Counselling for Expats

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Staying healthy whilst self-isolating

During these unprecedented times, hundreds of thousands of people are self-isolating and experiencing an entirely new mode of life. It is of the utmost importance to stay healthy and positive, so here are some basic tips for both physical and mental health.

Physical health:

The number one piece of advice is still hand-washing. Especially if you are isolating with family members. Think particularly of bathroom use and handling food. If you can’t recall the last time you washed you hands, you should probably go and wash them now!

Eat well. Don’t forget a regular dose of fruits and vegetables, and drink plenty (1.5 – 2 litres) of water per day, even if you do not feel thirsty.

Get creative about exercise. There is plenty of advice online and you really don’t need much space to do basic exercise routines. Download a new exercise app and follow that. Write out a daily routine and be sure to follow it as best you can.

Get some fresh air. Ideally that would be walking in the countryside, but that may not be possible for you. Even having windows open for a regular time each day will make a difference to your health.

Mental well-being:

Research shows that more mental health issues will surface during next stages of self-isolation and quarantine. Feelings of frustration, boredom, fear or a lack of control will come to the fore in the extra downtime that people have in which to ruminate and introspect. Here are some things you can do to protect your mental health:

Social media can help you stay in touch with people, but it can also make you feel anxious, especially if people are sharing sensational news stories or posting their particular concerns and worries. Think about taking a break or limiting your use of social media. You might decide to view only particular groups or pages and not scroll through timelines.

The virus is likely to affect people from many different cultures and countries. The WHO says to avoid attaching the disease to any particular ethnicity or nationality. It’s important to have empathy with those who are infected and remember that they haven’t done anything wrong.

Build in some achievement moments into each day. Set goals that you can tick off each day so that you avoid falling into a negative spiral. These could be reading that book you’ve never quite gotten around to reading (set yourself a chapter a day), learning a new skill online or from a book, exercise, Skyping a friend or family member, writing an email or tackling DIY jobs at home.

You do not need 24/7 news updates from around the globe. If news stories make you feel anxious, confused or not in control, consider switching off or limiting what you look at for a while. Think about limiting your news consumption to a regular time each day and then don’t ‘check’ it all throughout the day.

Routine, routine, routine! It’s easily to slip into binge watch TV, getting up at noon, staying up into the small hours and letting personal hygiene standards fall. Establish a routine of getting up, getting dressed, having a healthy breakfast and setting a sensible bedtime. If you are isolating with family, establish a regular family mealtime.

Connect with nature. If you can’t get out, listen to natural sounds, like recordings or apps that play birdsong, ocean waves or rainfall. Get as much natural light as you can. Spend time in your garden if you have one, or open your front or back door and sit on the doorstep. Go for walks if permitted and you are able to. There is more and more evidence linking regular contact with nature and positive mental health.

Be positive! Advice from the WHO states that when possible we should try and share positive or helpful coronavirus stories. Do you know someone who has recovered? Is it bringing people in your community closer together? It’s normal to overthink things when we’re alone and self-isolation could be the perfect breeding ground for negative thoughts. Try not to use your extra time picking apart every aspect of your job, relationships, friendships and life in general.

Stay in touch with people. Self-isolation does not meet solitary confinement! Make plans to video chat with people or groups you’d normally see in person. Arrange regular phone calls or send messages or texts. If you’re worried that you might run out of things to talk about, make a plan with a friend to watch something or read a book separately so that you can discuss it when you get in touch. 

Finally, if you find that you are struggling, if confinement is troubling you and you are losing focus in daily life, do make sure to talk to someone. Counselling online exists, and there are resources out there for everyone.

Challenges and 2019-nCoV

Every now and then something happens out there in the ‘real’ world that really knocks us about. Being an expat never seems quite so isolating as when a huge natural disaster strikes, or a violent incident affects a place you know, or the politics ‘back home’ takes a turn towards crazy. The lack of control, the self-doubt about life decisions…

The corona virus (2019-nCoV) is a case in point. It is something directly affecting expats in particular since uncertainly now surrounds travel plans, work environment and, depending upon where you are and where you are from, how you are viewed by those around you.

