My greatest stressor in the first week in a new country? Hunger. I find the combination of either having no food or having had someone I barely know attempt to stock my pantry to be incredibly overwhelming. And knowing I’ll soon have to walk into a strange supermarket and purchase unfamiliar products with prices that mean nothing in a language I barely speak all while my stomach rumbles is more than enough to bring my stress levels to almost unbearable levels.
And then on top of the hunger is the exhaustion. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more tired than I did the morning we arrived in Paris for a three-day layover, halfway to our new home in Madagascar, with a 2 month old, a 4 year old, a 6 year old and a 100 pound dog (that almost didn’t make the flight). I lived for days in a fog that wavered between dream and nightmare.
Oh, and then there’s the loneliness. I make friends pretty easily and with time have learned to lay my heart on the line…better to be heartbroken when we part than never to have spent those long mornings over coffee getting to know a new friend. But even for an extrovert, there’s the sorting and negotiating of new friendships that takes time. In those first few days or weeks in a new place, my single most persistent thought is, “Why have we done this again?” I don’t think I’m alone.
And after all of the hunger and exhaustion and loneliness, a kind of underlying grumbling can start to bubble to the surface. I don’t anger easily, but that’s a choice. And, it’s a choice laid in the foundation of the pep talks my husband and I do before a major transition. The night before we head out, bags packed, children settling down to sleep, we tell each other, “We’re in this together. We’re a team. We’re each doing our best with a very difficult and stressful situation. We will think before we speak. We’ll use nice words.” It works…almost always.
For us expats, these feelings are all just another part of our unique normal. But recently, I came across an acronym that I’d never heard before. It’s called H.A.L.T. and it really, really spoke to me. It’s a reminder for how to keep yourself in check when you’re facing extreme stress.
The gist of it is this – in times of extreme stress ask yourself, “Am I……”
If the answer to any one of these is yes, take care of that problem first before you act or make any major decisions. Okay, so sometimes it might be easier said than done, but I like it as a bit of a twist on the traditional “count to 10” recommendation. I like it because, in the expat life, it’s so completely and utterly dead-on. We don’t just experience these situations, our lifestyle causes these situations! I like it because I feel it’s the type of thing you can plan for in advance. I like the idea of writing down each condition in bold letters on a piece of paper and brainstorming how I could handle each one. Because, if you know that (1) each of these things is going to happen and (2) you’ve prepared for how to deal with them in advance, you’re much, much more likely to be able to handle all of the stress that comes with moving.
But you know, the thing I love most about looking at the H.A.L.T. model for stress management is that every single person on the planet has been hungry, angry, lonely or tired at some point in his or her life. The great gift at looking at these conditions as stress contributors is that, firstly, we can all relate to these states of being and, secondly, we’re free to personalize our responses to them. There’s a great gift in the fact that they’re both universal and highly adaptable. They represent a freedom to plan for your stressors in a very concrete and predictable way.
So next time you’re experiencing a big transition or find yourself overwhelmed by stress, ask yourself how you’ll halt and then take the next steps towards finding a more positive way to get through. I think you’ll find dealing with being hungry, angry, lonely or tired first, goes a really long way towards sanity.