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Stress and the Expat.

Handling Culture Shock and Cultural Adjustment of Living Overseas

By Lance Castille

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Summary
Living and working in a foreign country can bring many challenges for the expat including culture shock or the adjustment to a new culture. Lance Castille offers practical information to help handle stress living abroad.
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Have you been posted abroad by your organization or company? Or maybe you have decided to follow a dream or work for a cause outside your homeland?

Whether you’re living and working overseas by choice or by assignment, you will at times experience some form of stress from culture shock or adjustment to the new culture.

Cycles of stress can start with the process of packing and shipping household belongings as you begin to leave the familiar behind.

When arriving at your overseas destination you may experience stress when you find yourself surrounded by unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, new ways of thinking, and new rules of the foreign land.

Culture

There will be stress to some degree when coping with a new culture: a new language which you may or may not be able to read, write, or even speak; new foods with unfamiliar flavors and textures or from unfamiliar food sources; new styles of relating, working, and playing; the relative welcome or exclusion of foreigners by the local residents; new and different social rules, laws and taboos.

Environment

The environment of the new country brings its own potential sources of stress caused by the possible differences from home: temperature; weather and climate; relative reliability of services such as electricity, water, telephone, internet connection, garbage pickup; relative safety of the new location; the degree of cleanliness of air, water, streets public sanitation. Also the degree of poverty or affluence of the local population, compared with foreign residents; the quality and availability of health care; the degree or lack of “the rule of law”; the degree of public order whether things work or not in the new location; differences in religion and religious practices; the volume, amount and types of sounds in the new locale–music, public announcements, automobiles, and animals; and the attitudes towards time in the new country can be sources of stress.

Signs of Stress

If you are already living overseas, you may be saying to yourself, “I’m doing all right. I’m handling life in this new place. I don’t have any culture shock.”

This may be true, but keep in mind there is no signpost clearly showing, “THIS is culture shock.” These stresses can build up over time and can have a range of negative emotional, physical, and mental effects.

Emotional Effects of Stress

Stress can reveal itself emotionally in increased mood swings; annoyance or irritability; feelings of anger or loss of temper; feeling of overwhelm, “too much is happening” or “I don’t know what to do first”; feeling of emotional flatness, a lack of enjoyment of things you used to enjoy; desire to be alone or feeling of resistance to going out in public or meeting new people. Also feelings of powerlessness, pointlessness, or irrelevance of your life or work overseas; loss of confidence; feelings of aloneness, loneliness, or isolation from friends and family; and of feeling left behind by life, circumstances, and events in your home country; feeling anxious or worrying about your future; feelings of frustration, often from trying to accomplish things you could easily do in your home country.

Habits and Behaviors

Stress may cause or increase changes in habits: increased use of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, recreational or prescription drugs; increase in potentially dangerous behaviors such as risk taking; and decreased care for self, family or friends.

Physical Effects of Stress

The stresses of intercultural adjustment can also take a physical toll on your body, with possible effects as increased tiredness; sleep disruptions, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, or feeling unrested or fatigued upon awakening; increased blood pressure; weight loss or gain; loss of appetite; increased physical nervousness; or worsening of a range of other health conditions.

Relationships and Social Effects of Stress

The stresses of living in a new land can negatively affect your relationships and your social life through the tendency to withdraw from other people, groups, or social events and through feelings of increasing distance or of being disconnected from friends, family, or coworkers.

Mental Effects of Stress

The stress of living in an overseas environment can have negative mental effects such as shortened attention span; increased difficulty with concentration or mental focus; increased forgetfulness; and difficulty making decisions.

Manage Your Stress

Now what can be done to help you handle the stress of culture shock and cultural adjustment that comes from living in a foreign country?

Gaining a sense of control of your emotions, your physical health and your life in general can make it easier to handle these stresses.

Anything that increases this sense of being in control of your own life circumstances can play a major role in handling the stresses of culture shock and cultural adjustment. Approaches helping minimize anxiety and fear and maintaining calm while encouraging physical health will be quite beneficial.

An individual living overseas may not be in absolute control of their immediate environment, the job and the manager, the surroundings, or the local culture. Although this may be true, adjusting your own response to stress is a powerful tool helping you maintain good health and balance in sometimes challenging circumstances.

Mental Skills for Stress Management

Develop an Optimistic Attitude

How often have you been given the advice to be optimistic? However, the very practical challenge can be: How do I do this?

Dr. Martin Seligman wrote in the 1990’s about the structure of “learned optimism”. He said keeping three things in mind can help you maintain optimism when meeting challenging situations:

1. What is happening is not personal. When things don’t go your way, remember, “It’s not about me.”

2. This issue is not pervasive. When something does not work out the way you want, though you may not be pleased about this one part of your life, in truth there are many other parts of your life that are working very well. Often the vast majority of your life is going fine! “It’s not about everything in my life.”

3. This situation is not permanent. With challenges you may be facing at any particular moment, always know it will end in time. “It will not last forever.” It may be helpful to ask yourself something like: “In a hundred years, who will care about this?”

Challenging situations arising from living or working overseas are not personal, not pervasive, and not permanent. Maintaining this perspective can help you develop a more optimistic outlook and can help you reduce stress.

I Will Find A Way

Another attitudinal tool for stress management is "I will find a way." This alone can help you through a range of challenges. Cultivate the attitude: "No matter what is happening, I will always find to way to handle it somehow." Remember, even though you may not know "how" this challenge will be met at a particular moment, staying focused on "I will find a way" can actually help you discover how to sort it out. Developing this attitude this is another way to help you handle stress.

Get Close to the Good; Get Far From the Bad

By learning to cultivate a healthy and appropriate sense of distance from people and events, you can greatly reduce your stress.

Where appropriate, cultivate a healthy sense of detachment from the people and events you perceive as negative or challenging. This can be a good way to help reduce unwanted reactions of anger, frustration, irritation, overwhelm, resentment, hurt, sadness, etc. By developing this feeling of distance, you can more easily put things into perspective: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Of course, this does not mean becoming detached from the people you really care about, family and friends. Developing greater feelings of closeness to the really important people in your life can also greatly help to reduce stress and increase your enjoyment of life.

The aim is not the absence of the emotional reaction. Instead, it is to feel more in control of your emotional reactions to the people, events, and environment around you, and by doing so, feeling more in control of your life in general.

Stress Reduction Habits and Routines

The following suggestions can help maintain good physical health and manage stress.

Get Support When You Need It

If all of this makes sense to you, but you have not been able to make important changes in your life, then look for ways you can get help or support in person, by telephone or on the internet from a medical doctor, counselor, therapist, pastoral counselor or support group.

Hypnosis Works

Finally, consider utilizing coaching or hypnosis to help when it is time for a change. Hypnosis is effective and is currently being used worldwide for anxiety, fears, sleep problems, stress reduction, smoking cessation and other negative habits, along with many other applications.

Lance Castille is a consultant, coach, and hypnotist. He has lived and worked abroad since the late 1980s and has advised and worked with organizations and individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, professions, and nationalities. Currently he is the director of Phnom Penh Hypnosis, the first professional hypnosis service in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. For more information on hypnosis for stopping smoking, handling stress, cultural adjustment, or other issues contact Mr. Castille at: http://www.phnompenh-hypnosis.com/contact.html

© 2009 Lance Castille - All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

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