Expat Backup helps aid workers live happy, health lives in the world's most challenging places (www.expatbackup.com)

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I find strong self-care essential to my health and happiness. It’s something I work at and pay attention to constantly. As an expat aid worker living in developing countries, I care for my physical, mental and emotional health because I need to be healthy to do my job.

When I take care of myself, I feel amazing. My body feels good, I’m relaxed and grounded in my emotions, and my mind is energized and alert. But there’s something more. For me, self-care involves knowing myself and the desires of my heart. One of mine is to live in Africa. What are yours?

Self-care means aligning your daily life with a deeper spiritual purpose. For those of us who chose to live in challenging environments, it helps to have a strong reason “why” — what is it that motivates you? Even those of us in higher level management and political jobs remember a story, something we experienced, read or decided, that brought us into this line of work. Staying in touch with that is an important element of self-care.

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-care lately. As life and work around me change, I’ve learned to practice all kinds of nurturing and loving strategies towards myself: I drink lots of water; I practice daily yoga; I get lots of sleep.

Most of the time, self-care is about mindfulness, about being patient with yourself and willing to adjust course.

All that’s required for change is the energy to initiate new patterns. We are much more powerful and capable of change than we think we are.

I’ve found that when I concentrate on the basics of self-care, everything goes better. Maybe it’s because when I’m nice to myself, it’s easy to be nicer to other people. I am gentler with my staff and patient with my team. I find everything so much more enjoyable. And that means I’m happy, healthy and able to do really cool things at my job.

There’s another reason that self-care strategies for expat aid workers are important: your job. Although we don’t talk about it much, health is becoming a contributing factor when interviewing with future employers.

Donors and large INGOs have huge HR divisions that keep statistics, and it’s only recently that hiring managers are sharing the patterns they’ve seen. Expats that exhibit good physical, emotional and mental health are more likely to stay at their jobs and remain aid workers for the long-term. Getting sick, over-tired and depressed means you’re likely to burn out and go home.

The good news is that self-care is easy to learn. Here, to get us started, are:

4 Simple Self-Care Strategies for Expat Aid Workers

Self-care is cumulative: the longer you practice making decisions that make and keep you happy and healthy, the better off you will be. Even so, if you only practice one of these strategies, you will see a change in your energy and outlook.

I believe that the choices we make for ourselves influence and affect the choices we make as a community and as a species on the planet. What better way to increase peace in the world than by becoming more content and peaceful? If we want to see a world that is not ruled by fear, we need to care for and claim the parts of us that we sometimes let shrink into the shadows.

We’re going to start with physical health.

Part 1: Physical Self-Care

Your physical health comes first because without a strong, healthy body you are literally going *nowhere.* We often forget this because we’re so much “in our heads,” but without your body, you’re dead. Like, indefinitely. So pay attention.

Physical health includes how much sleep you get, how much stress you’re under, your hormonal balance, the drugs you take, whether you smoke or drink, what kind of food you eat and what kind of activity your body gets to enjoy in a standard day.

Obviously, there’s a lot here that you have control over, right? The key here is not to get overwhelmed. Change happens slowly and takes about 21 days of continuous, uphill practice to become a habit in the brain. So be patient with yourself as you go about making changes here.

To start with, you want to make sure you’re getting the basics: water. I know a PTSD researcher who deals with returned soldiers who says that staying hydrated is a significant indicator in how people handle stress. Make sure you’re drinking between 2.5 to 3 liters of the cleanest, purest, most delicious water you can find.

We don’t like creating mountains of plastic that ends up smoldering in the neighborhood dump, so I recommend buying a high-quality water filter and using what comes out of the tap. Then again, I don’t know where you live, so make your own decisions!

Just a handful of small changes in this area can have big effects on your energy and sense of well-being.

Part 2: Emotional Self-Care

Emotional health builds on physical health. When your body is happy and healthy, you feel good, plain and simple. When you’re not taking care of your body, your hormones become imbalanced, your thought focus on physical discomfort or dissatisfaction, and it’s easy to spiral into negativity, blame and other emotions that cause physical stress.

Emotional health means feeling grounded and supported while you experience your emotions, so that you are able to use them to guide your daily choices without them overwhelming you or causing you undue stress. The idea is to feel and honor your emotions without letting them push you into reactivity — where you act out emotional responses to things that happen *to* you instead of being the sovereign captain of your own ship.

Reactivity happens when we’re emotionally triggered, which we can learn to address once we’re aware of it. There’s a tremendous amount we can do to help our emotions become intuitive beacons, and to work in our favor. Easier said than done, right?

Part 3: Mental Self-Care

Once your physical health is good and your emotions are flowing and grounded, we can focus on mental self-care. Stress has a very damaging effect on our emotions and our physical body, and it starts in the mind. What we think, how we perceive things and the stories we tell ourselves can create massive imaginary stress. Remember Mark Twain’s quip that most of the worries in his life never happened? That’s probably true for all of us.

Alleviating stress through practices like meditation and mindfulness can make a huge overall difference on our health and happiness. Even a 3-minute morning meditation practice can help bring more peace and mindfulness to your day. Try it, and you’ll see what I mean.

Part 4: Spiritual Self-Care

Spirituality is intensely personal and maybe many of you will think that this doesn’t belong here. “I don’t believe in God,” you might be yelling in your head, or asking “What does Spirit have to do with this?” My point here is not what you believe in — if you chose to believe in anything.

I want to point out that spirituality helps to embed your work in a big picture, in a larger narrative of the world, that includes where we are as a species on the planet, and what you are trying to do to help. That’s all. Remember and care for your vision. Nurture and feed your dreams. Believe in them and know that you are much more powerful than you think you are.


These simple basics are just the beginning of a whole new way of treating yourself. After all, you are a precious and unique natural resource, and you’re needed in the world. It’s in everyone’s best interest if you stick around, and are happy to do so!

Because self-care for expat aid workers is so important, I’m going to publish a 4-part “Self-Care Strategies for Expat Aid Workers” series next month.

I’ll be looking at how to stay physically healthy and even thrive in malarial and other at-risk areas. I’ll explore how to use your emotions to guide you to more fulfilling work and personal relationships. I’ll share how to avoid stress and anxiety, and keep your mind working in your best interests. I’ll also explore what it looks like to be in touch with a deeper “why” as to your work as an expat aid worker.

I hope you enjoy the series. I would love to hear from you directly about your own experiences with self-care as an expat aid worker (elie@expatbackup.com).

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