Monday, November 25, 2013

This Holiday Season, Return To Simplicity

The holidays are a time when our inner self may be exposed to more vulnerability than usual.  Much time is focused on the external world – preparations, shopping, responding, caring for, tending to.  Lots of stimuli bombard us, and it’s not only the holiday consumer goods commercials and advertisements that now seem to be starting in October.  Our inner self is now working overtime responding to these stimuli.  There are both internal and external pressures to keep up with. 

So this creates a new layer of stress, or roughness, for our inner self.  Our inner self is our oldest friend, the most tender and vulnerable part of us.   Our inner self is our heart space.  The part that has endured hurts throughout our lifetime – fear, abandonment, unmet needs.   This is the part of us that can feel ravenous with emotional hunger as well as be walled off from potential hurts, all at the same time. 

The holidays are an interesting time.  Our inner self has two conflicting demands – responding to the many external pulls, which at the same time creates an increased internal need for love and protection. 

I’m advocating that at this time, you turn extra kind attention, loving care, and protection towards your inner self.  Like being your own mother responding to her upset (inner) child with care, patience, and compassion.  I may even dare to say that during this time, turn inward first before you turn outward. 

Listen to your inner self’s needs. 

Give the gift of self-compassion.

Sometimes it’s okay if the only thing you did today was breathe.

Trust the process. 

Consider embracing simplicity during the holiday season. For example, this may simply mean spending time with the people we love and who love us back. 

Keep calm and let go (perhaps of the things and circumstances that no longer serve you).

For more holiday coping advice, see:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Coping with Reverse Culture Shock (Re-Entry Shock)

For many expats and international students, as well as for anyone with an extended stay abroad, the idea of returning home* can stir up complex feelings.  You may have already weathered Culture Shock upon arriving in your host country, and returning home may come with mixed emotions, such as excitement, anticipation, sadness, and stress.  The phenomenon of Reverse Culture Shock (also known as Re-Entry Shock) can and should be expected - that is, the emotional reaction to re-adapting to one's home culture after having spent time in another culture.

A variety of reactions to Reverse Culture Shock are normal.  Upon arrival home, the experience of Reverse Culture Shock can catch us by surprise.  For those with lots of relocation experience, Re-Entry Shock may go away with time.  For other frequent relocators, it is an expected "part of the drill", with the knowledge it will be experienced for a few days while settling in.  As a German expat to the US, I experience Re-Entry Shock every time I "return" to either country.  I consider both countries my home and feel that Re-Entry Shock is like jet lag, a temporary discomfort.

Here are some hallmark signs and symptoms of Re-Entry Shock:
  • It feels like you are viewing the world through a stranger’s glasses: Everything seems similar and familiar, but not the same.
  • You feel like a foreigner in your own country.
  • You feel like your friends and family don’t know you, or understand you, anymore.
  • You feel like you’ve changed while everyone else has stayed the same.  Alternatively, you may also feel everyone else has changed whereas you have stayed the same.
  • You become critical of your home culture. Having grown accustomed to the signs and symbols of everyday life in your host country, returning to your home culture can trigger feelings of annoyance, frustration, and overwhelm.  
  • You feel bored, restless, depressed, confused, or isolated.
  • You feel homesick for your "other" country, or host country.

Here are some other tried and true tips to help overcome Re-Entry Shock:
  • Expect re-entry shock and connect with others who have been through it.
  • Appoint a friend or family member to keep track of cultural fads, popular entertainment, trends, political events, economic changes, etc.  This way, they can fill you in and catch you up on topics that are important to you from a local viewpoint.
  • Keep a journal and pictures of your host country accessible if you need a little mental vacation or to jog positive memories.
  • Similarly, maintain meaningful connections with loved ones in your host country.
  • Others may grow tired of hearing about your abroad experience, and they may let you know directly or indirectly. The sensation of others not sharing or understanding your experience is often experienced as the most jarring aspect of Reverse Culture Shock.  Stay in tune with your friends' needs and find other expats who can relate and share in your abroad experience.  This requires extra work on your end, but is well worth it.
If reverse culture shock takes longer than expected, or if it is interfering with your daily ability to work, study, and socialize, consider consulting with a licensed mental health professional.

*For the purpose of this article, "home" refers to one's country of origin and/or the country one is returning to.  We also recognize that for many expats, the concept of "home" is highly complex and often encompasses more than one place and country.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Simple Tools for Stress Management

Stress is part of everyday life, yet it is also a complex concept. Psychological stress occurs when a person perceives that the demands placed on them exceed their personal and social resources to help them cope.  This means someone can feel little stress when they have the time, experience, and resources to manage a potentially stressful situation. In other words, stress is not an inevitable consequence of an event - it depends on your perceptions of a situation and your ability to cope with it.  