Things are not helped by some individuals – and indeed some countries – reacting with Draconian measures and the press lighting the flames of panic at every opportunity. (If you have young children, it can be hard to explain why people are wearing masks…) Talks of lock-down, enforced quarantine and rumours of ghost-town scenes from previously bustling cities all feed into our predilection for sensational stories and exaggeration.

This is not to suggest that what we are experiencing is trivial. And in a very real and not at all existential way, what YOU are experiencing is what you are experiencing.

There are things you can do to alleviate fears and anxiety.

Firstly, be absolutely rigourous with your own personal hygiene.

Second, do what human beings have done for millennia – stay away from people who are ill. We naturally do shy away from people with coughs and colds – it’s rooted in evolutionary biology and is one of the reasons you are here today, as opposed to, well, not being…

Thirdly, get informed. Have you heard that everyone from country X is being quarantined? Supermarkets in country Y have empty shelves? Have you checked the sources, before repeating the rumour to someone else? Spreading untruths, or half-truths, about the situation helps no-one deal with it appropriately. You can do worse than visit the World Health Orgnanisation on this.

And finally, if you are struggling, by which I mean your thoughts and fears about this are prohibiting you from carrying on your everyday life, then talk to someone. These are not trivial concerns. Find a health professional to discuss them with if they are taking over your life. At the very least, you will gain a sense of perspective. Take some time for yourself and be aware of how you are feeling.

Good news, bad news

It turns out, too much news.

Whether you are stressed about the coronavirus or bereaving Brexit, being abroad can have a magnifying effect on the news we receive, and our 24/7 connectivity doesn’t help. We hear the same story a hundred times and it amplifies our fears and concerns.

From an evolutionary biological perspective, it is no wonder this has a negative and stressful effect on us. In the blink of an eye (in evolutionary terms) we have gone from living in societies of about 100 people, with our news being word-of-mouth and almost always of personal concern, to existing in a globally connected society approaching 8 billion, with news coming at us from every direction, mostly about things thousands of kilometres from us and which we can have no influence over. Our brains simply did not evolve to comprehend this constant barrage and enormity of information.

So practice a little self-care. Turn off the news for a while. Prune out the negativity from your social media feeds. Take time to breath and to take stock of what really affects you and the things you do have some control over.

And let go of the things you can do nothing about.

‘Where are you from?’

This short video from the BBC beautifully explores what in expat communities is the absolute norm. The look on many kids’ faces as they hear the question, ‘Where are you from?’ says it all – you can see them trying to work out what it is you want to know. Where was I born? Where are my parents from? What does it say on my passport? Where do I live? Where do I feel at home? My own kids are both French and English, were born in Viet Nam and now live in Africa. We see how hurtful it can be for them when someone dismisses them as ‘not fully British’ or ‘not proper French’ – and they don’t have race thrown into the mix. They are full and empathic human beings who belong in the world – perhaps the very notion of ‘nationhood’ needs revising…

Talking about mental health

This is a great video to use as a conversation starter in schools or with your own children…

Home for Christmas?

Going ‘home’ for Christmas as an expat can be a thrilling and daunting experience. It’s a rush of catching up, rose-tinted views of life ‘back home’, extended family and the ever-present dilemma of how much to share about your life in distant climes…

Heading home can indeed be wonderful. Family and friends, cosy chats, familiarity and festivity. On the other hand it can be very hard work too. Jet-lag, living out of a suitcase, trying to spread your finite time between everyone you want to see and everything you want to do. And presents? Last minute shopping locally, or pay the excess baggage and risk presents in your suitcase? And if you have kids in tow, do relatives ever listen when you politely ask them NOT to get massive, heavy gifts for the children?

On the other hand, staying in your country of residence for the festive break also has pros and cons. The joy of no international travel. A home you are familiar with, an equipped kitchen to cook and you get to enjoy the tree you probably put up on December 1st, instead of rushing off and leaving it behind. And missing family and friends, and vowing that next year we’ll go ‘home’…

However you’ll be spending the holidays, there are a couple of things that are important.

