How do you manage your professional commitment abroad for a better world and your personal balance? Do you have difficulty to prioritize yourself?
If you want to protect yourself from cumulative stress it’s important to focus on your well-being. Here are 5 tips to safeguard your well-being. Apply these tips, and you’ll be able to thrive. All of these tips are based on my own experience as a former diplomat, neurosciences backed and are basic needs to nourish.
« I got it! » were my first words when I read the email confirming I obtained the job as a diplomat for the European Union in Nigeria. I felt so proud and excited about being part of this new challenge, contributing to free and fair elections in this country. I already traveled to several African countries for short missions. This time, it was about establishing a new life in this vibrant West African country.
From the moment I arrived until the end of my experience, I was 200% committed to my work, my personal and professional life had no boundaries as my colleagues had become friends and I had a hard time saying no to new work assignments and simply slowing down and taking quality time to recharge my batteries. I was in a frantic race during which I was disconnecting from myself little by little. As a result, I developed signs of chronic stress and ended the experience drained of a part of myself.
Adding together a strong commitment, working in a foreign country, intense working conditions, adapting to new work and cultural codes, and sometimes working in a risky region could lead to an explosive cocktail for your mental and physical health. How to manage this roller coaster of changes and emotions without impacting your health?
Most of the time, professionals are prepared to deal with the practical issues related to a change of country and the risks for their safety. Dealing with emotions and stress is often a neglected aspect. It then falls on the heavy shoulders of the colleague to invent or not a self-care routine.
Whatever your personal and professional environment, you are not entirely responsible for your stress. On the other hand, you have the power to act on yourself. Thriving for well-being starts within yourself!
1. Learn to prioritize yourself and define healthy boundaries in your professional and social life abroad.
I remember after my first few weeks in Nigeria I was dragging around heavy and sticky fatigue. My first source of stress was my inability to set limits and to say ‘yes’ to everything. It was an exciting experience, it fed my ego, but I was not listening to my needs.
Preserving your energy amid this busyness of your engagement abroad is essential. Even more, do not wait for your experience abroad to put your well-being first.
I used to be a real workaholic and perfectionist at work at Headquarters and in the field. I thought my commitment to human rights and peace was more important than my personal life! Looking back, I realize how much personal life I lost by not prioritizing my mental health over my work life. Passion and working for something bigger or making a difference in the field do not make you immune from burnout.
My advice to you is to set your boundaries at work and plan time to have some head space in the morning and decompression space in the evening and take regular breaks throughout your day. Don’t be afraid to ask to help at work when you feel overwhelmed. Learn to say « no » to additional responsibilities when you are too busy or stressed. Remember, your employer is nothing without a mentally healthy workforce.
Setting boundaries at work is one thing but the same rule applies to your social life while working and living in a foreign country. Camilla, an experienced Swedish diplomat expressed the importance of « making time for yourself, don’t be afraid to miss things as expatriate life is about socializing but important also to find time to rest and connect to yourself, listen to your own needs ». ¹
2. Cultivate mindfulness and remind yourself to stay present
In your professional adventure abroad, you have busy days in front of your computer, in meetings, or on field missions. During the day, are you more on automatic pilot or are you present to yourself and your body sensations and emotions?
Did you know that half of our day we are absent-minded? According to a Harvard study by two psychologists, Killingsworth and Gilbert a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. ²
Practicing mindfulness will help you to pay attention to the present moment with an open and curious mind. Neurosciences proved that a regular practice of mindfulness has a strong effect on our neuronal brain structures and plasticity. The more you practice the more you will be able to improve your focus and attention and reduce your mental ruminations and anxiety.
Amandine, an experienced gender and human rights expert working for the UN around the world made meditation one of her key non-negotiable practice for her well-being. She feels more grounded and resilient with her daily practice of yoga and meditation. ³
As with any practice to get results, regularity and discipline are required. Start with small steps. If you introduce a practice of 5 to 10 minutes in the morning or evening for 5 days you will already feel the benefits. It is best to be accompanied either during a course or with the help of an online application ⁴ that guides you in your meditations. At work, you can introduce a minute of meditation before starting a meeting in which you take the pulse of your sensations and emotions. Taking a step aside from your daily routine will help you to respond consciously to the challenges you face in your personal and professional life.