Let's take the common everyday stressor of traffic.  If we perceive it as defeating and frustrating, and that we are helpless against it, we become di-stressed and sit in the car fuming.  If we accept it as just a fact of life, and that it's an opportunity to sit and meditate, catch up with a friend on the phone, or listen to an entertaining program, we create positive emotions for ourselves instead.  The prerequisite of this happening of course means that we have a phone or program available, and that we feel confident that these strategies will help us feel better.

Causes of Stress
To understand stress better, it may be helpful to think it terms of what usually causes people stress.  Here are four main categories that are common stressors in our society.
  • Life Transitions (for example, moving, job loss/change, diagnosis of illness, marriage, divorce, pregnancy/childbirth, death of a loved one)
  • Work- or school-related (for example, high demand job environment, boredom, team conflict, lack of support)
  • Problematic relationships (eg, unreasonable demands, high conflict, persistent sense of being taken advantage of, lack of supportive relationships)
  • Your environment (eg, housing problems, transportation problems, chronic traffic problems, noisy neighborhood, living in poverty, living and working in an environment that's not conducive to relaxation and recreation, dangerous living or working environment)
However, it's important to recognize that an accumulation of smaller, minor stressors can be at least as, if not more, detrimental to one's physical and mental health as one or two major life stressors.  Car trouble, an argument with your spouse, an important work deadline, and trying to plan a big family party all in one week can certainly add up.

Signs of Stress
The first step to effective stress management is understanding your own personal stress signals.  Stress can get expressed in many subtle ways.  Here are some examples - see if you recognize yourself in some:
  • Feelings: Anxiety, irritability, fear, moodiness, embarrassment, frustration, and anger 
  • Thoughts: Self-criticism, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, forgetfulness, preoccupation with the future, repetitive thoughts, fear of failure 
  • Behaviors: Crying, being disorganized, sense of time pressure, “snapping” at love ones, acting impulsively, alcohol or other drug use, teeth grinding or jaw clenching, stuttering or speech difficulties, having more accidents 
  • Physical: Sleep Disturbance, changes in appetite, tight muscles, headaches, fatigues, cold or sweaty hands, back/neck problems, stomach problems, getting sick more often, rapid breathing, pounding heart, trembling, dry mouth

Think Stress Away
One of the most important ways to bust stress is to practice positive thinking and keeping things in perspective.  Remember, how we perceive an event is a major contributor to stress.  If we can neutralize our initially negative perception of a stressor, we have more control over the impact it has on us.  In other words, re-think how you think about stress.

Here is a simple guideline:
1. Recognize your negative thoughts
2. Stop, breathe
3. Reflect: Is this thought really true? Did I jump to a conclusion? What evidence do I actually have? Am I letting negative thoughts balloon? What’s the worst that could happen? Does it help me to think this way?
4. Choose: Decide how to deal with the source of your stress. Create and write down an action plan. Recognize negative thoughts and let them go.

Here are some simple examples of negative thought patterns during stressful situations, and their more neutral alternative thoughts.

1. Should statements:
•I should be able to deal with stressful situations better.
•Better: I know how to deal with stress and I am having a hard time right now.

2. Disqualifying the positive:
•I hate my life, it always is so difficult.
•Better: There are some things going on right now that are difficult and also some things that are actually going right.

3. Emotional reasoning:
•I don't feel good right now so I can't handle anything.
•Better: I feel like I can't handle things right now and I know that I can.

4. Catastrophizing
•If I don’t do well on this presentation (insert other important task), I will be judged poorly.  I may become jobless and homeless.
•Better: Nobody’s perfect. I’ll do my best on the presentation and know that it’s not the end of the world if I don't do perfectly.

Relax Stress Away
A relaxing activity that provides relief from a stressful activity by reducing physiological activation.  Incorporating relaxation in your daily routine is paramount, as the physical effects of chronic stress can lead to many health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a susceptible immune system.
Healthy examples for relaxation:

  • physical exercise
  • a hobby
  • spending time with friends and family
  • a warm bath or shower
  • prayer or meditation - here are some great meditation apps
  • Guided Imagery/Relaxation - there are many great resources online; here's one example

Finally, talking to a mental health professional about your stress can help you organize your thoughts, determine where to invest your energy, and learn skills in managing stressful situations and people in your life.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Stop Being Taken Advantage Of: Know Your Rights

By popular demand, here's a little follow up to my previous post Are You Feeling Taken Advantage Of? , which describes basic concepts and skills of assertiveness.  As described before, assertiveness means standing up for your rights and not being taken advantage of. 

