Tag Archives: Stress management

7 Most Common Thinking Errors Expatriates Make

I am going to focus mainly on people moving abroad or expatriates going back home but the theory applies to anybody experiencing  emotional stress when moving to unknown environments.

During  big life changes, we experience stress, overload, or threat and often lose control of our emotions and make “thinking errors” or distortions about the reality. Our thinking process starts by interpretation and processing events that leads to our emotional and behavioural responses. Since a wrong thinking leads to a wrong behavior it is important to be aware of our thinking.

Many people heard about “culture shock” but most of the new expatriates are not aware of what that process means to them until they are really confronted to a succession of emotional ups and downs. Same with the grieving process, also called “reverse culture shock” that most expat families experience when they return to their home country.  In both cases our states of mind impact our well-being. Here a great video that explain the “repat grief “.

Professor Aaron T. Beck, first described the theory behind “thinking errors” or “cognitive distortions”  that  our brain make under stress that impair our judgement of a situation leading to poor decision-making, irrational behaviors or depression.

Here the 7 most common “thinking errors”,  or “cognitive distortions”, expatriates make when experiencing culture shock or reverse culture shock

1. Filtering-failure to consider a neutral, or balanced, point of view

Evidence that supports your bias is selected, favored, or weighted more heavily than evidence contrary to your bias. We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For example you may conclude that everything was better before you moved abroad and you are constantly whining about your new life: the food is bad,  traffic is terrible, people are rude etc. You are so focused on the negative that it is hard for you to meet new people or learn about your new culture thinking your expat life is like being in jail.

2. Polarized Thinking –evaluating experiences on the basis of extremes

In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” It implies that something can only be one or the other, but not both. Consider the image on the left, an optical illusion, demonstrating the limitation of our visual perception system:  we can only see either the old lady or the young woman at any one time but not both. Taking sides polarizes opinions and hardens attitudes, creating conflict and separation between different cultures. So be careful if you are abroad and embarked in a political or religious debate,  people passionate at those topics typically have strong opinions about what is right or wrong and you may jeopardize good business deals by giving a polarized opinion, so be subtle.

3.Jumping to conclusions

The Ladder of Inference describes this type of  thinking process starting from our perception and interpretation of a fact to a decision or action (see right).

It is very easy to get into trouble when we don’t know the social rules and etiquette of a new culture and filter other people attitudes according to our own cultural rules. For example we might think that a certain group of people are not sincere because they don’t look straight in  the eyes when talking, while it is interpreted as rude by many Asian cultures.

For example :

  1. Fact :Julie is late at the meeting
  2. Interpretation: Julie does not care about this important meeting
  3. Assumption : Julie  is French and I know two other French people who are often late too
  4. Conclusion : French cannot be trusted

It is interesting to note that time has not the same value in different cultures, Latin cultures like the French see time as elastic, being 15 minutes late to a meeting is not considered impolite or showing lack of interest, while in North American, time is money and you are supposed to arrive just on time at meetings.

4. Overgeneralization.

In this cognitive distortion, we come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen over and over again. For example we can have our wallet stolen and conclude that the all country is unsafe while in reality this event could have happen anywhere.

5. Blaming.

We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions. For example a frustrated accompanying spouse may feel resentful towards the working partner because she thinks she made all the efforts having left behind, friends, family and often a  rewarding career and gain nothing in return but struggles.

6. Shoulds.

We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules.  When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and resentment. For example “My colleagues should never speak their own language when I am meeting with them, that is really rude “

7. Always Being Right.

We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” In companies where there is a tendency to take all decisions at the Headquarters (ethnocentric culture), this attitude could encourage expatriate executives to patronize their local teams instead of favoring a dialogue and generating new ideas

If you are experiencing  those kind of  struggles, it won’t help if I tell you that almost all expatriates have been in your shoes, but talking to a professional coach, may make your life easier in only few sessions. Talk to me and check how I can help you.

Related articles:

Giving is Growing !

‘We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.’ Sir Winston Churchill

Being altruistic benefits the person being helped but has also many benefits for the person who is giving.  According to Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, evidence shows that helping others is beneficial for your own mental health and well-being.

It can:

Mental Health Awareness Ribbon

May Is Mental Health Awareness Month

• reduce stress
• improve emotional wellbeing
• benefit physical health
• bring a sense of belonging and reduce isolation
• help us live longer
• get rid of negative feelings

Good deeds don’t need to take a lot of time or even cost money. Small changes can make a big difference. The Foundation organize every year a “Mental Health Awareness Week”. This year it runs from May 21 – May 27, 2012 and its asking its Facebook fans to get involved by carrying out acts of kindness for strangers and posting on their —> Facebook Page 

For more information about how helping others can be beneficial for your mental health, read  Doing Good? report  (free download)

Incidentally, I am currently participating  with Karleen Harp and Patty Farmer as a team in a social event on Facebook called “Marvelous May” and organized by Keri Francek Jaehnig at Idea Girl Media. This is also a “giving event”.