3. Introduce conscious breathing to reduce stress
Are you aware of your breathing or are you in apnea? Do you sometimes feel tensions in your throat or your stomach because of stress and anxiety? When there is a peak of stress, the most effective response is breathing. We tend to forget but breathing has been with us since our birth, it is our ally for our physical and mental health. Breathing is connecting with your emotions.
I would like to introduce you to a powerful breathing technique, its effectiveness has been proven by neurosciences. It is called the cardiac coherence breathing. ⁵
It is slow and conscious breathing that helps relax and balance your nervous system and reach a better emotional balance. Your breathing is coordinated with your heart rate. For good practice, your need to sit in a quiet space with your back straight in an open position to facilitate oxygenation. Breathe six times per minute. In practice, inhale for five seconds and exhale for five seconds each time for 5 minutes. Practice at least three times a day and when you feel stress increase to feel the benefits. You can use Respirelax + or Heart rate + applications to guide you in this conscious breathing.
Your life hygiene is also your mental hygiene and this dimension is too often forgotten. You get up in the morning, you take a shower, you brush your teeth, you get dressed, etc. Imagine cardiac coherence as your mental shower. Breathing consciously brings you to live in the present moment and calm your mind. Think about it! and get started!
4. Take good care of your body
« My body decided to take me out of this intense stress » these are the words of Anaïs, a former humanitarian who talks about her burnout in Pacify Your Mind podcast. ⁶ Our body is the guardian of our health and it is key to regularly listen to the signs of fatigue or stress. The body is the receptacle of our emotions. Our body needs movements. Practicing sports helps to release tension and improve our memory.
Which sport to choose? My advice is to choose an activity that animates you, that gives you joy, and to set a realistic goal and repeat your practice. If you are passionate about nature go for outdoor activity, a perfect opportunity to discover the hidden treasures of your new country home. If you lack motivation, don’t hesitate to ask a colleague or friend to accompany you in this effort.
Getting enough sleep is also a manner to take care of your body. Sleep is a vital need. If respected, sleep becomes restorative with better concentration and memorization and strengthening of your immune system. How many hours do you need to feel recharged?
I visited recently a diplomat friend based in Western Africa. She has a very busy agenda as an Ambassador. However, she sticks to her self-care habits: swimming early in the morning before going to the office; taking a nap after lunch. These habits help her to focus better at work, and recharge her mind and body.
5. Surround yourself with supportive colleagues
When posted abroad your need to start from scratch your social life, far away from your family and friends. Your colleagues are usually your first contacts even if you come along with your relatives. They are the ones to welcome and guide you in your first weeks in the country, sharing all the « dos and don’t ». They are precious allies for your well-being but with some key conditions: be connected with colleagues who keep you calm, make you happy, provide emotional support and help you with practical things.
Sometimes you will feel exhausted by your work and commitment in the field. Gabriel, an experienced humanitarian shared in one Pacify Your Mind episode how he is now regularly checking his mental health after his burnout ⁷. His main message: « Accept you will feel tired and vulnerable and reach for help from colleagues. You will do a better job if you ask for help. Do not wait too long to ask for help as your journey to feel good again takes longer ». It takes experience and acceptance of your own but sharing your mental health issues with close colleagues in confidence is a step towards your wellbeing.
I invite you to take care of your basic needs, sleep, food, body and mind connection, social connections as evoked in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ⁸, nourish them, and make them your solid base to blossom in your professional and personal life abroad.
How do you go about achieving wellbeing and balance in your assignment abroad? What are your main challenges? Try one or two tips that appeal you and try them out. If you like them add them to your daily routine. I would love to hear from you in the comments below!
- https://www.headspace.com/; https://www.tenpercent.com; https://www.wakingup.com