Many people, especially women, have difficulty with assertiveness for fear of seeming aggressive or "bitchy", thereby worrying about displeasing others and not being liked.  But how is being assertive different from being aggressive? Aggressive behavior is typically punishing, hostile, blaming, and demanding. It can involve threats, name-calling, and even actual physical contact. It can also involve sarcasm, catty comments, gossip and "slips of the tongue."  Being aggressive means standing up for yourself in ways that violate the rights of others. On the other hand, being assertive means communicating clearly, respecting your own rights and feelings and the rights and feelings of others.

The first step to developing assertiveness is knowing your rights.  This will make it easier to stand up for them.  Often we have difficulty standing up for ourselves because we don't know if we have the right to.  Here is a list of basic rights to consider when standing up for yourself:

  • The right to be treated with respect.
  • The right to say no without feeling guilty.
  • The right to experience your feelings.
  • The right to take time to slow down and think.
  • The right to change your mind.
  • The right to ask for what you want/need.
  • The right to ask for information.
  • The right to make mistakes.
  • The right to say, “I don’t know.”
  • The right to be listened to and taken seriously.
  • The right to set your own priorities.
If we know and can remind ourselves of these rights, we can then formulate responses to difficult and stressful situations that require assertiveness.  For more tips on assertiveness, feel free to check out again my previous post.  For more information on my private practice in Houston, feel free to check out my practice webpage.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

What is Culture Shock? How Do I Cope?

Our big beautiful planet is becoming smaller and more accessible. And it provides lots of exciting opportunities for personal and professional growth. Besides travel, more and more people spend extended time abroad on work, study, language-immersion, and volunteer-related activities. Both short and extended stays in another culture come with certain challenges, including culture and reverse culture (re-entry) shock, which can afflict newbies and seasoned expats alike.

Culture shock is defined as the emotional reaction to living, studying, or working in a new culture. It is often described as feeling a lack of grounding after losing familiar signs and symbols of the daily life that we're used to. There are the obvious adjustments - such as a different language, climate, and food. But what makes culture shock often so tricky is an accumulation of several smaller losses, such as different accessibility of goods, services, and comforts, and new norms for social interactions. All this can take an emotional toll. Subtle cultural difference also should not be underestimated (eg, the US vs. Canada), because they can have a cumulative effect.

People who experience culture shock often report the following:
  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawing from other people
  • Sleep Disturbance
  • Frequent Crying and Sadness
  • Irritability, having a shorter fuse
  • Increased focus on ordering and cleaning one's immediate environment
  • Aches and pains, feeling sick 
For most people, culture shock resolves after a few days or weeks as the mind and body adapt to the new conditions. For those struggling longer, or those who'd like to help themselves along in the adjustment process, here are some tried and true strategies:
  • Make new friends, share your thoughts and ideas with others. Meet locals and ask them about their culture. It’s normal to feel shy when meeting new people, but with practice you will be more relaxed. Remember that lasting friendships develop gradually, if you keep trying.
  • Read and learn about the new culture with an open mind. Openness and learning are important skills that help people adapt to their environment.
  • Keep active and be curious about your new surroundings. Stake out museums, theaters, restaurants, and neighborhoods. 
  • Look for opportunities to participate in community activities. For example, join a sports team or volunteer group. Joining others with similar interests helps with social adjustment around the globe, regardless of language or background.
  • Keep working on language skills (if applicable) 
  • Keep a sense of humor. A sense of humor is important because in another culture there are many things which lead one to weep, get angry, be annoyed, embarrassed, or discouraged. The ability to laugh off things will help guard against despair. Everyone makes mistakes in a new situation, and it's part of adapting and learning.
  • The ability to respond to or tolerate the ambiguity of new situations is very important to intercultural success. Keeping options open and judgmental behavior to a minimum describes an adaptable or flexible person.
  • Keep your expectations realistic and positive.
  • Be patient with yourself and take care of yourself.

Living and learning in a new culture which may have different beliefs and values can be difficult. During this process, it is important to be in contact with the new culture. Yet, it is also important to take your time in this process of learning and adapting. There is some evidence that participation in more than one culture can actually lead to healthy adjustment. When we learn other ways to think and behave, we can develop adaptive strengths and flexibility, which can help in daily life.

If adapting to a new culture takes longer than expected, or if culture shock is interfering with your daily ability to work, study, and socialize, consider consulting with a licensed mental health professional.