Overcoming the Expatriate Stress of Mental Overload

As long as everything goes as planned, our intuitive mind does most of the work. It recognizes patterns we have encountered in the past and lets us adjust our behaviour accordingly. All without us having to put in much conscious effort.

Living overseas, however, means that we are constantly confronted with behaviour that simply doesn’t fit into the patterns we have learned throughout our past. And when that happens, our conscious, reflective mind needs to take over and make a decision about how to act in this particular situation.

In the past, you can imagine it like this: you are entering a new type of environment, where the area is just pure marshland. Your intuitive mind recognizes that this is a new environment which you haven’t encountered before, and so it sends a message to your consciousness that you need to be careful, pay close attention to this new environment, and make a decision about how to act.

As you can imagine, our forefathers thousands of years ago probably weren’t put into situations like this all too frequently. For the most part, they stayed in environments they understood well. Today, moving to a new country means that every single encounter with another person has the potential to bring about such new, unfamiliar experiences. Our reflective mind, however, isn’t naturally built to process massive loads of information like that.

Psychologists have described a condition where we get overwhelmed by new stimuli, and where we have to use our functions of self-control and decision-making to a point where we feel stressed. They call it ‘ego depletion’.

Ego-depletion overseas is a result of too many new experiences that don’t fit into our old experiences

Let’s have a look at a very simple example from my past. When I was studying at university in Indonesia, I had to constantly control myself not to show up too much and not too contribute too much to the discussion.

You see, in this case the problem is exactly the opposite of what you would expect. Usually, you have to change your behaviour in some way to better fit into the new environment. In this case, I had to suppress the behaviour that felt natural to me at that time.

If you are from a western country, this probably won’t surprise you. We emphasize contribution, which demonstrates that we are thinking for ourselves, and that we are showing initiative. People from many Asian cultures, however, will feel very differently about this. They will think that by showing up too much, first of all you are disrespecting the teacher. After all, he or she is the one with the wisdom, who is imparting his or her knowledge into you. Your role as the student is to listen carefully, take notes, and learn from the experience and knowledge of the teacher.

At that time, while I was really trying to appreciate the cultural view of the Indonesian people, it took me a tremendous amount of mental effort. After all, I had to suppress my natural behaviour of contributing actively to the learning-teaching environment for roughly two hours at a time over a period of two years. Self-control needs a lot of willpower, and depleting your willpower leads to stress.

Overcoming the expatriate stress of mental overload

The only real way how you can overcome the stress of mental overload is by making sure that your subconscious mind learns the patterns of the new environment. The more you have to consciously control yourself, make conscious decisions, and consciously adjust your behaviour, the more mental stress you will experience.

Therefore, you will need to reach a point where you have a good understanding of the different behaviour, and where you change your beliefs in a way that gives you the permission to adjust accordingly.

So for instance, at this point I needed to change my beliefs in a way that allows me to be less active in class, while still acting congruent to my beliefs. I needed to start learning to appreciate the value of the wisdom of the teacher, and the value of learning in this particular way.

For me personally, the point came where I realized that this type of learning has several beneficial points. First of all, it is based on the ancient tradition of storytelling. An older and wiser person shares his or her wisdom by sharing stories from the walks of life. Secondly, this storytelling combined with rote learning leads to much stronger memorization skills. Now, these skills aren’t exactly encouraged by western institutions, where the value is placed on critical thinking and initiative, but they have their own unique value.

Once I started appreciating this value, and understanding the reasons behind the type of teaching that was conducted in Asia, being less active in class starting feeling more natural to me, took me less self-control to do, and therefore I started feeling less stressed about the situation.

In other words, overcoming the stress of mental overload requires these steps from you:

  • recognizing that another type of behaviour exists
  • developing an understanding what the meaning behind this behaviour is
  • changing your beliefs in a way that supports the different behaviour
  • giving your intuitive mind the permission to learn the new behaviour and adapt to it
  • going through the pain and effort of changing your old habits

As you can imagine, this can be an extremely long and difficult process. That’s why, I would be keen to hear from you about your experiences in this regard. What do you do when you feel stressed overseas? Did your techniques help you? Are there any areas where you need help, or any stories you would like to share with us?


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