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When Uncertainty is a Certainty

Whilst many families are starting to think about booking their summer vacations, for those working and living as expatriates (aka expats) abroad this time of year can be wrought with uncertainties. “The lead up to summer can be very stressful. You don’t always know whether job contracts will be extended, whether visas will be renewed or where you’ll start the new school year,” explains Jeremy, an expat in Singapore. “The uncertainty and the waiting can be extremely difficult. You can be living in limbo for months”, admits Tina, an expat living in The UAE. “You don’t know whether or not you’ll be telling your kids it’s time to leave their friends and start over”. A moderate degree of uncertainty is a common, maybe even “certain” part of expat life which, hopefully, we’ve all accepted going in.

However, whilst uncertainties such as not knowing where, or how, to buy fresh cows milk, or get your teeth cleaned, mostly adds to the adventure of the expat life, uncertainty over such things as job security, your geographic location or the children’s education is generally much harder to bear. Research shows that people indeed have different tolerance levels for uncertainty. Some seem energised by the adventure of living in limbo, whilst for others, it causes real distress leading to anxiety, tension within relationships, low mood and even depression. “Many people worry, obsess or ruminate when uncertainty strikes in a hope that it will make things more certain, controllable or predictable. It is common and understandable. Our highly developed brains are designed for complex problem-solving, as well as, forward thinking and planning. It is very good at this but when things are beyond our control this natural process becomes futile, instead depleting our physical, cognitive and emotional resources. The very ones needed for taking charge of the things we can control when the time is right”, explains expat counselor and coach Bec Buist, from Sam Nabil Counseling/Naya Clinics. So with “Moving Season” just over the horizon, there are a few strategies that can help whilst you painstakingly wait for HR to “get back to you”. >Stay in the present. Focus your attention on the present, not on imagined negative future outcomes. To bring your mind back to the present identify something with each of your 5 senses.

Adjust your focus and distract. If you are upset about the possibility of giving up what you currently have adjust your focus to concentrate on all the advantages you still have right in front of you. Devote time to visiting all those sights, and having all those experiences, you haven’t got around to in your host country. Don’t get in the trap of letting a potential move taint your enjoyment of the time you still have here now. Focus on really savouring experiences in order to make good memories that can bolster you if things get a little bumpy for a while. Ticking things off your “bucket list” can also be a wonderful distraction from unhelpful worrying.

Acknowledge it then let go. Acknowledge that uncertainties around future income, career development, living conditions, schooling, social networks etc. are hard. But if you find yourself constantly worrying about what lies ahead allocate yourself 15 mins of “worry time” each day. Save all your problem-focused thinking till this time. Make a list of problems if you have to but outside “worry time” thank your brain for the problem thought but then “let it go”. >Engage in self-care. Don’t let stress and uncertainty undo healthy habits. Bolster your resilience by trying to get enough sleep, eating right, exercising and spending time with friends. Nurture yourself too with some little treats e.g. a relaxing bath, a massage, a good cup of coffee, a stroll in the park with the dog. > Reflect on past successes. Remember times in the past when you had to deal with uncertainty. How did you cope? What strategies made it better or worse? Did worrying and rumination actually achieve anything?

Seek support. Many people isolate themselves during stressful times. Some expats withdraw from friends thinking it will make leaving easier. However, social support is essential to navigating life’s difficulties. It is essential that expat friend’s rely on each other given loved ones can be thousands of miles away and expat friends can often empathise with exactly what you are going through. So open up to those friend’s you can trust. I’m sure you would be willing to lend an ear if the shoe were on the other foot.

Find the benefits. Things can be difficult but still have some benefits. For example, dealing with uncertainty could make your more adaptable, calmer under pressure, or closer as couple. If you’re parents, modelling such things as healthy coping strategies, patience and teamwork could be of enormous benefit to your kids. Benefit -finding doesn’t aim to disregard, placate or belittle problems but rather gently shift one’s focus. >Expect the best. At least for the time being, expect the best! Why wouldn’t you? For the time being you don’t have any evidence that the uncertainty will turn out otherwise. Right? To think otherwise is just your lazy brain making up stories to scare you. If you have to think about the worse-case scenario save it for your designated “worry time”, then thrash it out in all it’s detail. How likely is it that this dire situation will eventuate? And, if it did, would you somehow find the energy, resources and support to cope? My guess is, most likely!

Get help. If uncertainties about the future are still wreaking havoc in your life, consider reaching out to one of the counselors or coaches at Sam Nabil Counseling Services/ Naya Clinics. You don’t have to navigate uncertainty alone . We are here to help and our HIPPA approved encrypted video conferencing means you can access support from wherever your nomadic lifestyle takes you. “Life's a journey. (Try to) enjoy the ride!”


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