My wife was 39 weeks pregnant would give birth literally any day. She had preceded me to a larger city where the medical care was good; I finished my last day of teaching on Saturday, was going to pack on Sunday, and then drive with my other kids to meet her on Monday. Until the news and rumors began swirling that our city could experience “hard lockdown” due to a COVID outbreak. The risk was not just that I’d be unable to leave our city—leaving my wife to give birth by herself hundreds of miles away—but that, if we didn’t leave our gated community quickly enough, we could get locked into our community and be unable to leave. What would happen was unclear, but the risk of being separated from my wife right before birth was too great to take, so we decided to leave immediately.
The next hours were a whirlwind as I rushed to pack up everything my family needed for the next month and get out of our community before the dreaded quarantine walls went up. I still don’t know how I got everything packed as fast as I did, but I was full of adrenaline as I literally ran between our house and car to pack it up. That adrenaline gave me superhuman powers: I was alert, clear-minded, focused, and able to move fast. We got packed up, left, drove through the night, and I arrived at my wife’s location a bit after midnight. While it took a while to fall asleep, I slept in the next morning and, days later, welcomed our new baby into our family.
That story illustrates exactly exactly what our bodies were designed to do when facing a stress or danger: jump into action, provide clarity of thought, focus our activities, enable use to endure beyond what is normal…and then, when the stressor or danger passes, relax, sleep, and reset to a normal “life isn’t threatened” state of being. This pattern—stress followed by rest—is crucial to mental and emotional health.
A few weeks ago, I asked readers in The Prepared Expat’s social media groups what challenges they currently faced, and a repeated answer was maintaining mental and emotional health as an expat. That’s understandable; in addition to the stresses of normal life that everyone faces, expats face the extra stresses of cross-cultural living, navigating different bureaucracies, language barriers, extra educational challenges, and more—and all without the support that having family nearby provides. An expat life is filled with unusual blessings, but also unusual stresses—and so we have to know how to deal with it.
Today’s tip isn’t meant to replace the advice and counsel of a qualified mental health professional—if you’re not in a healthy spot, do seek out qualified help—but rather to share with you practices that I’ve found critical to maintaining my own emotional and mental health as an expat.
Today’s tip: Create rhythms of rest to relieve stress.
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Stress alone isn’t the problem
Despite the common belief that stress is inherently bad for us, researchers have come to take a more nuanced view. The consensus is that short, temporary bursts of stress—called acute stress—actually helps us if we approach hit rightly. Stress triggers our bodies to produce hormones that supercharge our abilities, help us focus, give us extra energy, enable unusual endurance, and produce strength to do things we couldn’t normally do. Think of the classic stories of mothers lifting cars to rescue their baby children. That’s acute stress and it’s actually good because of what it enables you to do.
However, when we face constantly, unending stress that doesn’t let up—called chronic stress—this is where troubles come in. Acute stress puts it “on edge” and readies the fight or flight instinct, but when you face unending, chronic stress, your body adjusts to these high levels of hormones so that, when another stressor comes, you need even more hormones to give your body the same jolt. The result is a body that is pumping out more and more hormones and getting less and less of an effect yet without the stressors dissipating. If you continue in this state, you will not only harm your mental and emotional health, but can permanently damage your physical health and shorten your lifespan. If you care to know more about the horrendous effects of stress on your body, check out Dr. Petter Attia’s podcast on stress (it’s quite frightening, given how many people are stressed!)
The key to maintaining your mental and emotional health is ensuring that acute stress doesn’t turn into chronic stress. While there are many strategies for dealing with stress, I’ve found nothing more useful than building patterns of rest into my life.
Rest: the antidote to chronic stress
What resets the pattern of chronic stress is rest—and I don’t just mean sufficient quantities of quality sleep, though that’s foundational1—but a break from the stressors that you are experiencing, giving your mind and body the space and time it needs to decompress, to be refresh, to rejuvenate, to restore, to unwind, to be renewed. With rest sufficient to reset your body’s hormonal levels, you can re-engage life and its stressors without suffering long-term consequences. Your rest ensure that stress was temporary (and thus acute) rather than ongoing (and thus chronic).
Everyone’s life situation, responsibilities, and family demands are different and so everyone’s habits of rest will differ, but what I share below is what has worked for me. If you don’t have rhythms of rest in your life, I encourage you to take the below as a kind of template, practice it, and tweak it as you learn about what patterns of rest you need in your life.