The idea is to provide support to grow individuals, small businesses and non-profit organizations by trading knowledge and time for a world of wisdom: Check our Facebook page   “The World Of Help” 

Our mission is to help the community members connecting the dots between specific problems they have and experts who have the answers. Our Facebook page and Twitter keep people updated with ideas and tips.

Our Vision : We empower people by giving them the platform to trade their ideas and time for feedbacks and word of mouth promotion of blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter , Linkedin and all social networks

Happy Giving !

Stress Management: Three Simple Strategies to Avoid Burnout

Sleeping when studying - Nakhon Sawan, Thailand

Image via Wikipedia

Burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest. A lot of people make the confusion between burnout and other mental health problems such as depression. Burnout is not considered as a mental illness by the DSM IV, but rather “A state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.” – Ayala Pines & Elliott Aronson

The origin of a burnout varies depending on people but it is usually the results of high demanding work environment combined with a high performer who is working too hard to meet expectations (self-imposed expectations or from the job requirements). The symptoms are extreme fatigue, lack of energy, exhaustion then people become disinterested by their jobs, they become aggressive or cynical and blame others for disillusionment with their work.

In this economy with layoffs all around us employees are scared to show weakness and are afraid to tell when they are overloaded with work or sick..  Being overloaded brings stress and it can make you more prone to catch a cold or flu then if you don’t take enough rest by going to work no matter what, you will  get more stress as you cannot function properly. In addition, with today’s highly wired working environment, people are constantly bombarded with information and demanding requests from a global organization where, like Queen Victoria  said about the British empire, ” the sun never sets.”.

Burnout is not only the privilege of global workers it happens also to those who receive more than 100 emails per day, work on Sundays until 1am or the jet-lagged travelers abusing the “red-eye” flight from San Diego to New York. It can happen to the so-called “Blackberry Moms” who are aiming high to prove the world that they can do everything at home and at work. Your kids too are at risk with high expectation from their parents, pressure of exams and peer pressure.



Make sure your needs are met first before your help others.

Identify your natural working style and preferences as well as things you don’t like and check the gap with what you want to project at work. The higher the difference between what you really are and what you want to show to others the higher chance to get a burnout. Consider working with a personal coach to take a psychometric test to identify your profile.


Just say no in a very calm tone, do not give too detailed excuses. If you are afraid to lose a relationship or a job because you say no, then it is time to think to either drop your friend or change career that is a better fit to your profile or if you have been recently laid off it might be time to look for jobs with less stress. Otherwise try to explain to your boss with facts that you can do only certain amount of work and offer options : delegate, change priorities, use a different system, use technology etc.


Eat Well  (plan your meals one week in advance and shop accordingly, do online shopping for groceries to save time, increase your intake of fruits and vegetable, use apples rather than highly refined junk food. Do not skip breakfast.

Exercise: no time ? try to avoid using your car whenever possible, just 30 minutes per day of walking or using stairs is already beneficial for your health and your mood.

Sleep Enough, know what is the right number of hours for you maybe between 6 and 8 and try to go to bed before 11pm, the quality of the sleep is better. Use meditation or other kind of stress-relief techniques like essential oils, yoga, healing/new age music…Actually you can download free podcasts on guided meditations on iTunes.

Since burnout starts by physical and emotional exhaustion those 3 simple tips will help you stay on the safe side but do not hesitate to check with your doctor if you experiment intense fatigue, feeling down or loosing appetite and interest in life, it could be depression that needs to be treated.

BE WELL and don’t forget to have fun

Related articles: How to Overcome Career Burnout (money.usnews.com)

Resilience During Disasters: Are Expats Better Prepared ?

In one of my previous posts, “Are expat more resilient ?” , I talk about the process of building physical and mental strengths after being exposed to various stressful events, several culture shocks and overall how being an expat can actually boost your resilience.

Regarding “culture shock” I like the story of Jane a British expat woman who recall her experience of “Culture Shock In America” The type of issues she went through might be seen as futile for non-expats, but this is the kind of frustrations you have to deal as a new comer that is adding to the stress of moving.

I had similar experiences and shared them in my previous post as “ Tips For New Expats Moving To America”

Sunday August 28, I tested once again my resistance to stress during a natural disaster, this time hurricane Irene came to our town.

