Dear Personal and Confidential:
We’re not moving to another country until this summer, about four months from now, but I’m already a nervous wreck. I lie awake at night with my head full of all the things I still have to do (sell our car, enroll the kids in their new school, arrange transportation for our dog, get rid of extra stuff so our shipment isn’t overweight … don’t get me started!), as well as everything that might go wrong. I know we’ll get through this move one way or another, because we’ve done it before, so why can’t I just relax and actually enjoy my last few months in this country?
— Stressed-Out Spouse
I empathize very much with your situation, because the same thing happens to me before a move. (I even needed dental work after our last move, because I was grinding my teeth at night without knowing it.) The pre-move stress you’re describing is very normal. You’re facing a task that will involve huge amounts of work on both sides of the airplane ride, along with an enormous psychological adjustment.
It’s not surprising that you feel anxious even though you’ve done it all before. Precisely because you’ve done it all before, you know how difficult it is and how many unexpected things can go wrong.
You also know, when you stop to think about it, that you can’t anticipate and avoid every problem, even if you stay up all night. At this point, it’s even more important to work on keeping yourself and your family psychologically strong so you can meet the inevitable challenges ahead.
So what can you do? A first step is to get this to-do list that is bothering you under control. If you haven’t done so already, make a list of all the tasks hanging over your head. Now go through them with a critical eye. Are they all truly necessary? Can you simplify any of them?
How about getting help from others? Are you trying to do too much yourself? Remember that single officers have to take care of all these details themselves, so the officer in your life can and should handle many of them too. I recommend sitting down together (in a comfortable, non-rushed setting, and with a positive attitude) to go over the list you’ve made. Your spouse might see additional opportunities to cross off or simplify moving tasks (although you may not agree, as I didn’t when my husband wanted to eliminate our farewell party!).
Can you delegate some tasks to friends, colleagues, or even your kids? For instance, a group of friends may be willing to pitch in on a Saturday to de-junk your household and even cart the extra stuff away (or help you sell it).
Once you’ve pared the work down to the most important jobs and delegated them wherever possible, you’ll still probably be left with a long list of things to do yourself. Now, get out your calendar and figure out when these tasks have to be done. Sketch out a monthly or weekly schedule for yourself. (If it still seems overwhelming, go back through the eliminating-streamlining-delegating process again until you reach a manageable level. You may just have to let some things go; someone else may be able to sell your car after you leave, for instance, or you’ll just have to bite the bullet and pay for some excess weight in your shipment, if it comes to that.)
Scheduling your tasks helps you get the work done without letting it pile up into an unmanageable mess at the last minute, of course. But it also has psychological advantages. If your tasks are clearly laid out, they won’t feel so much like a huge, undefined cloud of work hanging over your head. And second, if you know you have something scheduled for next month (the dog’s paperwork, for instance), you can put it out of your mind during this month. If you do start worrying about something, stop and remind yourself that it’s been scheduled and you’ll take care of it when the time comes.
So now that you’ve gotten your workload under some degree of control, let’s turn to the “transition shock” of an international transfer. A move means leaving a familiar environment behind, perhaps forever, and facing the challenge of getting established somewhere else. Although we may fill our heads with air freight lists and projects we need to finish at the office, I think that this is the true source of much of our stress.
Is it possible to reduce this kind of anxiety? We certainly can’t eliminate the pain of saying goodbye to friends or delegate our cross-cultural transitions to anyone else. But I think there are various things we can do to make the process a bit easier. Consider the following:
- Work on that sleep problem. It can turn into a vicious cycle: after worrying all night, you’ll be tired the next day and feel less confident about handling the move, leading to more worry and sleeplessness. An ongoing sleep deficit can even be a factor in causing depression. If the usual measures against insomnia don’t work (avoiding caffeine and alcohol, keeping a regular schedule for bedtime and waking up, getting exercise and outdoor time during the day), or if your anxiety level is interfering with your daily activities, talk to your doctor or Embassy nurse for further recommendations.
- Keep up or increase activities that have helped you reduce stress in the past. This may be exercise, sports, listening to music, taking walks, meditating, massage, reading novels — whatever works for you.
- Practice living in the moment. This skill seems difficult for many Americans; our minds tend to race off into the future, reminding us where we are supposed to go next and what we still have to accomplish today. This tendency can have its benefits, but it can also prevent us from truly enjoying what we are doing right now. Many people use daily meditation to increase their “mindfulness.” An even simpler method is to consciously focus on what you’re enjoying right now — “What a beautiful view of the city” or “This is a terrific meal” — and gently turn away any unrelated thoughts, returning to the focus at hand.
- Take the time to savor what you like about your current post before you leave, or take advantage of opportunities you won’t have in the future. Travel to a nearby city, do things you “always meant to do.” Take a break from your moving tasks and enjoy your favorite places and pastimes again. Find out what your family members will miss the most, and enjoy those things together too.
- Think of ways to say a proper goodbye to your current post. Psychologists point to the importance of rituals at important turning points in our lives. What would help you and your family say farewell in a meaningful way? Taking photos of ordinary places for a memory album? Choosing a few stones to keep from your favorite beach or park? Going around to say goodbye to familiar people such as neighbors and shopkeepers? Hosting a simple open house (with potluck food on paper plates, and maybe something special for the kids to do) after packout, so your friends can all drop in and say farewell? (Consider stating a “farewell cards and photos only” policy, so you don’t have to find room for dozens of souvenirs in your suitcases.)
- Spend time with friends, but recognize that some of them may start pulling away. Whether consciously or unconsciously, some people may try to limit the pain of losing you by gradually withdrawing, or even acting unfriendly. Recognize that in a backwards sort of way, this is because they care about you, and try to understand (and help your children understand if this happens to them). Meanwhile, take advantage of your time with the close friends who continue to be there for you. Make plans to extend your friendship into the future if you can — with e-mail exchanges, regular phone calls, even possible visits — to reassure yourselves that although you’ll miss each other, your friendship isn’t over.
- List (or just think about) things you won’t miss about the place you’re leaving: a neighbor’s barking dog, an annoying colleague at work, a local cultural habit you never got used to.
- Find out about some positive aspects of your new post — cultural opportunities, natural beauty, tourist attractions — and look forward to enjoying them. Promise yourself and your family members some kind of reward for making it through the move, such as a special trip along the way or a new activity (such as learning to ride a horse or scuba dive). Make e-mail contact with people in the new place and try to get a head start on making new friends. Find out as much as you can about the new environment, so it doesn’t seem so much like a leap into the unknown.
- Finally, be sure to be there for your family. Carve out quiet times for conversation and relaxation together, so that you stay connected. A strong marriage and close parent-child relationships will make the moving process a lot easier on all of you.
If any readers have additional suggestions, I’d love to hear them and will publish them in an upcoming column.
Good luck with your move!
— Personal and Confidential
Longtime AAFSW member Patricia Linderman is co-author of The Expert Expatriate: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, with Melissa Hess, and co-editor of the AAFSW book Realities of Foreign Service Life, likewise with Ms. Hess. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Tales from a Small Planet.