Hello and happy end of February everybody! This month's blog post is following in last month's tradition, sharing some love for another article we have written over the past year. This one was written a few months back for the American Association of Foreign Service Workers (AAFSW) in order to talk about getting the most out of overseas life as a single person. Please enjoy, let us know what you think, and we hope to see you at FIGT 2018!
For the Single World Traveler: How to Take Care of Yourself as a Nomadic Family of One
Foreign Service is an adventure for the single person that includes many rewards and challenges. What better way to see the world than have your job pay for you to do so? You are assigned to Europe, how about scheduling a visit to Octoberfest in Munich on a $100 plane ticket? Are you stuck in Asia for three years? How about going scuba diving in South Korea or seeing the Great Wall of China; of course! There are many exciting opportunities available to you around the globe, so much so, that sometimes it is hard to imagine the limitations when the only person you need to plan for is you.
Problems in Single Foreign Service Life
However, there can be some unique challenges presented to the person who chooses to venture abroad as a nomadic family of one. The number one struggle for Foreign Service members living overseas is isolation. Even though you move overseas with a team of people, attached to an embassy, and maybe even live on a compound, it is easy to slip into feeling disconnected or out of place. When we board the plane for our next mission, we leave our family, friends, and cultural comforts behind, so it makes sense to not feel quite right and to struggle to some extent with adjusting to overseas living. However, little things can add up to big trouble quickly, leading to a cycle of loneliness and depression.
Taking Care of Ourselves
There are steps we can take to prevent problems and live healthily overseas, even if we have been on many tours before. The first step in taking care of ourselves is understanding how necessary it is: you are your number one priority. This is not meant to sound fluffy or flowery, but it is meant to get your attention: You are important and you are worth the time and effort it takes to maintain your well-being. If you do not take care of you first, everything else suffers like a ripple effect when you put your finger into the water. For example, if you are a person who needs eight hours of sleep per night, but you ignore that requirement over a period of time, you will likely exhibit a poorer mood, you won’t spend as much time with friends, and your overall performance at work will be lower.
With that said, there are a number of small steps we care take to help ensure our well-being at post. What we are trying to achieve is a balance between our physical, mental, and social health. What I mean by this is that it is important for us as expats to safe guard our bodies, our minds, and our relationships with others in order to preserve and protect our well-being.
To Protect Your Physical Health
Our bodies provide the basic structure from which we are able to engage in our daily lives. One way to think of our physical health is to picture it as the foundation upon which we build all of our human experiences, or our metaphorical house, if you will. Medical and psychological studies continually substantiate the link between physical and emotional health. As the body is neglected or endures stress or even trauma, your physical and mental health are affected. Vice-versa, your body will respond when you experience continuous stress. In other words, how we take care of our bodies impacts every other area of our daily lives. Here are some ideas to help you fortify this foundation:
Exercise. Remember to regularly get up, get out, and move. Regular physical activity is essential for your body’s ability to maintain a healthy weight, muscle tone, and joint health. Check in with a physician if you are not sure how to tailor an activity plan to your individual needs, but yoga is usually a good starting point. Yoga is great because it is adaptable to many fitness levels and needs, as well as helping with stress mentally, which then takes care of both your body and your mind!
Eat healthy foods at least 80% of the time. Why 80%? Because we believe that healthy living involves fun and flexibility to maintain it for a lifetime. For most people, this means indulging in occasional treats like cake, ice cream, cheese burgers, and bacon.
Get a full night’s rest every single night. Make sleep a priority, and your body will thank you for it.
To Protect Your Mental Health
Our mental health, meaning our emotional well-being (or how we feel day to day) is extremely important because it provides the lens through which we see all of our experiences. If our physical health is the foundation of our experiences, then our mental health is the walls and the windows through which we can see and create everything in our house. We can protect our mental health in the following ways:
Take time for yourself. Seriously, spending time on you and for you, even if it is only 5 or 10 minutes per day. This can be tremendously helpful in feeling good in your own skin. Sometimes people will combine this with physical activity, like the yoga suggested above, and get the combined benefit of mind and body wellness. Prominent psychiatrist and trauma researcher, Bessel van der Kolk discusses these effects at length in his aptly titled book, ‘The Body Keeps the Score.’ So though we may know the link intuitively, the science strongly supports the interplay of body and mental/emotional well-being and the importance of taking the time to take care of ourselves.
Do something you enjoy every day to relax and unwind. Take a walk, have a cup of coffee by the window, read a book, watch that TV show, or run that bubble bath. Slowly letting go of stress every day is not only enjoyable, but it prevents it from adding up, and from creating larger problems in the future.
Practice self-compassion and let things go. Take the time to evaluate what really needs your time and effort and let go of what does not. Be kind to yourself, and remember how important you are in your own life.
To Protect Your Social Health
Our social health is our ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships with other people. It is important for Foreign Service members especially, because we move frequently so this area tends to get left behind almost out of necessity. However, it is these relationships in our lives that form the glue which holds our house together over time. We can have good physical and mental health and survive just fine, but it is the meaningful connections that we have with others, and the support that we gain from them, that help us really ride through the storms we face in Foreign Service life. Fortunately for us, navigating this area of our health has gotten easier in recent years thanks largely to developments in technology. Here are some ways to help you bolster your relationships with others:
Get out and meet people. Even when you don’t necessarily feel like it, it can be positive to leave your house, apartment, or flat, and go to events where there will be people you can connect with. You don’t need to go into situations thinking you will make forever friends, but maybe you will find people that will make life at post more fun and enjoyable for the years you are there. If social media is your thing, you can also find Foreign Service groups relevant to you, and join them so you can share and trade ideas, advice, and stories.
Maintain some sort of link back home. For some people, this will be social media, Skype, or Facetime services. Regardless of which method you choose, try and make a point of keeping up with it at least monthly, so that you and your loved ones feel connected despite the oceans between you.
Find an activity, hobby, or interest to share with others. Everyone has something they are interested in, and most of these activities can be done with other people. Some people play musical instruments, some people craft, some people build model replicas, and some people enjoy fitness activities. Whatever it is you enjoy, reach out and find others like you, and schedule times to do those things together.
The Healthy Nomadic Family of One
No matter where in the world you find yourself, remember that you can find something good to gain from the experience. Take care of yourself and be an advocate for yourself and your needs. If you find that you are continuously struggling with feeling lonely, out of place, or just cannot break out of the rut you are in, please reach out to your medical office for assistance or referral information. We at Therapy Solutions Abroad are always here to serve you, and would be happy to help you get the most out of your Foreign Service experience. Please visit our website at www.therapysolutionsabroad.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter, or follow our blog on our website. Until next time, take care!
Drs. Sanness and Nelson