Expat Life

Living Well during Uncertainty

The Covid-19 pandemic created a season of disruption, uncertainty, change and transition for many people all over the world. Many of us were less prepared for coping well with the emotions of transition and uncertainty than we had realised. We knew how to manage luggage and airports, but not months of waiting to learn when – or if – our lives would return to normal, or even what (or where) that normal might be.

My own story of pandemic upheaval began in Beijing, China, where my husband and I were living. I got caught on the wrong side of the border when it closed to foreigners – even those like me with valid work visas and associated residence permits. I flew to Australia and stayed with my parents waiting in vain for the situation to change. When it didn’t, we gave up our Beijing apartment and my husband shipped a few of our things to his native US. I was able to meet him there for three months, but now wait in Australia for my US green card to be approved, a process that currently takes 11-17 months.

This certainly was not the plan we had for our lives a year ago. I am sure that you, and people you know and love, have also been living with uncertainties, unexpected plans, and choices none of us could have predicted two years ago. So, what do we do with this? How do we live well, not only survive but thrive, through all this change and uncertainty?

The first step is to understand the processes at work inside ourselves as we try to cope with everything that has been thrown at us. To do this we need to know the difference between change and transition.

Change and Transition

Change is an event. Transition is a process.

Change is the moment in time when I go from this to that, here to there. It is when I leave, when my friend leaves me, when I start at a new school or new job, move into a new home. 

Transition is the process of anticipating and integrating that change. 

“Change is physical – a new location, a person who is physically absent. Transition is the process of handling the emotional fallout of physical changes.”

Misunderstood, page 141

Change is concrete. We can see it happen. We know what it is. But we still often underestimate the full impact of a change. One change is usually made up of a series of smaller changes. A big change, like moving locations, has multiple changes involved, each of which is made up of smaller changes.

Transition is the process of adapting to change. A period of transition begins as soon as I know a change is coming. When I learn that I will change schools, or my friend tells me she will move away – at that point, my transition has begun. Some transitions begin a long time before the change occurs. Sometimes, a transition begins after the change. This happens because I may not learn about a change until after it happens, as in the case of my leaving China permanently last year.

A period of transition continues until I am accustomed to and comfortable with my post-change life – when I have integrated those changes and my situation changes from “new” to “normal”.

As you might imagine, sometimes this can take a long, long time. Generally, it takes around 1½ – 2 years to fully adjust after a large change. The more we fight against a transition period – pushing ourselves to “get over it” or otherwise refusing to accept the process – the longer and more difficult our transition will be.

Losing our automatics

One important aspect of any big change is that all our automatics are reset. In a new situation I do not automatically know where to go, what to do, who to talk to, how to get things done. Everything I do requires deliberate thought and conscious effort.

It takes much more time and mental energy to get simple things done, because they are not simple anymore. It takes time to learn the new ways to do things. Slowly, through repetition, those basic tasks become familiar, but to begin with all is new.

The amount of new information we must process to learn and adapt new processes  – whether the language we speak, the way to work or school, how to navigate the grocery story (or even our own homes) – leaves our brains exhausted. This is also true when navigating the big differences in routine that go with working, studying, and parenting from home 24/7. 

Symptoms of Transition: Our Minds and Bodies at Work

Transition is difficult on both mind and body. The new information we must absorb exhausts the brain, leaving us unable to think as clearly as normal, but there is more going on. The subconscious mind constantly pays attention to its environment, noticing different sensory input in the background – sounds, smells, textures, light, colour, movement. We are usually unaware of this work; like antivirus software running in the background it stays quiet unless warning us of something out of the ordinary to look into. We notice an unusual noise and decide whether to listen more closely or tune it out. It helps us notice a child is waking before they become overly upset. It keeps us safe, by warning us of gas leaks before they get out of hand.  

In a season of transition, lots of things are different. Background sensory input can be very different to what we are used to tuning out, so our brains spend much more time deciding what is a potential threat. Instead of one or two alerts per hour, it might be one or two alerts per minute. If you’ve ever been kept awake by the different sounds in a new house or hotel, this is probably what you were experiencing.

We are not designed to operate in this constant state of high alert. Our brains and bodies can become flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. In sporadic doses they are an integral part of the body’s functioning, but when regularly elevated they lead to anxiety, cognitive impairment, sleep dysfunction, and more. In transition, not only are we distracted by the constant intrusion of our background alert system wanting conscious input (‘is this a threat?’) but our body chemistry is also affected. 

All of this leaves us both mentally and physically drained before actually doing anything! Simply existing in a state of transition causes a general state of exhaustion. Common symptoms of living in transition include: forgetfulness, difficulty absorbing new information, and other memory problems; clouded thinking; difficulty multi-tasking; getting less done; lack of motivation; lethargy; sleeping more than usual; muscle tension; headaches; digestion issues; feeling frustrated or irritable; anxiety; depression. (As symptoms of transition these should be temporary and decrease in intensity; if they worsen and/or persist, a conversation with your doctor is a good idea.)

It is important to understand everything that is going on in transition so we can do one very important thing: give ourselves, and those around us in transition, a hefty dose of kindness, compassion, and patience. We need to lower our expectations of ourselves. It takes time to adjust to a new normal, and life can be quite overwhelming in the midst of it. Our minds and bodies need a lot of rest. We will get less done, we will sleep more or take naps, and we will not get ‘back to normal’ overnight. This gentle approach is the best way to transition well.

Creating Joy

One big struggle in losing our automatics is losing the activities that bring us peace and joy. Many things available in one place or stage of life are not viable options in another. You may not have the same environment, people may not do the same group activities, small children change your options, work hours change, your house is different, and any number of other reasons.

When life in transition is tiring and I want to relax, there is work to do. I must find and create new habits. This can be difficult, tiring and, more importantly, time consuming. I might try something, realise it does not work, then start again with something new. So, what do we do? Here are two keys for creating joy wherever you are.

  1. Find your joy

Ask yourself: what is my underlying joy? ‘I enjoy this activity because….’ 

See if you can connect that underlying joy to a different activity. If you enjoy football because you like running, try something else that gets you moving. If you enjoy it for the social aspect, try something else that gets you together with people. If you enjoy it because it gets you outside, try a different outdoor hobby. 

  1. Hobbies, community, nature

In my seminars and workshops on coping with change and creating joy, these three factors come up over and over again in answer to the question “what makes you smile?” My advice is to invest time each week in each of these three areas – invest in a hobby, be with people, and spend time in nature. This will plant seeds of joy you can cultivate over time. Even if it’s a new hobby, new people, and a new environment, it’s a worthwhile investment in your long-term joy.

Author Bio

Tanya Crossman is a cross-cultural consultant providing training and support to international schools and other entities serving cross-cultural populations. Tanya is a leading expert with 16 years experience in the field of modern Third Culture Kids and issues facing cross-cultural families. She is the author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, a book that opens a window on the experience of an international childhood in the internet age. Tanya is passionate about coming alongside cross-cultural families with information, encouragement, and support.

Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century

Tanya Crossman, 2016 (Summertime Publishing)

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