“I have been here before,” I thought to myself. The exhaustion seemed more intense than a mere lack of sleep. I felt scattered and easily overwhelmed. Irritability and strong emotions lingered right below the surface. I needed to be the stabilising force for my family when I was also struggling to keep it together.
Why did this feel so familiar?
Then it came to me — this is exactly how I feel for the first few months after a new international move. Coronavirus is a new country that I have to live in for the foreseeable future. I need to use the skills I have learned during our numerous relocations to manage it.
The Same But Different
When you move, everyday tasks and routines come into question. Where do I get food? How do I refill my prescriptions? What day do they pick up the trash? All of our daily functions, both big and small, need re-evaluation. It’s exhausting.
When my country entered lockdown, these questions were similar and often more dire. It had the same effect of making me feel like everything was uncertain.
Nothing feels automatic anymore. I question small actions that, just 2 weeks ago, I did without a second thought.
Language and Culture
Suddenly we are interacting with one another in unfamiliar ways. We are surrounded by terms that are new and sometimes vague. What exactly does social distancing mean? No guests allowed in the house or just not more than 5 people? Can I take walks with friends? Now that I am communicating more online, how do I express myself? Can people tell I’m joking when I text?
I feel unsure at a time that I need to understand and be understood.
Similar to an international move, coronavirus changes the nature of interactions with your family and friends. The everyday support that you take for granted is no longer integrated into your life. It now happens virtually and must be planned. You can’t hug or touch people that are far away and it’s a loss.
While I am grateful to be with my immediate family, our social interactions are currently non-existent. I don’t know when I will be able to see friends in person again and am not sure I will be able to return home over the summer. I am increasingly looking to my nuclear family for the support that I normally get from others. This can create strain and unmet expectations in households longing for stability.
It is very difficult to manage stress when you don’t know where the finish line is. Will coronavirus require us to “hunker down” for a few weeks or will this last 18 months as some predict? Will my company survive and will I still have a job? What will things be like when we go back to our regular lives? Will we go back to our regular lives?
We want to reestablish equilibrium by reminding ourselves that things will go back to “normal” soon. It’s hard not knowing when this will be and what the future will bring.
For those of you who have gone through multiple moves, now is the time to rally your resources and remember the skills you have developed to deal with transitions. For others who are new to international mobility and for those who can’t recall how you coped, here are a few tips.
Focus on the basics. Sleep, eat well, hydrate, exercise. It isn’t complicated but it’s important. As author Elizabeth Gilbert astutely said, “None of the other stuff is going to work if the animal that you live in is just a broke-down mess”. Figuring out how to accomplish these basics now takes more time and may require creativity. Invest in this. Your physical health and wellbeing lies at the foundation of everything else.
Routines, Routines, Routines (even if they are simple). Adding small amounts of predictability to the day helps people feel more grounded. It can add a sense of normalcy to a life that seems upended. Starting the day in a certain way, keeping bedtimes, having pizza every Friday — they are simple actions that help maintain a connection to the way life was before all the changes.
Don’t expect too much from yourself and others. We often expect ourselves to just instantly adjust to a new environment and be as engaged and effective as we were before. This is not realistic and will lead to frustration, burn out, arguments and disappointment. Give yourself and others credit for small accomplishments — a successful trip to the grocery store, helping your child with his/her online assignment, doing some push ups in your living room. If you do more, praise yourself but be patient if you are not as functional and productive as before.
Know yourself. We each have unique responses to stress and default reactions when we are under pressure. What situation or combination of events makes you feel the most upset? How do you normally react when you are distressed — do you get anxious? depressed? angry? Do you spring into action or get overwhelmed? What makes you feel better? Time alone, talking to someone else?
Knowing how you are likely to respond and what makes you regain your equilibrium is vital in times of transition or turmoil. Look for the warning signs that you are feeling off-centered and put a plan in place early to avoid things getting worse.
Reach out for help if you or someone you love needs it. Many therapists are providing online counselling services and there are emergency hotlines for people who need help. The way we deliver and use support may be different, but taking time to tend to mental health and wellbeing is key.
Have faith that you will establish a new normal. Humans are remarkably adaptable. We will find a way through this and regain our equilibrium again. We might experience loss and grapple with uncertainty but there will be opportunities for growth as well.
Just as all the new places and faces that we encounter when we move eventually become familiar, so will our lives after coronavirus. But in the meantime, focus on the present, take care of yourself, set realistic expectations and reach out if you need help.