Whilst I virtually never heed my own advice here, and whilst it does sound corny, Christmas should be about the presence, not the presents…especially if you’ve just flown halfway around the world, its about being with those who are special to you, not about what you bought for them. (Otherwise we’d just use Amazon and stay put, right?)

Traditions matter. Whether it’s the homemade Advent calendar, that cake recipe or a film you simply have to watch together, try to maintain traditions, or build new ones. Especially if you are with your children, they will remember a Christmas tradition in years to come, though they’ll struggle to recall that present they REALLY wanted.

And above all, remember to be gentle with yourself. You may be frazzled, exhausted, trying to please everyone and feeling guilty all at the same time. Take time for you, as well.

Social Media

It can make expat life that bit easier. Staying in contact with friends back home – especially for kids – can be crucial to allowing themselves to settle to a new home. I heard a story – which I suspect might not be true – which made me stop and think. The story goes that Einstein’s daughter was moving to Europe to work and he was lamenting her departure. A friend said, ‘Hey, don’t worry. There’s the telephone now – you’ll be able to talk to her.’ He reportedly replied, ‘If it weren’t for the telephone, she wouldn’t be going.’

I suspect that’s true of email and Facebook and Instagram and Skype for many of us on the expat circuit. Social media allows us to think we’re staying in touch, staying connected. It may have been a deciding factor in your move. But it comes with risks for all of us, and children in particular…

“We know that a significant amount of children are being contacted via popular live-streaming apps, such as TikTok, by abusers who are using them as a hunting ground,” a spokesperson for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said this weekend.

The NSPCC said it surveyed 40,000 schoolchildren and discovered that 25 percent of the children had live-streamed with a stranger. One in 20 children were asked, while live-streaming or in the comments of a posted video, to take their clothes off, according to NSPCC. 

TikTok, livestreaming apps are ‘hunting ground’ for abusers, warn kids’ advocates

And also..

Why Teenage Girls Roll Their Eyes

Insights on Teenage Behavior

            In this Edutopia article, Stephen Merrill says that recent research has given us important new information on the adolescent brain. 

            • The limbic system (the seat of primal instincts like fear, hunger, lust, and pleasure) is hyperactive during adolescence, while the prefrontal cortex (the seat of self-control, planning, and self-awareness) is still developing. “It’s not youthful irrationality or a flair for the dramatic at work,” says Merrill; “teenagers actually experience things like music, drugs, and the thrill of speed more powerfully than adults do.” 

            • The brain’s neuroplasticity at this stage of life makes kids sponges for learning. “The same emerging circuitry that makes teenagers vulnerable to risky behavior and mood swings also confers significant advantages on adolescent learners,” says Merrill. 

            • Being with peers increases risk-taking, most dangerously with automobiles and alcohol consumption. “It’s never been a question of feeling invulnerable,” says Merrill; “for teenagers, there’s just something about the presence of peers that is transfiguring. They understand the risks, and take them anyway.” 

            • Kids at this age respond well to direct explanations. “Talking to teenagers frankly about their brain development can provide useful context for their emotional worlds,” says Merrill, “and reset their expectations about their potential for continued intellectual growth.” This includes explaining the limbic system, the malleability of their brains, and the peer effect. 

            • Similarly, teens are receptive to learning about self-regulation, managing stress, and considering the feelings of others. Instruction in these areas is more effective than trying to scare kids about risky behaviors. 

            • Peer culture and teens’ keen sense of fairness and justice can be powerful levers. Preaching about smoking’s health consequences is usually ineffective, but talking about bad breath, peer disapproval, impact on younger children, and the way the tobacco industry hooks and exploits people can change teens’ attitudes and behavior. 

“Decoding the Teenage Brain (in 3 Charts)” by Stephen Merrill in Edutopia, January 31, 2019

Taken directly from The Marshall Memo 774

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