A template of rest
Here are my “rhythms of rest” that I practice and recommend to you:
- Each day: I spend 20-30 minutes in prayer & meditation in the morning and I spend 20-30 minutes in the evening doing something I enjoy that isn’t work or an errand
- Each week: I rest from work and errands for 24 hours, what many religions (including my own) call a “Sabbath”
- Each month: I take a daylong “personal day” out of the house, by myself
- Each quarter: I take a two-night “personal retreat” away from my home. Two quarterly retreats are by myself, one is with my just wife, (the fourth is combined with my yearly vacation)
- Each year: My family takes a two-week vacation, ideally outside of our host country
A couple notes on this pattern so that you can understand how it works but then also adapt it to your life.
First, longer times replace shorter times. So, a two-week vacation isn’t followed by a quarterly retreated followed by a monthly personal day; instead, the vacation takes the place of that’s quarters personal retreat and that month’s personal day.
Second, don’t shortchange the time. Longer is better, but there’s a huge mental difference between 5 minutes of meditation and 30 minutes, between a 24-hour Sabbath and a 12 hour one, between a one-night retreat and two-night retreat, and between a one-week vacation and a two-week vacation. Give yourself enough time to be unhurried so your brain and body can fully relax without worrying about what comes next. In particular, I’ve found that it takes 2-3 days of vacation for me to “unwind” and in the last 2-3 days of vacation, my mind is starting to gear up for work. By taking a 2-week vacation, then, I ensure there’s one week in the middle where I can just relax.
Third, getting out of your host country for vacation may sound odd, but it’s incredibly valuable to do. The reason for this is not because the other country will be easier to live in—it may be harder—but because you need distance from your stressors. The psychologist and counselor authors of Ethnicity and Family Therapy write:
Typically we tolerate differences when we are not under stress. In fact, we find them appealing. However, when stress is added to a system, our tolerance for difference diminishes. We become frustrated if we are not understood in ways that fit our wishes and expectations.
Getting into a different country changes differences-that-stress-you into differences-that-delight you. It may cost more, but I encourage you to plan to vacation in a different country than where you live. The distance you create from your stressors will enable you to rest.
Ensuring the time is restful
During all of these times, I seek as much as possible to only do things that are restorative, reflective, revitalizing, refreshing, and renewing. The goal of these times is not recreation (having fun or being entertained) but, rather, re-creation—that is, being refreshed and restored so that you can re-enter your life “anew” and healthy.
You’ll need to figure out what those refreshing, renewing, and recreative activities are for you. For me, making these times restful means I have to intentionally avoid some things while pursuing others:
- I don’t check social media. If this would be hard for you to do, consider that all the more why you need to do it. Post that you’re taking a break for however long, and then ignore it. Delete it off your phone if you’ll be tempted to check it. (For my morning/evening time, I set up Focus Modes on my phone that show much just what I want to see during those times).
- I don’t read the news in any form. Not because I don’t enjoy it—I do, perhaps too much—but because it’s potentially stressing and it’s decidedly not restorative or relaxing.
- I don’t do work, housework, or “errands.” It’s a time to rest, not a time to check things off my list or do work, even if it’s work that I enjoy. This is a change I’ve made this year; I used to work on things in the evening that I enjoy, but I now intentionally stop work, even enjoyable work, to do things that I enjoy that are not work-related. It’s helped me be healthier each day.
- I don’t watch movies or TV…much. I love movies, but I find that I’m mentally tired after them, not restored, so during my times of rest, I don’t watch things (unless it’s a longer retreat/vacation, and then in limited amounts)
- I barely check email. During my weekly Sabbath, I don’t check email at all. On my monthly “personal day,” quarterly retreats, or vacations, I check it no more than once a day. Of emails I receive, 75% go unanswered and can wait; 20% gets the answer of “I’m on vacation and will respond as soon as I can” and 5% I deal with during that one-window
- Sleep. Go to bed when you’re tired, sleep without an alarm clock and get up only when you feel refreshed. Allow yourself to nap. Physical sleep is crucial for mental rest.2
- A restful environment. For me, this means being close to nature, whether that’s just pulling back the curtains for my morning meditation, going on a hike during a monthly personal day, or going to a beach on vacation. It’s not just me: an increasing body of research shows the immense relaxation benefits of getting into nature. Consider what Dr. Greg Wells relays in The Ripple Effect:
- “Simply looking at a picture of nature can lower blood pressure, stress, and mental fatigue…research has shown that images containing water are more restorative than those without” (p. 137).
- “Being exposed to plants decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, decreases resting heart rate, and decreases blood pressure” (p. 138).
