How Expats Can Deal With Personal And Professional Crises: Ask an Expert

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WSJ Expat asked Bente Sternberg and Carl Sternberg of consultancy Prime Variable LLC to provide tips to expats for dealing with a crisis.

A personal or professional crisis can be difficult for anyone. For an expat, it can be challenging in very particular ways. Consider these scenarios:

Imagine a couple decides to end their marriage, but the wife’s visa is dependent on her husband. In some countries, if the marriage is dissolved, the spouse who’s not sponsored by an employer may have to leave the country while the sponsored spouse can stay.

Imagine your child develops a severe learning disorder. There are no services for him or her in the country where you live, so you must make a hard choice about where to relocate.

Imagine your company has downsized. You have been given three-months notice, and now you have to find a job in your field. You have a family, but you can’t make arrangements for school for your children because you don’t know where you will be living. You don’t believe you’ll be able to find a job in your home country. And you can’t stay in your current country due to visa regulations.

As an expat, you are mostly on your own when dealing with these types of situations. You may not have the safety net of friends and family to support you, connect you to resources and provide help during a crisis. Moving involves changing countries and accompanying complications such as visas, work papers, lack of openings in international schools, limited choices.

When the floor falls out, you may go into shock because your entire world, that which gave you security, order and meaning, has been threatened. Here are a few things to do when you don’t know what to do in the event of an expat crisis:

Be prepared for an emotional roller coaster. Breathe deeply. Practice mindfulness. Acknowledge and name your emotions. Halt the “amygdala hijack,” a term coined in 1996 by Daniel Goleman. Pause for 90 seconds to give the brain time to engage the left pre-frontal cortex, which has an inhibitory circuit for the amygdala that has been stimulated by fear. By pausing, you can choose a socially intelligent response to the situation.

Identify the emotions you are experiencing. Practice meditation. Do yoga and engage in other activities that calm your body, mind and spirit. Seek professional help.

Prepare for the worst-case scenario. Develop a Plan B. Plan B is your sanctuary, a transition location, where you can go and set up until you figure out what you want to do. Make sure Plan B offers what you need until your next step actualizes. Some Plan B options include: you return to the home country for a short period and live with parents or friends while your children attend local schools; life goes on until the next posting. Other expats choose to remain in their current country if the visa allows, downsize their home, reduce expenses and stay put until a new option comes along. Be sure that the financial institutions you choose are global, making it easier to transfer money as needed.

Reframe how you see your situation; take a different perspective. It is imperative to think about solutions. Imagine what is going on as a picture; see the frame you have around it (such as desperation or uncertainty) and place a different frame with some positive alternatives around the same picture. We may not know which direction to set our compass, but we do know how to use it to find our way. Contact headhunters in your field. Begin to research opportunities in your profession. You have an advantage if you are disconnected from your home culture; you can go anywhere and you possess the skills to adjust to new situations.

As expats, we are firm believers in what we call a “freedom fund.” Some may call it a rainy day fund, or money you save for emergencies, sufficient to move and to live on for six months to a year at your minimum level. The risk you take in living abroad is part of the excitement and directly proportionate to the uncertainty of your lifestyle, the country you are in, politics, bird flu, SARS, Ebola — the various things that may result in terminating your stay. You may be faced with no job and no place to go. Thus it is essential to create a “freedom fund” that can finance your Plan B.
To find resources for a child with major issues, begin by contacting experts in your host country and/or embassy personnel. Seek experts in your home country, and ask for recommendations from them and from friends and family members. Contact institutions and schools directly to find out about costs and requirements for admission or services.

Trust your ability to solve problems and to find ways to deal with the new reality you are facing. It may not be ideal, and not what you expected or planned. So it may be time to take it day by day.