Between the clicking and the crash (five steps to managing culture stress)

06 May 2013

There's this thing that happens when you move to another culture. You have a really great day, everything flows, you accomplish much and feel like things are finally clicking. You've been waiting a long time for this clicking, this normalcy, and victory awaits you in the wings.

Then you have dinner, a couple of hours at home, or even just a few lazy minutes by yourself. It's overcast out, the bedtime routine is drawing nigh, and the crash hits. This level of exhaustion where all your emotional, mental and physical energy is zapped clean out of your body. You don't know whether to run for the hills or crawl under the covers.

It's so surprising, given the really awesome day you just had. You feel like all the effort, all the success has been overshadowed by... well, by nothing, really. It is what it is. You could call it culture stress. Or maybe homesickness. Or plain old fatigue.  But whatever it is, it's got you in a vice grip.

So what do you do? This is what I do.

1) Hide in bed. This seems counterintuitive, I know. But the first thing I really need is a quiet space where I can figure out why I feel so crappy.

For me, this is my bed; the one we bought our first year of marriage and shipped over the ocean and is all bent and creaky and mine. It's a cocoon of comfort and familiarity and when I feel all the feelings (loneliness and fear and frustration and tiredness and anxiety and...), I escape here to sort it out.

Living in another country, culture or region is literal, actual hard work. Find your quiet hiding place (garage, comfy chair, toilet seat), rest and search your heart.

2) Give the children something to do (in lieue of children, this could be your spouse, roommate or any other random people you happen to be living with). They will not suffer (long) if you place them in front of the telly, put a remote in their hand and flee the area. It could be anything: toys, food, games, but let's be real - electronic devices are preferred and will offer you the most time to recoup. Don't judge me.

By giving them an activity, you release yourself to take care of you so you can take care of them. And you allow them space from you so you don't freak out on them.  This is key. Don't freak out on them. This they will remember. I know from experience.

3) Get outside. Just do it. Right now. Go outside.

Fresh air is a cure for all ills. If you didn't sort what's in your head before, do it now in the wide open. Pray or talk or do yoga. Again, it doesn't really matter what you do or where you go, but the big blue sky has a knack of recalibrating the soul. Garden, walk, sit, people watch. Be outside and be all there. 

Fun fact: Ireland is awesome for this. We've got the sea, meadows, forest, mountains, and cities, all within an hour of our doorstep. And I've got a man who likes to kick us all out of the house when things get tense. We walk, the kids play, we rescue Ash from oncoming traffic, and we arrive back home renewed and nearly ready for the next big (or small) thing that comes our way.


4) Do the next thing. What is the next thing, you ask? For me, it's feeding somebody. Or switching laundry. Or replying to an email. Whatever you need to do, just do it. If you keep it small, all the better. It's usually so much easier, not to mention faster, to switch a load of laundry rather than menu plan for a month. Build up to it. Do the next thing, and then the next and then the next.

Free tip: if it's not on your to-do list, add it on after you do it. Then cross that thing right off. Tick. Done. Congratulations, you've completed your to-do list and you didn't even know you had one.

5) Write it down. What just happened here? Did you suddenly realize your mom wasn't close enough to drop everything and pop over with a diet coke? Did you get to bed too late and up too early and miss your third cup of coffee? Did the mere thought of shifting gears with your left hand just seem so exhausting you just couldn't leave the house one. more. time?

Whatever it was, even if you don't know, write out how you got here. Whatever you did today, whatever you did or didn't accomplish, wherever you went or whomever you saw, write it down. And when you've reached down deep and found the cause (not the symptom) at play, write that down, too.

A few weeks ago I was laying in bed. I just could not force myself to get out. We needed milk and cereal and an assortment of other things, and the thought of getting in the car and driving the 2km to the shop overwhelmed me to pieces. I emailed my sister to ask her to pray and in that moment it hit me. I knew exactly what it was the stunted me. The ladies at the shop don't smile. When I queue up to pay for my groceries, nobody smiles at me. Nobody is happy to see me, nobody knows my name... nobody knows me.

I needed just one face, one smile, just one person to see me. And I couldn't face leaving the house and coming back without that need being met. When I realized what it was, I could talk about it with people who've been here longer. They could tell me what smiling looks like here (it's in the eyes, in the posture, in the words being used) so I knew how to look for it. I realized the smiling thing was just a symptom of a deeper need for someone to know me.

And yes, people smile here all the time. My BIF - best Irish friend - Bronagh has a brilliant, loving smile and I really should just pick up the phone or meet her for lunch. (Ugh, see how much you discover just by writing it down?)

So, you know, I hide for a bit. Then I get out and do the next thing. I try to write it down and then I do it all over again. Because I want to have that feeling... the feeling of a great day, things accomplished, the peace and comfort and joy that comes with new rhythms. I want that feeling where things just... click. Even if exhaustion and discouragement follows soon thereafter, and it will. It's the clicking I remember.

That's the other thing I meant to tell you. You'll forget the exhaustion, the fear, the doubtful bit. It's shortlived. Tomorrow you'll wake up and you'll only remember the victory. 

Ok, I need your help now. What am I missing? How do you cope with stress, of any kind?

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