- “[W]alking in nature improves measures of revitalization, self-esteem, energy, and pleasure and decreases frustration, worry, confusion, depression, tension, and tiredness far more than light activity indoors does” (p. 139).
- A change in environment. Physically removing yourself from stressors and your normal environment helps you get perspective on your daily life. How far you can go from your normal life differs with how long your rest is; I go to a quiet place in my house to meditate in the morning but we go a long way away for vacation.
- Good food. My first few retreats I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted and ended up eating junk food that made my body feel worse. Now I intentionally eat foods that I love but which are also good for my body and I end up feeling more refreshed.
- Re-creational, refreshing activities. For introverted me, this means reading books, both fiction and nonfiction (on longer trips, I like to start with fiction books that don’t require thinking and later transition to “thinking” books on topics important to me). For you, it may be something else—but make sure the goal is restoration, not just “fun.”
- Reflective activities, especially on retreats and vacations. How you reflect differs by each person, but even though I don’t journal daily, I journal tons during my personal days, retreats, and vacations. I’ve found that journaling is one of the best ways for me to “clear my head” of stressors and things that are unsettled and make critical decisions about them. As much as I practice GTD for my day-to-day and week-to-week life, I find retreats are crucial times for processing bigger picture things in my brain.
- Evaluate your life. This is a good time to set or review goals, to make a life plan, to think through what habits you want in your life, and more. Sometimes you need a break from the busyness of living your life to evaluate whether or not the life you’re living is the life you want to be living.3
Rest takes intentionality
The above patterns of rest don’t happen by accident; you have to plan them into your schedule or else they won’t happen. If you’re married, you have to plan how both you and your spouse can get these patterns of rest. If you have kids, you have to plan how they, too, can have rhythms of rest that they need. Put them on the calendar and plan your life around them.
Then, you have to protect them—people and tasks will constantly pop up that would disrupt your rest and you need to protect that time. Sure, you can give yourself permission to reschedule a personal day from one day to another when something pops up, just don’t cancel it—and yet I’ve found that when I tell people “no” or speak of a prior engagement, others tend to adjust their plans. When someone asks me to do something on my Sabbath rest day, I just tell them I’ll do it on Monday and it’s amazing how many “urgent” tasks can actually wait one more day.
You also have to plan these rhythms of rest into your finances; though none of these activities have to be extravagant, the longer times away from home will cost money. I know that money is tight for many people, but let me encourage you to specifically set aside money for these times of rest. First, because in financial terms, preventing a mental health problem, depression, or burnout is far cheaper than fixing one. Counselors typically charge $100+ an hour and take a few weeks to work through issues; spending $300 on a retreat is cheap in comparison, and that’s ignoring the non-financial costs of mental stress. Second, because you’ll find that you’re more productive, creative, and make more money after your time of rest. You’re investing money now to make more money. The payoff is so great that, if/when I hire employees, I will pay for them to go on personal retreats.
If and time finances really are tight—I’m thinking single Moms or people working multiple jobs to make ends meet—then I encourage you to sacrifice longer breaks rather than shorter breaks. Most people save and scrimp so they can go on a nice vacation once a year, yet it’s better for your mental health to have frequent, smaller, breaks rather than an infrequent long one. If all you do is protect 30 minutes a day for your mental health, you’ll be in a healthier spot than someone who sacrifices that so they can have a vacation once a year.
I intended this initially to be a short tip and post about resting; it’s obviously become much more than that, but I trust this has been helpful. While much more could be said—this isn’t the last time I’ll cover mental and emotional health at The Prepared Expat—I hope this overview of stress, the power of rest, and the template of rest can help you survive and thrive as an expat.
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1. The book Why We Sleep by Dr. Matthew Walker, which I’m currently reading, is rocking my world. Sleep is one of the most important things you can do to be physically healthy, emotionally resilient, live long, and prevent dementia, and yet the vast majority of people don’t get enough quantity or quality of sleep. I encourage you to read Dr. Walker’s book.
2. I’ve learned to allow myself to pay for a nice hotel as a result; I previously would find the cheapest hotel for my personal retreat, but after one experience of swatting mosquitoes all night long, I decided it was worth paying more to ensure good rest. If sleep is a challenge for you, or if you normally get less than 8 hours of sleep, I encourage you to read Why We Sleep by Dr. Matthew Walker.
3. Books that I would HIGHLY recommend to read and think through during your retreat and vacation are: Goals by Brian Tracy, Living Forward by Michael Hyatt, and Atomic Habits by James Clear.
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