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Far from Home, Stuck in a Limbo

Dealing with COVID-19 related Fears and Stressors When You're Living and Working Abroad

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Miriam has moved to the U.S. for a semester in her dream school. Carl has taken a promotion that took him to Switzerland, far away from home. Jenny has gone to Australia to be with the man she loves. And all of them are suddenly quarantined far away from home, facing a whole set of experiences that have brought us together in a truly unprecedented way.

Moving abroad challenges us both professionally and personally. Whatever the reason for living abroad, one often struggles emotionally as they overcome culture shock, creating a new social network, and creating new routines and habits. These normal challenges have been intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures being taken against it.

People may feel stranded with limited or no international flights available. Some of us are cut off from our family and friends. Our lives have become constricted as we try to maintain social distancing. We may be drawn to focusing on all the things we cannot do and going over worst-case scenarios. And if all that is not enough, more concerns are adding up, related to the future of the global jobs market.

The emotional effects ripple: Many people feel that they are stuck not only indoors – but also in some sort of a limbo, where everything is unclear and uncertain.

Fearing the lions in our head

Opening the perceptive even wider, shows us that not only our routine is changing, but also our set of fears. People are now facing the fear of losing their loved ones, to lose their income, a lack of stability, being lonely, and being “forgotten” or undervalued.

Are these fears real (anchored in reality) or imaginary? That question is irrelevant.

A common mistake, even if done out from the best intentions, is to invalidate someone else’s fear by telling this person: “there’s nothing to be afraid of”. Fear, which is biologically rooted in our survival mechanism, meant to send us a sign. Our tendency to worry and get stuck in fear is due to our “negativity bias”. This bias comes from our evolutionary bias and has kept us safe. The only issue is we do not face the same threat as we did when we were running from lions, today we are the lions in our mind.

The problem starts when fear paralyzes us from taking action and moving forward, or when the emotion of fear doesn’t leave room for other emotions to co-exist with, especially pleasant feelings such as appreciation or empowerment (according to the NVC list of needs). In those cases, fear becomes from a natural and healthy emotion into a continuous state, a dominant mindset, and then is grows into anxiety which could be manifested in panic attacks.

Is there a way to make fear disappear and live a Fear-Free life? Not exactly. It doesn’t work like a charm.

Yet there are ways to handle fear in a healthier manner than being paralyzed by it. Those ways work differently for different individuals, hence should be tested personally for each one. If to count a few leading examples, there are:

  • Appreciative Inquiry: Counting and focusing on what positively works for you (or have worked in the past to face fear) and duplicate those aspects.
  • Self thought-provoking questions: Why am I afraid? What is the worst-case scenario, and how can I be prepared for it? Who do I trust and is available to help me? How can I make just one brave step to come out stronger from the other side of this specific fear?…
  • Leaning into fear: Just like in sports, when feeling the pain means that you’re working out and making progress, so does coping with fear. If you feel it – it means that you’re moving forward and growing from this experience. This perspective tends to turn fear into a friendly teacher rather than the robber of our calmness.

Reversing the “fight or flight” mode

Another question which is important to ask is, Is there a positive aspect to the pandemic and its entailed struggles and stressors? We believe that the answer is YES.

While being unpleasant, the common stressors might serve as a bridge to solidarity in the limbo we’ve mentioned, even for people who live far away from home. Knowing that someone is dealing with the same challenges might not solve all the problems, but it creates unity and enhances connections.

As for relieving the stress and meet those challenges with greater preparedness, we would like to offer a set of practices: 

Stay Present. To stay present we must cultivate a practice of mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention on purpose without judgment to the present moment. When we can experience emotions with mindfulness, they do not completely hijack us, but instead move through us with us the compassionate witness. Mindfulness allows us to notice what we are feeling through a lens of compassion and gently brings us back to the present moment. When feeling our emotions mindfully we can let them go, when we resist them, they often persist.

Breathe. Your mindfulness meditation practice could be as simple as noticing your breath as this is occurring in the present moment. Make sure you take deep belly breaths as this links you into your parasympathetic nervous system also known as “rest and digest”. The parasympathetic nervous system counters the anxious “fight and flight” system many of us are living in. There are a lot of books, apps, and YouTube videos that can help you understand mindfulness and how it can help you with your health and wellbeing.

Focus On What You Can Do. It is easy to start focusing on all the things that we cannot do, but doing this only increases your anxiety and doesn’t change anything. It is important to catch yourself before going too far down these rumination pathways. Focusing on what you can do will help you reduce your stress and anxiety.

Trust. This will pass, and it is important to put your trust in the universe, life, or love. There are things beyond our control and having a sense of faith can be helpful during these challenging times. You do not have to be religious to have faith in something larger than yourself.

Relationships. You may be on this journey alone or with your family. Each has its own strengths and challenges. You may be experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation as you adjust to a new place but are unable to truly connect to your new surroundings. If you have your family with you and children, it can be challenging to entertain them, educate them, and protect them from worrying too much about the state of the world.

It is important that you are compassionate with yourself during this time. Do what you can, then take time to rest. Make sure you stay connected through technology to your friends, family, and work. There are more and more apps and websites that are creating new and creative ways to stay connected. If you are balancing multiple roles and feel you are falling behind, make sure you talk to your employer about your challenges.

Seek Support. Many of us lack the knowledge, skills, and tools that can help us overcome feelings of anxiety and depression that may arise when moving abroad. Experiencing these challenges is normal especially with the pandemic. Most individuals who move abroad identify they need emotional support to help them with the transition. Know that these mental health challenges can be overcome. With the proper support of a counselor or coach you can gain access to your strength, resilience, and wellbeing.

Miriam, Carl, Jenny, and thousands of others are facing a difficult situation, yet one that many of us share to one degree or another. By coming together and supporting each other, we can get through this and rise stronger.

***

During the months of May and June Generation Mobility is offering free mental health support through the new SALUS service that is committed to helping companies and their employees and family adjust to living abroad. SALUS is a web-based service made to connect individuals to thrive-abroad experts who are located in 20 different countries and speak over 24 languages. For more information about Generation Mobility, go to genm.global.

Enkindle Global is a leading organization in the field of burnout prevention and cultivating wellbeing through enhancing emotional resilience. You can reach out for support, advice, and other resources through the website, the Facebook page, or directly through email.

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