find less appreciation for them. We see this adaptation in our expat lives when we first arrive to a new country and experience the honeymoon phase, while everything is new and exciting. Within a few weeks, however, the novelty fades and we’re left with glaring reference points of what is missing from our prior homes and of what new hurdles we face with cultural adaptation, entering culture shock. Savoring and noticing ensures that we find joys in day to day observations and interactions, allowing us to stay grateful and balanced — even when novelties are lost or things are hard.

Photo by Rayyu Maldives photographer on Unsplash

Learning #5: Build community and look for the global good.

Experiencing COVID thousands of miles away from family emphasized just how significantly friends truly do become family. Throughout the pandemic, these expat families have relied on each other with calls and texts to break isolation, enjoyed outdoor walks and coffees together, formed “bubbles” to provide social connection, and understood what each other was going through at a level unparalleled by those navigating alternate realities at home. 

In addition to the interconnection between our expat community, community roots grew deeper. Personally, COVID slowed me down enough to discover new stores in my barrio and to share stories with the storekeepers, to meet neighbors in my apartment building whom I’d never seen before. And across Buenos Aires, we all gathered outside our windows at 9:00 each evening to clap together in support of the medical and essential workers striving tirelessly to keep everyone healthy and safe.

Meanwhile, others around the world did the same. Montana and Colorado residents opened their doors to howl like coyotes to show their solidarity and support for those in the medical field each evening. We prayed for Italy, celebrated with Oceania, and held our breaths for China.

Encounter after encounter, the pandemic has affirmed our global connection. We truly are interconnected, and are in this together. We are part of something greater than ourselves; greater than any one given community or country. Contrary to claims of governmental ploys and conspiracy theories, COVID has the capability to rekindle a sense of shared humanity. As scientists around the world race to continue progress with vaccinations, may we all do our parts to stay centered, remain open-hearted, and keep this global heartbeat alive.

References

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. Harper Collins.

Rosenberg, M. B. (2015). Nonviolent communication: A language of life: Life-changing tools for healthy relationships, edition 3.

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