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Cultivating Resilience in Expat Life

10 September 2020

By Vanessa King, Science of Happiness Expert 

In tackling any new challenge, we will inevitably have setbacks, so resilience is key to success. It helps us not only survive but also thrive. It is what enables us to react to problems constructively and persevere so we make progress and grow.

Whilst resilience may sound like a super-human quality, it’s not. Human beings are a naturally resilient species – we wouldn’t be here if we weren’t!  In fact psychologist, Ann Masten, describes it as ‘ordinary magic’ – we all have resilience to some degree.  

Of course many factors influence our level of resilience. As with happiness, our genetics and early upbringing play a role, as well as the specific context we find ourselves in. But we can all learn strategies to help maintain and boost our levels of resilience and help us respond in the face of stress or trauma.

Two doctors, Dennis Charney and Stephen Southwick studied resilience in military veterans and former prisoners of war. They found a number of behaviours and habits of mind facilitated resilience even in the face of extreme challenge and reduced the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder.

One thing that stood out was what they described as ‘active coping’ i.e. doing something rather than nothing – even if that action was all in the mind. Many of the strategies they identified were also strategies that amplify our happiness. 

Our relationships - having at least a few people that support and encourage us and who we feel able to turn to when we need help or have good news to share, is important for long term resilience. Indeed, feeling chronically lonely and isolated is detrimental to our wellbeing. Whereas, having people in our lives we can rely on to help, supports it.

Having a clear sense of the sources of meaning in our life provides direction and helps us prioritise and make choices. It also provides a backbone for our resilience.  Psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl often quoted the philosopher Nietzche who said “He who has a “why” to live for can bear almost any how”. So knowing why you are doing your assignment, being clear on what else matters most in your life and finding ways to maintain those things is important. 

Our levels of resilience aren’t static. When we are tired and stressed our fuse tends to be shorter and our resilience lower. Small issues can be blown up out of proportion.

One way of maintaining our resilience is through our pro-active self-care strategies. Some psychologists use the metaphor of a ‘resilience well’ - you can only keep taking from the well if you top it up regularly. Others choose the metaphor of a ‘stress bucket’ – the size of which we can increase if we take care of our self. 

Physical exercise, sufficient good quality sleep and time away from work doing things we enjoy and with people we love, all top up our well or increase the size of our resilience bucket. 

From the popular press and self-help literature, it’s easy to think that any stress is bad, but that’s not actually true. For sure, chronically experiencing high levels of stress without having strategies to deal with it, over time can undermine our physical and mental health and lead to burnout. But studies have shown that the more we get stressed about stress, the more harmful it potentially is!

Stress is a natural human response to challenge or adversity, a signal that we need to take action. People with higher resilience learn to manage it or harness it to their advantage. For example that performance anxiety could be seen as the energy you need to deliver on something important to you.

Gaelle, a long-term serial expat who has lived and worked in a range of culturally diverse contexts says that she has learned to focus on what matters most and not get worried when things don’t go to plan.  “Expat life helps you learn to stress less about the little things. For example we are moving in a couple of months but haven’t yet found a house. It really isn’t such a big deal. We will find somewhere.”

Expect the unexpected advised Alexandre, who has moved to several different cities in his career . “It’s not like going on vacation, you can’t expect to live life as before. You have to be prepared to change”.

Psychologically we have a tendency to see what we are looking for. So, if we are looking for how we think things should be, based on how they were in our home country, we are more likely to be disappointed and have more difficulty adapting to our new environment.

Alexandre who has had multiple expat assignments over the course of his career advised pro-actively looking ahead.

If you are on assignment for three years and then moving back to your previous place of work and home – really think about and plan for that. “After an expat assignment your horizons are broader. You are not the same.”

So think about how you can make being back at home meaningful. 

Focusing on what you can control also came up in my conversations with expats who’d moved to cultures with different values to their own. You must accept there are things that you might not agree with culturally.  You may not be as free to say and do what you want as you are at home. 

“Remind yourself you are there to work and have some fun, not to change an entire country” advised Rifka currently based in Singapore with her family. Gaelle suggested remembering you have chosen to be there, there are things you can learn and it’s for a fixed time only. For example she has used living in Qatar as an opportunity for her and her children to understand more about the Islamic way of life and culture. 

Having an optimistic outlook in all but the highest risk situations tends to support both happiness and resilience. Likewise fostering an attitude of gratitude for the good things in our life and a focus on what is going well, not just what is wrong. Humour can also help at difficult times. Lightening our mood for a moment helps us carry on. 

Our minds, particularly our thinking habits, can undermine our resilience. Albert Ellis, one of the forefathers of cognitive behavioural therapy said that “Human beings are remarkably good at disturbing themselves.”

So in addition to the strategies above, how can we get out of our own way and learn to think more resiliently?

We can be our own harshest critic and on expat assignment our expectations of ourselves can be especially high.

When things aren’t going well, or we mess up, our inner voice (we all have one) is often unduly tough or harsh, using words and a tone of voice we wouldn’t use with other people. Whilst we may consciously or unconsciously believe this helps us learn and motivates us to do our best, research shows it often has the opposite effect.

