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Self-care strategies for sustained expat success

31 August 2020

By Vanessa King, Science of Happiness Expert and author of 10 Keys to Happier Living

A demanding job can mean we spend all our time and energy at work and have little left for anything else. With a family those challenges can be amplified.

One thing is for sure, if we aren’t taking care of our self, the inevitable challenges, and stresses they create, can seem greater and undermine our resilience and potentially our health longer-term.

As one of the expats I interviewed pointed out - you wouldn’t take on a serious challenge like a marathon without a well-planned training regime and an expat assignment lasts a lot longer! 

Being aware of the importance of self-care and having personal strategies in place is essential to sustained success.  

So, what does self-care mean? Simply put its actively maintaining and supporting your own health and happiness. In other words, nurturing your body and mind and, of course, the two are inter-related.

Self-care often falls to the bottom of our to do list or doesn’t make it onto it in the first place! We become aware of the need for it when we’re feeling unhappy, unwell, exhausted, or burnt out.

But real self-care needs to be pro-active and part of your strategy for success.

There’s no single ingredient or one-size fits all for self-care. Think of it more as having a menu of activities. Some you incorporate into your daily or weekly routine. Other activities are occasional – perhaps as treats or when you need a top-up or boost, like a relaxing massage, weekend away or a longer vacation.

We talked to expats, like you, about their self-care tactics and explored some insights from science to share some tips and tools to try.  

We all know that exercise is an essential component of physical health but it’s also important for psychological functioning and our performance too. 

Many expats go on an assignment to stretch themselves and find out what they are capable of and exercise can help them achieve more. As Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey advises, “It’s an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to reach his or her full potential”.

Natural and regular exercisers know this from experience. For the non-naturally sporty among us (myself included) becoming aware of its impact on our brain function and performance can be a game-changer. 

Science has shown that being physically active:

  • boosts our happiness
  • helps us manage our moods
  • helps us be better able to manage stress
  • increases our self-confidence
  • can help reduce, manage and prevent depression and anxiety

Importantly, physical activity enables our brain to perform better at any age. For example school children who exercised before school did better at maths, literacy and creative problem-solving.  Whilst remaining active is being linked to better cognitive function in old age. 

To get the benefit of physical activity you don’t have to run marathons or cycle the Tour de France. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise (that takes a bit of effort so your heart rate increases) per week.

You can do this in bursts as little as 10 minutes at time so it’s easy to fit into a busy day. A brisk walk is a great example of moderate intensity exercise and can be a great way to travel to work or explore your location too!

When it comes to moving – remember doing something is better than doing nothing, and more is better!

The most benefits come from increasing to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise a week or 150 minutes of vigorous activity. Add in some strength training a couple of times a week too. (Do check with your doctor first if you have a health condition.)

The psychological benefits of other forms of exercise or movement practice are increasingly being studied including strength training, yoga and tai chi.

James, one of the expats I interviewed, found yoga really helped him in his early days as an expat in Kuala Lumpur. “I was on a local package so didn’t have money to go out for drinks  with other expats and the locals didn’t socialise in that way, so I went to yoga every day. It was a lot healthier, helped me keep fit and stay positive. Good all round!”.

With all the demands of expat work and life, exercise and other self-care activities can fall by the wayside.  Luckily there are some science-backed strategies that can help.

Ever had a good idea pop into your head as you were doing something else entirely, like taking a shower, walking or pottering in the garden?

Rest-assured our brains are still busy working even if we aren’t actively thinking about an important issue at work or trying to come up with ideas to solve an urgent problem.

So, if you are strapped for time, don’t think of exercise or downtime as ‘dead-time’, use it as unconscious thinking space as well as a workout for your body or relaxation for your mind.

Try priming your mind with the topic or issue you’re grappling with. Like ideas for that report you’re struggling to get started on or a problem you need to solve, then stop thinking about it and take a walk or a break or go to the gym.  Chances are useful thoughts and ideas will surface naturally. Often good ideas pop into our head in the shower or other moments of downtime! Or you’ll find it easier to get started when you get back to your desk.

Think about doubling up in other ways too, for example walking or working out with others. Hobbies that you do with friends or family can also be a great way to boost social connection another important ingredient of happiness and wellbeing, as well as moving your body or unwinding.

Imagine you’ve set yourself a self-care routine like going for a swim after work three times a week. What happens when, for the third day, in a row something unforeseen gets in the way? Persistently missing our target can be discouraging or even mean we give up all together.

Psychologists have found investing a little bit of time up front planning for what might get in the way of our personal goals can facilitate sustained achievement. It sets up a connection in our brain between the likely obstacles and our plan B. So when one of those things actually happens it triggers the alternative plan of action to come into our mind. Because this involves less conscious effort and doesn’t rely solely on willpower, it increases our chances of achieving our goal.

