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Anxiety and expat life

Paula Vexlir

Paula is an Argentinian clinical psychologist based in Buenos Aires. She is specialized in the field of expatriation: psychological support, awareness, personal development. She also worked for many years with children and their families in the Buenos Aires General Hospital. She consults in Spanish and English on www.eutelmed.com

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What is anxiety and how can we overcome it?

What can be anxiogenic in expat life?

Federico has been living as an expat for four years. He had a job waiting when he arrived but recently, he has felt the need for a change. He has had a few interviews and has finally landed a job that excites him. He will be starting in two weeks. This is not the first time that he has changed jobs, but he feels more nervous than in the past. He doesn't understand what is going on with him; he finds it difficult to fall asleep at night. He has knots in his stomach and has lost his appetite. Every day he feels more and more irritable.

Violeta is an expat and also a mother. Her children are going back to school next Monday. She hasn't felt like herself during the past month. She is dealing with tremendous anxiety and can't figure out the root cause. She's already experienced several "first day of school" jitters with her children but this time she is eating out of control. She can't seem to stop eating even though she is not hungry. She tries to stop but she can't. Feeling constantly worried without any clarity about why she feels like she does, she is also having trouble sleeping. She wakes up in the middle of the night, startled, and can't get back to sleep again.

Both Federico and Violeta are going through situations that generate some level of stress and, therefore, could lead to anxiety. These are not "extreme" situations, but there is something in common in both scenarios. Something that is usually minimized - they are living outside their country of origin. Violeta doesn't know if she will be able to help her children with their homework. Her oldest child is about to start primary school in a country where she is not fluent in the spoken language. Federico has been working, until now, for an international company where most of his colleagues were foreigners. He doesn't know if there will be expats like him in the new company.

To a greater or lesser extent, we all lack awareness of how living as an expat can make certain challenges even bigger or more complex. Imagine having a conversation with our child's teacher in a language we are not fluent in and not being able to help them with their studies, or thinking about a get-together with our colleagues where we feel lost in the conversations and can't say a word... And let's not forget that usually, when we live outside our country, our support network is also reduced.

Positive or negative anxiety?

Anxiety is not as negative as many think it to be. Actually, it is a natural adaptive reaction induced by a threat (or what we may perceive as a threat) to our well-being and/or survival. This threat could be an actual or a potential one, real or imaginary, as long as we feel it to be a threat, it will trigger this response. It has one main function: to act as a signal of danger. To alert us that there is a situation that endangers our physical well-being and to help us decide whether we will fight or run away (called the fight, flight or freeze response).

"If we are experiencing an excess (…) state of anxiety, it can disrupt our life…a lot !"

As weird as it may sound, our brain does not differentiate between being face to face with a puma or being afraid of not being able to get along with our new coworkers, help our children with their studies, or pay the electric bill. The reaction will be the same. And, as it happens with just about everything, if we are experiencing an excess (or persistent) state of anxiety, it can disrupt our life… a lot!

What are the most common symptoms of anxiety?
This is a question that comes up quite often and, frankly, it is not the easiest one to answer. Because there could be physical symptoms in different systems such as digestive, respiratory, circulatory or maybe sleep disorders, difficulty with concentration, compulsions, obsessions. Or none of these symptoms could be present. For the purpose of this article, more important than an accurate diagnosis, it is to be able to identify if we are going through a period of anxiety and if this anxiety is starting to interfere with our normal lifestyle. And, of course, if there any physical symptoms present, to get a doctor's opinion to rule out any illnesses.

How to deal with anxiety?

There are many suggestions on how to deal with anxiety, most likely you have already heard of some of these: meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, distractions (to engage our minds on something else), reducing stimulating food or beverages, immersion baths, outdoors activities, some physical exercise, creative activities, etc. There are countless options and since we are all different, some suit us better than others.

Although there is a lot of information on how to deal with anxiety, there is not much on the causes and what lies at the root of it. This is why I think it is important to discuss this further.

Anxiety, as I have previously stated, is a natural response to a dangerous situation or, to be more precise, to a situation perceived as threatening. It doesn't matter whether the threat is real or imaginary, our mind considers it dangerous. Period. The issue is that often we are not even conscious of the situation that is triggering the response.

Federico could say that he has already had many "first days" on the job. Violeta could say that preparing her children for their first day at school shouldn't be such a challenge. This is what they are thinking from a conscious point of view but beyond their conscious mind, their fears are growing. Fears that they are not even aware they have.

Sometimes this doesn't come up until they consult with a psychologist. And once there, during their sessions, everything starts to make sense. Their anxiety "becomes" more logical and understandable.

We live in fast times, which doesn't leave us much space for reflection and even less for fear. Immersed in a space that forces us to be positive and open to all challenges. I am not saying that we shouldn't accept challenges but that as important as it is to embrace challenges and opportunities, it is also important to listen to ourselves and make room to find out what is creating so much fear within us. Otherwise, it will stalk us, in the shadows. But once we make room for it, we can process what is needed to process and overcome it.