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Seven Game Changers: Coping with stress

It´s me again, Sundae Schneider-Bean – intercultures consultant based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa). I´ve just returned from my summer break back home in the United States and Switzerland and I´d like to share a story with you from my time away from Ouaga. I was shopping in my childhood grocery store, combing the aisles for those few precious items I love having at home, but which are not readily available in Burkina Faso. I was casually strolling down the aisle when cultural re-entry shock hit. Contrasts raced through my mind. Abundance. Dearth. Excess. Lack. Commercialism. Survival.

After I snapped out of my frozen state, I took a picture of the wide-array of options that stood before me and posted it on Facebook with the caption, “Culture shock is…going to the chocolate chip section in the USA.” I had this image so firmly planted in my mind in relation to the markets in Burkina Faso. Fellow expatriates (expats) responded with sympathetic stories. Many described feeling “shock” and admitted being overwhelmed. One woman based in India but visiting her home in the USA explained, “The stark contrast gave me a physical reaction. I had to leave.”

 

While many expats may equate summer break with family gatherings or fun in the sun, for some it can be a time where deeper issues or unexpected stress surface.

In this month´s contribution I want to do two things:

  • First, if you are a manager who is responsible for expatriates, I´d like you to come away with a taste of the complexity some expats face abroad.
  • Second, if you are bearing the weight of stress in a highly challenging context, I am inviting you to explore seven coping mechanisms and reflect how they may affect you – or the people you manage.

All of us are faced with challenges and have felt stress bearing down on our shoulders. For individual expats, their families and the companies they work for, how this stress is managed is decisive. For expatriates, this reality can be compounded by a multitude of context or region-specific factors. The expatriate community in Ouagadougou serves as a specific example. First, it must be acknowledged that within the last month, both Burkinabé (locals) and expatriates have experienced great loss due to the tragic crash of Flight AH 5017. My deepest sympathies to the immense community of friends, colleagues and families in mourning – and strength to the many who continue to contribute to their companies and communities despite the immense personal loss.

At the same time, this community is grappling with growing uncertainty due to the Ebola outbreak and questions about the political outcomes of the future. These factors can weigh heavily on the mind and sit on top of more “regular” stressors such as unexpected project delays, childcare dilemmas and long working hours.

Think of your own coping mechanisms. Red wine? Jogging? Long hours at work? Some of them may provide temporary relief but research suggests that not all coping mechanisms lead to healthy stress relief and productivity in the long-term. We are still learning about how coping styles vary by culture, and of course there are wide individual variations. At the end of this piece, I suggest a few references for managing stress in new, intercultural environments.

For now, let´s explore the following list of seven coping mechanisms so you can start thinking about how they impact you. For managers, consider how you can use these questions with your team.

On the Safe Side: 

  1. Get clear on control: Some of us waste time and precious energy trying to control the things that are far outside our sphere of influence. Next time you feel anxiety or stress, take a deep breath then consider this:

                     “Where do I have control?

                 Who is in control of what I am worried about?”

2. Planning & Problem Solving: Anticipating challenges and planning how to manage them to reduce stress and enhance your potential to respond agilely.

                    “What is weighing on me the most?

              What can I plan for right now to ease my mind?

3. Social Support: Seek out the individual, group, spiritual or religious guidance which will help you find meaning in your challenging experience and avoid a cycle of negative thinking. Seek clarity, then get support:

                  “Who or what could support me right now?”

4. Positive Thinking & Humor: What you put your attention on grows. Consciously shift gears for a moment by focusing on the positive. Surround yourself with the people in your life who make you laugh. Focus on this:

                “What is good right now?”

Needless to say these coping mechanisms work best when you are well fed, in shape and well-rested! In this case, make your general well-being a high priority in stressful times. The benefits you reap certainly outweigh the thought or effort to make it happen.

Among the Dangerous:

5. Wishful thinking: How many times have you thought, “I wish x were not true.” Did this thought make you feel better? Did it bring you acceptance, peace or clarity? No? That is what I suspected. Next time you do this, catch yourself. You don´t have extra time or energy to throw away like this. Instead try this:

            “I am disappointed that…, but I am still grateful for…”

6. Avoidance & Withdrawal: Avoiding an accident is a good thing. Failing to address something that needs to be dealt with is not. Know when you are withdrawing from a situation to gain strength for a challenge versus when you are running from something uncomfortable. Ask this when you notice that you are keeping your distance:

            “Am I refueling my energy or am creating a bigger problem down the road?”

7. Denial: This is often the inability to see that you are dealing with an immense amount of stress. Failure to acknowledge its impact (on you, your health, your family and your job) creates an inability to experiment and thus identify the most effective strategies to minimize it. Build five minutes into your monthly calendar to ask yourself:

        “Where in my life am I experiencing stress?

    What is one small thing I could to do improve this?”

There you have it. Seven coping mechanisms that are at our fingertips. Which ones you support can change “the game”. The final score is up to you.

Join me in the comments section of https://sundaebean.com/expat-happy-hour/  to share coping mechanisms from your culture or personal practices, ask questions or make a comment.    

 

Sundae Schneider-Bean is a consultant for intercultures, based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa). Sundae helps individuals meet their toughest intercultural challenges with clarity, strength and wisdom. She supports organizations committed to building globally-skilled human capital. To learn more about these issues, check out her publications on http://sundaebean.com

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[1] Book chapter “Stress coping and adjustment” within Psychology of Culture Shock by Ward, Bochner & Furnham offers an overview of stress in cross-cultural adjustment.

[2] See “Life and How to Survive it” by Robin Skynner and John Cleese for additional insight on coping.

[3] For an in-depth look at stress and coping across cultures, check out Wong, P. T. P., & Wong, L. C. J. (2006). Handbook of multicultural perspectives on stress and coping.

New York: Springer.

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The above article was included in our MONTH YEAR Quarterly intercultures E-Newsletter.

Photo Credit Title Photo: TBD

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