Stress Management for Expats


Stress Management for Expats

The Panzarella Corollary of Marriage and Moving

By Jody J. Ballard

Global Living Magazine – Issue 12 | May/June 2014

The Panzarella corollary of marriage and moving states unequivocally, “You cannot divorce your spouse or speak of divorce a full two months before and for an equal or longer amount of time following a move.” This edict was created on a day my dear husband of then 12 years announced that, although he loved me, he did not like me very much when we were moving. I was shocked, but relieved because I didn’t care much for him either during these times and was content to put a voice to my feelings.

Relocating became an art and a science for us, but we still maintain a strict adherence to this edict. Nineteen moves later, you would think we might perfect a system of changing locations without suffering mounds of stress. Change, however, is the central theme of any move. Everything is in flux – from household routines, the straight line into the bathroom late into the night, sleep patterns if you’ve traveled over time zones, food, weather, perhaps even seasons. You are pulled away from support systems, family, neighborhood greetings, running paths … everything is different, including the most nurturing comfort of marriage. Your partner is also undergoing stress and might become self-centered, internally focused, and grouchy because he (or she) can’t find the special yogurt he loves to eat with fruit in the morning.

Changes are difficult. As adaptable human beings, we are normally able to adjust quite quickly to small alterations in our lives. Moving is a stressor which bombards our minds with multiple changes, creating the ultimate challenge for people soothed by daily habits and predictable routines. The procedure of altering set norms requires a struggle – an adjustment to our brain’s networking. We switch from an automatic response (homeostasis) to the uncertain, or even doubtful, dubious, iffy, or off-balanced reaction. Once a new pattern is ingrained, we can relax, but this takes time and effort.

Let’s take, for example, the drive between work and home. In an established home we have a set place for keys, the car is ten steps from the kitchen in the garage, the commute takes 15 minutes, and the route is firmly imprinted in our minds. In a new location, however, we must consider each decision and actively remember each step. This process is unsettling and activates astress response. We are required to develop new habits to begin to belong in our new surroundings. It is essential, but activates a dynamic thinking and decoding process. Establishing a new schema for everything is not only time-consuming, but it is also taxing, both physically and mentally. All day, every day, we are working at high capacity to take in new information, understand how it affects our lives, make adjustments, and create an adjusted framework or blueprint.

If you are moving with children, trying to initiate, negotiate and uphold new patterns can wear you out by noon. Understanding the cultural codes and opening yourself up to a new culture, while questioning your own belief system, drains any energy you had for the excitement of living in a new place. This all diminishes in the face of what was once a simple task, such as gathering all the paperwork to enroll your children in school. All the things that are not written, you have to see, feel, taste and experience in a new place before you can begin to transform and adjust. This assumes one must mutate and, yes, you must. We never morph completely; no matter where you go, there you are with all your strengths and challenges. We habituate to the environment in order to assimilate; it’s our innate nature.

Nonetheless, each individual experiences stress differently. The idiosyncratic manner in which we take on pressures and challenges is dependent on multiple varied considerations. I say varying because how we experience anxiety and doubt, and how we deal with fear alters during our lifetime, and even within the same period. Each person has a peculiar pattern of dealing with change and stress and handling taxing, arduous or even the onerous circumstances of our lives. These patterns are born out of need and begin to form in early years. We learn through osmosis or are taught mechanisms for managing our lives and getting our needs met from caregivers. Our individual history, genetic makeup and preferences influence our choices of coping styles. If your method of dealing with change is to talk with friends and family, the sense of being alone or isolated is exacerbated because of their absence.

Stress activates a fight or flight scenario in which our primitive mind prepares to either defend itself or run. Once activated by fear, excitement or anxiety in our minds, our body releases cortisone to pulse through our body and enhance our ability to defend ourselves. Our heart rate speeds up to surge blood flow to the muscles. This causes breathing to increase in order to oxygenate the blood. In extreme and prolonged stress, our non-vital organs shut down in support of the life-sustaining organs. All systems are concentrated on optimizing muscle strength and function. Psychologically we become focused on the threat – perceived differently by each individual – and have trouble seeing any other perspective than our own.

Coping behaviors can be either positive (adaptive and healthy) or negative (self-destructive and counter-productive). Understanding your style of coping is critical because it will be taxed to its limits during this time of upheaval. If your positive coping mechanism had been a favored yoga class, then the first thing on the adjustment agenda should be to find that yoga session, but even after tracking down the right class, you will have to adapt by meeting and adjusting to a new teacher and classmates, the atmosphere, times, dates and prices. Now, if our coping style is to try to suppress the churning of our stomachs with anxiety by feeding this disquiet, we will eat and overeat, creating a different set of stressors.

I recall moving to Warsaw, Poland with three children. The Polish language is beautiful but also has an abundance of consonants in words so lengthy they were difficult to remember. As burgeoning adolescents and athletes, our children consumed enormous amounts of food every day. I was tasked with not only finding the grocery store in this maze, but also procuring the foods that might offer comfort, thereby assuring them that their lives had not been completely turned upside down. I tried and failed many days. I would return a battered warrior with only a pittance to show for my efforts – or nothing – because I had gotten so lost I paid a taxi driver to lead me home.

At the two-week mark, as was our routine when moving, we checked in with the children to ask how everyone was settling in (they were raised, after all, by a therapist and had to endure these therapeutic sessions contrived to sooth and validate myself). My husband asked them to speak about their schools, teacher, making friends, etc. One of our sons announced he liked this new place, but wondered if we were ever going to eat well again. I started to cry, then apologized for not being able to find the grocery store. That afternoon we all piled in the car and set out on an adventure to discover varied routes to the markets. It was a Hansel and Gretel simulation, but we hoped it would finish with a happy ending. We challenged ourselves to create F U N. We needed to enjoy our new environment and not fight the inevitable. Translation: we had to get lost, then find our way to make this place our home.


  1.  You will feel anxiety associated with change, adaptation and habituation.
  2.  Become aware of your body’s unique signs and signals of stress.
  3.  Program time for rejuvenation.
  4.  Revert to positive coping mechanisms – up your game!
  5.  Be cognizant of falling into negative patterns that prolong stress.
  6.  Acculturation takes about six months.
  7.  Accept the inescapable adjustment period and celebrate the journey.
  8.  Slow down. Change takes time and energy.
  9.  Trust yourself that you know you will make it. Never speak of divorce during the prescribed four-month hiatus.

Laugh, cry or breathe hard through exercise to reduce built-up stress; or laugh until you cry – maybe then you can enjoy the new adventure you just began.

Jody Ballard

Jody Ballard was born in Hawaii and raised with values and ethics by a Montana cowboy. She has lived and worked in eight foreign countries while her heart remained tied to Philipsburg, MT. She and her husband, Rosario, raised three global nomads, and currently live in Abu Dhabi. Jody writes with deep knowledge and experience from having worked as a licensed clinical therapist for over 30 years. Her rich and varied understanding of human behavior imbues her writing with unique insight into the dynamic nature of relationships. Her first novel, The Smell of Mud, is available on Amazon.

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