We moved to our new house in New Jersey in July 2011 in the middle of a heat wave with temperature peaks at about 100 F (38C).

Four weeks later, we had quite busy and stressful days unpacking 650 cartons coming from Belgium our previous location. My husband and I moved 12 times in 20 years back and forth, Europe, Japan, America and it was move #5 for my ten year old son.

I experienced also some kind of culture shock but quite mild and overall I am  still in the “honey moon” phase. I love our neighborhood, I met couple of new friends, my son too and we met his teachers who are really nice.

We spent our Saturday talking with an eye watching the weather channel. We live less than 60 Km west from NYC and some parts of Manhattan have been evacuated because of flooding risks.

We were very calm, well prepared in case of power outages with plenty of bottles of water, canned food, flash lights, Cell phone charged and we have our bath tubs full of water.

Our house is unlikely to experience flooding as we are on the top of a small hill, but we didn’t know about the strength of the wind when we went to bed Saturday night.

Hopefully we only have a power outage that started 28 hours ago and that is still not resolved but no damage and everybody I know did not get hurt or had property damage.

I don’ t know if we have bad luck or have more probabilities to encounter dangerous and potentially deadly situations, but I could make a movie about our expat life with the title :

” A Terrorist Attack, a Tsunami and a Hurricane Did Not Kill Us but Made Us Stronger”

From each disaster we always learned something new that we could use later like the 2003 NYC blackout prepared us for Irene and power outage.

Here few events that happened during our 20 years of expat life.

I gave birth to my son in NYC 12 days after 9/11. In Manhattan we had “fun” in August 2003 with a 36 hours blackout with no water and 100 F heat: no AC, no  water (in case of power outages the water stops being pumped with electric pumps in buildings), we also had to climb the 8 floors of stairs  with a 2 year old!

We were in the middle of the December 2004 Tsunami while on vacation on a small island in the Indian Ocean.

We experienced many earthquakes in Tokyo which was part of our life in Japan but hopefully we were not there for the big one last March 2011 , we worried a lot as many of our friends lives in Japan. We got an earthquake 5.8 from Virginia last week but absolutely not scary for us.

Now the biggest hurricane on the East Coast for 30 years


No wonder why I think expats are more resilient !

3 Steps To Reduce Relocation Stress

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No matter how long you have been  living abroad or how many times you moved, you can expect a lot of stress each time you are heading to a new destination even in your own country.

How you respond to stress depends on your past experiences and  on your immediate  perception of  threat or danger. Stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol speed the heart rate, slow digestion, shunt blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other body functions.

Is it  possible to reduce the relocation stress by planning ahead and learning what to expect when you arrive in your new “home”. Learn to relax with various stress management techniques. You can make lifestyle changes in order to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place.

1-Take good care of your health :

  • Eat well,  Even when you are in transition, increase your intake of fruits and vegetable, use apples rather than highly refined junk food. Do not skip breakfast. Exercise: no time ? try to avoid using your car whenever possible, just 30 minutes per day of walking or using stairs is already beneficial for your health.
  • Sleep Enough, know what is the right number of hours you need usually between  6 and 8 hours and try to go to bed before 11pm, the quality of the sleep is better.
  • Use  stress-relief techniques : I share what works for me: breathing, meditation, essential oils, yoga, healing and new age music, hot shower a short 20 minute nap after lunch.

2-Handling the packing and unpacking softly: Before each move I always say to myself that I have to sort the junk, donate to charity or shred tons of old papers and each time I cannot choose what to keep and what to put in the garbage can. As a result, we have more and more junk stuff and unopened boxes.  When we moved from Tokyo to  Atlanta we hired Kim Cossette, a Certified Professional Organizer owner  at  http://theorganizedapproach.com/ . The work she did with her team really helped relieved a lot of stress.  We used her talent for packing from Atlanta to Brussels and she helped me sort my stuff as a result “less junk more funk” . I am not aware of any professional organizers in Europe, but try to enroll your best friends to help sorting things as soon as you know you will leave.

3-School and house hunting: These two are really difficult, especially if you are a serial expat.

For small children before primary schools it is not a real problem you can check locally with other moms.  From grade one it is challenging to keep consistency with the language and teaching method. In the US and in France, you cannot put your kids in a public  school if you don’t live in the school district. For private international schools you need to send application very early, usually March or April. Send to more than one. So my recommendation is to  look for the school first and select the house after. You can ask questions to people who are living there  by searching the internet for various support groups. For the house check the distance and traffic jam during weekdays for the trips to the school and to work.

I will add a last tip: be gentle on yourself,  expect  to have a messy house for at least 6 months to one year so making friends is your priority #1

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