That harsh inner critic triggers the threat system in our primitive emotional brain causing fear, anxiety or shame for ourselves, which can get in the way of improving and performing at our peak. Learning to be more compassionate in our self-talk, isn’t about being soft. It is about activating alternative emotional systems for care, connection. and resource/reward seeking. Compassionate self-talk makes us more likely to rise to the challenge, improve, develop and achieve our goals.

There are three components to more compassionate self-talk:

1.      Acknowledging to our self what we are feeling after making a mistake

2.      Recognising that we aren’t the only person to have made a mistake. Connecting to common humanity, helps to calm us and make us less likely to withdraw.

3.      Kindly reflecting how we can learn or move on.

For example instead of berating myself as stupid for making a mistake, I might say to myself in a kind tone of inner voice: “I’m feeling really upset with myself for making a mistake in that report. But I’m not the first person to have messed up and I won’t be the last. What can I learn from this, so I don’t do the same thing again?”

Think of it as changing your harsh inner critic into a wise, kind inner coach!

A core function of our primitive and instinctive emotional brain is our physical survival. That means we are instinctively sensitive to difference and to potential risks in our environment and from others. This has helped ensure our survival as a species but it can mean we also experience ‘emotional false alarms’.

We can jump to conclusions about why something happened or what might happen next. In doing so our primitive brain will err on the side of caution by interpreting ambiguous signals as possible dangers. These instant interpretations happen so fast we may not realise they have happened but they drive how we feel and how we react. And that can have knock-on consequences for us and others.

So, a simple resilience strategy, but one that takes practice, is challenging our instinctive interpretations.

When you feel an emotion like anger, fear, resentment, embarrassment or even disgust arising, pause momentarily and check in with the instant interpretations that led to those feelings. Then ask yourself ‘How accurate is that thought? What is the evidence for and against it?’  You can start by reflecting on past situations where you had an instant emotional reaction and gradually you become more able to do it in the moment.

Whilst this is something applicable to wherever you are, several of the expats I spoke with highlighted the importance of not judging people or how they do things in a new country before you know them or it. And remember, when we are tired or stressed, we are even more likely to jump to conclusions which can go on to undermine our resilience further.

Another way our brain can undermine our resilience is through the incredible human ability of imagination. This enables us to think strategically, plan, develop scenarios and of course fuels our creativity. However, it can also mean when something goes wrong or we fall short of our own or others’ expectations, our imagination can quickly spiral out of control, leaping from the mistake we’ve just made to extreme worst-case scenarios!

For example, failing to secure a deal with a new client could quickly have us thinking about the termination of our assignment or even the end of our entire career, leading to unnecessary worry, loss of sleep or unconstructive behaviours. Whilst this may seem far-fetched, catastrophic thinking is commonplace – especially if we are tired or under pressure.

If you are a natural catastrophiser, here’s a simple tactic to try. Having imagined the worst that could happen, now imagine the very best possible outcome. Then think about, what in reality is most likely and take action based on that.

James, among many of the expats we spoke with, highlighted how working abroad has helped him put things in perspective better. “It has helped me gain perspective on the real priorities in life – such as being able to put food on the table vs. materialism. Also, how we see our life and our happiness. I’ve seen relatively poor garment factory workers in Asia that are happier than the people queuing to buy the clothes they make on London’s Oxford Street.”

Rumination is another way our thoughts can undermine our resilience. This is when our worries and anxieties keep churning around in our mind sometimes causing us to lose focus or meaning we can’t sleep. 

A simple and effective thinking tactic can be to imagine our worries are being played out on TV (one that only we can see!). Now imagine yourself picking up the remote control and choosing to change the channel – to a time you were happy and relaxed or a time you were performing at your best. ‘Watch’ that channel for a minute or two, taking in all the details, before returning your attention to what it is you are trying to do. 

In my article on expat mindsets, we explored the importance of training our brain to notice what’s right, good or going well to counter the natural human tendency of focusing on what’s wrong. Well even on the worst of days this can help. Clinical psychologist Maria Sirois whose career has been focused on people dealing with terminal illness and trauma, advises that even on the very worst of days there is a best moment. So before you go to sleep at night, bring that clearly into your mind. 
All the expats we spoke with highlighted how their experience of living and working overseas has boosted their confidence as well as their careers. Getting out of their comfort zone had helped them develop resilience through overcoming challenges, finding new ways to approach unforeseen problems, developing wider horizons and a broader perspective on life.  

Giving attention to practical planning for expat life can also mean a less bumpy experience. Gaelle highlighted the need to think ahead and speak to expats already in the location you are heading for, so you understand and can pre-empt difficulties to some extent.

Rifka and others noted the importance of having a plan in place in case things go wrong, especially if you are working in a country where your visa is dependent on your current job or where there is no state support should things change.  This might mean having good  insurance or back-up financial resources put aside.

Alexandre advised the need to plan for your return. “Think about your next step and plan ahead for that. If you are out of sight, you may be out of peoples‘ minds.”

James, an architect and independent expat, suggested making sure you have a plan B. For example maintaining relationships in your home country and continuously enhancing your LinkedIn profile. Indeed he is currently doing an MBA as well as setting up a business exporting to the UK. “Always make sure you can go back” he advised.


Want to become a happier expat? The Allianz Care Expat Happiness Hub contains practical articles, a webinar and our Happiness Habits quiz to help you track the things you do that have been shown to contribute to expat happiness.