I’m sitting in my friend’s apartment in Dakar, watching the neighborhood boys play-wrestle each other Senegalese-style in the local version of WWF. I’m brand new here, just in country a week, and each time I leave the house to try something new — buying vegetables at the market next door, wrangling my surfboard into the back of a taxi to get to the beach, going to a party where I know almost no one — my stomach drops. It’s the old familiar anxiety trying to curb my horizons by telling me, “Stay home! Don’t take risks! Keep close to the fan–it’s nice in here!”
Good thing I know how to recognize it: the stomach drop, the faster heartbeat, the slow-motion freeze. My lizard brain, like everyone’s, wants me to stay where I take no risks, nice and comfortable on the couch watching the compound kids play outside. The rest of me, though, wants to get my feet dirty in the dust outside, practice my ever-improving French, and try all the new and different things people eat here, like the baobab/peanut/millet pudding I sampled last night.
I know which side I want to win, in this tussle between fear and discovery. It’s not just moving to a new country that brings it up, of course. But learning my way through this feeling creates an expansive freedom and exuberant happiness that I want to share.
3 ways to be happier and work through expat anxiety
1. Stop looking backwards. When I’m in a new environment or cultural situation, I often find myself looking backwards for a similar life experience. Last time I did a similar thing, what happened? Did it turn out alright? Was it a disaster? I wrack my memory for lessons learned that I can apply to the present, hoping that some bit of wisdom or experience will come to me that I can use to influence a positive outcome.
But looking to the past to guide my actions in the present, for all the psychological reassurance it provides, doesn’t let me access my wisdom in the moment. Quite often, my mind remembers that things didn’t work out exactly as I would’ve liked in the past, and I move towards panic and despair, amplifying the anxiety.
2. Don’t project into the future. The same thing goes for projecting a present situation into the future. An example being, “If I don’t mingle at this party, people will think I’m shy and they won’t want to get to know me.” Who says? The lizard brain loves to jump forwards and backwards in time, prophesying social doom with rigid pronouncements. Instead of worrying that if I don’t do X, I’ll never get Y in the future, it’s better to hear all these projections for what they are: simple, understandable fear. Feel it, sure, but act on it? I hope not.
3. Stay right here, right now.
Bringing myself back to the present moment, what I call grounding, has profoundly altered my emotional landscape for the better, allowing my natural wonder at new people and experiences to rise to the surface and express itself with joy. The past doesn’t need to guide me, and I don’t need to worry about how I’ll cope with the future. I’ve learned that if I take care of myself in the present moment, I have all the resources I need to tackle the challenges I meet moment by moment.
I breathe deeply, deep enough to feel my ribcage expand and contract with each inhale and exhale, for one whole minute. I feel my feet on the ground, pushing them gently into the earth to feel the ground support me. For a bit of heavy duty grounding, I go outside, lean against a tree and look at the sky for a few moments. We are living, breathing creatures connected to the earth and the world around us. Reminding myself of this allows me to enjoy it — the sensation of heat on my face, wind in my hair, grass beneath my feet.
The lizard brain hates gentleness, I’m certain. Every time I say to myself, “Elie, it’s okay to be anxious. Let’s take a minute to settle and ground,” I feel it fleeing into the subconscious dark, back where it belongs.
It’s especially useful to remember all this when I’m in a new country, finding my way through a foreign environment and doing my best to forge connections and make new friends. But maybe you’ve also been somewhere awhile and find yourself in a rut, worrying unnecessarily about things you can’t control. It’s useful then too.
Stay present. It’s nicer here.
You may notice that I’ve closed comments on this blog — I was weeding through four spam messages for every real one and it was wasting my time and energy. To those of you who want to connect, please send me an email at elie at expatbackup dot com. I’d love to hear from you!