mental self-care for expat aid workers in international development (www.expatbackup.com)

Lali Masriera via Flickr CC BY 2.0

This article is the third in a four-part series on “Self-Care for Expat Aid Workers.” First, we looked at physical and emotional health. Here, we will examine what it takes to cultivate mental health. There’s a huge stigma around talking about mental health, but it’s a massive influence on our lives, our choices and our careers.

Expat Backup is for aid workers who know that we can live happy and healthy lives, even if we’re doing work in places and environments that are among the most challenging in the world. Ultimately, our ability to be effective and efficient doing this work comes down to good self-care.

This series is an opportunity to explore the very simple basics of self-care and personal health. Creating well-being for yourself and for the world starts with taking good care of what is yours. What could be more yours than your body, your mind, and your heart?

Growing up as a third-culture kid in India, Kenya and Egypt, I saw a lot of expat aid workers in my parents’ circle of friends fall apart. I saw adults deal with alcoholism, depression, divorces and feeling distanced from family who were far away. Mostly, this was done in private and person-to-person, or alone. When mental health issues were discussed, it was in hushed voices and often in the context of tragedy: a suicide triggered by a manic episode, inter-partner violence due to alcoholism, or a marriage broken up by depression.

There was a stigma around mental health issues in expat communities because they often went untreated, and their effects could be dismal. In my international schools, we learned about psychological disorders in health class, but knowing about the faces of insanity only made mental health seem more frightening and unknown. As I worked towards my I.B. Diploma in Cairo, I volunteered at what was then the Middle East’s premier private mental hospital. I saw expatriates I knew from the community there, but we never talked about it. I kept their secrets.

Mental health remains a taboo topic in international aid worker communities because poor mental health can get you fired and earn you a reputation that will make it hard to get a job. Sure, on paper, that kind of discrimination in your workplace may not exist. But let’s be real. We all know far too much about each others’ idiosyncrasies, and once word gets out that someone is actually “crazy,” they’re done for.

This article is an attempt to change that, because the truth of the matter is that mental health is something you can maintain and improve, just like other aspects of your health. By learning how to practice mental self-care, you create a peaceful and supportive environment for yourself. This means that even when there are external stresses like too much travel, humanitarian emergencies, multiple donor visits and so on, you are still at the top of your game.

Mental health is where the idea of personal resilience, which is now a thing that people are talking about, starts to play an important factor. Only when you are taking care of yourself physically and emotionally can you express your true potential for stellar mental health. Once you start working on this aspect of your self-care, your circumstances will rapidly start to improve. Self-care does make a difference.

Please note that in this article (and Expat Backup in general), I am speaking to people who are not living with and have not been diagnosed with mental health conditions and are not mentally ill. If you suspect that you are suffering from a mental health condition, please see your health care practitioner immediately. I am not a doctor and in no way should this article be considered any kind of medical advice. This includes if you’re feeling overly anxious, depressed or at all suicidal.

Please.

Let me say that again, because it’s important.

If you think you might need professional mental health care, go get it. Look on the Internet, ask one of your sensitive friends, but go do this for yourself right now. Your mental self-care is a huge priority. Expat aid workers, especially those of us working in emergencies, often need this kind of support, and too few of us reach out to get it. I hope this article and the ‘Self-Care for Expat Aid Workers’ series empowers you to make all kinds of changes in your self-care.

Reach out and use Skype to set up face-to-face conversations with potential therapists and coaches that you find on the Internet or get referred to by others in your network. You can even find online open 12-Step meetings. When you meet a kindred spirit whose healing you admire, reach out and ask where they learned their mental health kung fu and ask for books that they recommend or healers and therapists they admire. Just because you may be geographically doesn’t mean you have to be.

This article and the suggestions here, though, are for otherwise healthy expat aid workers who want to improve their practice of self-care.

Practices to Improve Your Mental Self-Care

1. Proactively reduce stress. (Get help, if you need to.)

Stress is the number one cause of mental anxiety. When we experience stress, our body starts to produce stress hormones called adrenalin and cortisol and we exhibit what’s called a stress response. Our emotions are affected by feelings of anxiety, scarcity and fear, and we start to feel the stress in our minds as well.

Mental stress leads to all kinds of different symptoms, including panic attacks and insomnia. Although it’s important to recognize that some stress is good for us, in the modern world we are bombarded with stressors and too much stress is always a bad thing.

Take steps to reduce the stress you experience each day (like “tapping“). Look for small things that you can change that give you disproportionate benefits in terms of turning stress around. For example, if you’re constantly running to work worrying you’ll be late, give yourself extra time in the morning. If you’re nervous about a conversation you’re going to have with a colleague or friend, take time in the beginning to set good boundaries and create a safe space for sharing to occur.

These small adjustments to your lifestyle will add up, and soon you’ll be saving the energy you would’ve burned on stress for more productive, positive pursuits.

2. Take time away from work (and screens).

We work too much. “We are not human doings, we are human beings!” as my yoga teacher liked to say. It’s true. Spend at least one day away from computers, tablets and smart phones a week — I dare you.

If it’s harder than you think, or you just scoffed at the impossibility of my suggestion because you’re far too important to not check your email every 12 hours, I double-dare you.

In addition to your digital sabbatical, which I try to practice for a full weekend every weekend, by the way, you also need to spend more time not working. I mean not thinking, talking about or picking up anything to do with work, for at least one day a week.

Give yourself an actual break from things when you’re relaxing. When I did this, I found my rest days became exponentially more restful and fun.

3. Keep learning.

We are always evolving and expanding, and nothing keeps us happy and healthy like taking joy in learning something new. As expat aid workers, it’s always a good idea to learn the local language where we’re working. Speaking the local language gives us access to the same world that the people we’re trying to help live in, and let us have the conversations that matter about the work that we do. Of course, for some of us this is much easier said than done, and there are lots of other things to learn as well.

I love Acumen’s free courses on all things innovation and transformative leadership. Any kind of thing that you feel excited to learn about is open for you to explore.

When we learning something new, the chemistry in our brain changes. We are more proactive at solving challenges. We have higher self-confidence. These are positive traits that help us to strengthen our mental landscape. To keep our horizons always expanding keeps us full of wonder and joy at the world.

Volunteering and traveling are also forms of learning. The point is to be open enough to new experiences that they don’t pass you by, and to be open to trying to do things in new ways. Staying open and humble through learning new things is a great way to keep your mind clear and sharp.

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If you include these simple practices in your day-to-day life, you will be taking big strides towards self-care and safeguarding your health.

I hope that by reading this article, you’re inspired to start speaking up about good mental health practices when you feel called to. Next time you see a friend or colleague who seems to be having an especially hard time, I encourage you to reach out to them with a few kind words. You don’t have to, but maybe you’ll feel open to help connect them with the support they need.

Thanks for reading about mental self-care for expat aid workers. In the next and last article in the series, we’ll be exploring how to tap into your sense of life’s purpose to inspire and deepest dreams to motivate your spiritual self-care.

In the meantime, if you’d like to send me your thoughts and share a little about what being a healthy, happy aid workers means to you, email me at elie@expatbackup.com.

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