So back to the goal of swimming three times a week. If you’ve recognised that sometimes you might have to work late, beyond the closing time of the pool, you might have lodged in your mind a plan B of walking home or even a plan C of doing an exercise video as soon as you get in.  

Another strategy that can help is making commitments that involve others.

Rifka, an expat in Singapore, recognised her demanding job would sometimes mean she didn’t feel like exercising or even attending the dance class she loved. So, her strategy was to join a team in a local soccer league and agree to be part of a dance performance. This meant even if she was tired, she wouldn’t cancel as she didn’t want to let her soccer teammates or fellow performers down.  

Sleep can feel like wasted time as you grapple with the pace of life and work as an expat.  Something to minimise if we’re to get everything done.

But that’s not only a false economy it can be seriously detrimental to our mental and physical health as well as our ability to function well.  

Whilst sleeping may feel like a passive activity, it is an essential biological function. Indeed too little sleep can:

  • reduce our ability to recall information,
  • make us prone to focusing on what’s wrong (which can set a path towards depression and negatively impact our relationships)
  • make it harder to make decisions
  • reduce our performance on complex or creative tasks
  • make us more likely to reach for sugary foods, which in turn have a negative impact on our mood, as well as our waistline.

What’s more, the old adage ‘sleep on it’ turns out to be true when we are trying to find a solution to a problem or come to the right decision.

Sleep is a priority for the very highest performers.  Whilst most of us are chronically sleep deprived, averaging seven hours or less a night, elite athletes, musicians and the like, sleep on average 8.6 hours. 

Do you generally wake up feeling rested? Or do you usually have to drag yourself from your bed with the snooze button on repeat?

How do we maximise both the quantity and quality of our sleep?

  • Get outside – our ‘body clock’ is set by daylight so get outside during the day
  • Invest in black out blinds or a good eye mask – Daylight sends the signal to our brain that it’s time to wake up. So if you are sensitive to light have a way to block it out, both at home and when you travel.
  • Set an alarm for bed – Sounds counter-intuitive but it is so easy to get caught up on social media, watching films or catching up with people in different time zones that before we know it we’ve gone hours past our intended bedtime.
  • Have a wind down routine – A bedtime routine can help you and your brain switch off and relax. So thirty minutes to an hour before bed, dim the lights, put on your pjs, clean your teeth and read a book.
  • Go low tech in the bedroom -  Get a proper alarm clock! Although our phones are convenient, using them as an alarm can mean it’s all too tempting to check social media and messages when we turn in for the night or wake up during it – stimulating our brain rather than allowing it to rest.
  • Practice gratitude – reflecting on the good things from your day and in your life can help switch off worries and rumination and has been shown to help people fall asleep quicker and improve their sleep quality.  
Being an expat can mean getting out of your comfort zone. Alexandre, on assignment setting up an important, first-of-its-kind operation for his employer, highlighted the importance of being aware of your personal energy drains, triggers for feeling down, and knowing what gives you a boost. 
Be clear on your typical daily energy highs and lows and schedule your tasks accordingly. Know the type of activities at work and home you find energising and try to do some of these each day. And as far as you can find ways to navigate around, delegate or outsource the things that you find draining.  
The activities we find energising give clues to our strengths – the things you are naturally good at and learn easily. When people get to use their strengths each day, they perform better, are happier and are more likely to achieve their goals.  So get clear on your personal strengths and find ways to use them more.

Having a balance with work, family time and leisure was important for the expats I interviewed. Wherever they are they make time for hobbies they enjoy.

Gaelle has leisure activities that travel with her.  “Anywhere I am, I find a yoga class.  It’s good for my life balance”. 

Rifka highlighted the boost she gets from being in nature: “Here in Singapore spending time at the Botanic Gardens helps me regenerate”.  Indeed, studies back this up, showing the restorative benefits of being outside, in the natural environment around greenery and water.  

The notion of ‘home’ is powerful, even for lifelong expats. Home is where we can be ourselves, let down our guard, relax and retreat at the end of a busy day or week. It can help to create a sense of stability on assignment too.

Even if you are only going to be living in a place for a short period, think about how you can make it feel like home. Be that having photos of family and friends’ pictures and items you love, or space for your hobbies.

Gaelle who has been an expat all her life, from childhood through to having children of her own, advises “Keep your personal stuff and move your furniture from country to country as you move.” Those familiar, much loved chairs can instantly help you feel a sense of home, provide continuity for your family, as well as save time and money not having to find new stuff for every move.  

Looking for more information and ideas on expat happiness? The Allianz Care Expat Happiness Hub contains more practical articles, webinars and our Happiness Habits quiz where you can track the things you do that have been shown to contribute to happiness.