The current COVID-19 pandemic is impacting everyone in Switzerland – and around the world. It feels omnipresent with around-the-clock news coverage, work and school closures and major disruptions to our way of life.
For expats, these times can be particularly tough. This is due to isolation from friends and family, language barriers that make connecting with locals and community members difficult, and increased stress about employment and job uncertainty.
Particularly for expats living in Switzerland, it will not be uncommon to experience the following:
Feelings of isolation and being disconnected
Anxiety, stress, worry and fear
Significant mood swings as news changes daily
A desire to continue to watch the news or be affixed to bad news stories
A sense of frustration of events being out of control
Feelings of anger that planned events have been cancelled
An inability to sleep as the mind dwells on problems
Thoughts of wanting to isolate from others
Feelings of hopelessness, irritability and helplessness.
All the above are entirely normal. It is okay to feel, think or experience these at some stage. We all are likely to over the coming months.
It is when we struggle with these difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions and we allow them to take over us that we feel like we are in quicksand and are sinking. This is what leads to psychological distress.
Being with limited social contact at home can be difficult for many. Photo: DPA
Strategies to help
I have been working with expats and expat-business clients for many years to help with strategies and tools to alleviate psychological distress.
Counselling tools and strategies are really “mind tools”. Just like we train at the gym for our body and fitness, we need to remember to train our mind for improved psychological health and mental well-being.
They may not help every time or the first time. But just like gym-training, mind training takes practice and patience. It's not about ‘fixing’ a problem, it's about helping with removing the struggle with difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Acknowledge your feelings and thoughts – without judgment
Many of us during these times will have thoughts or feeling such as “the world is ending” or “I am going to lose my job” or “I am going to get sick” and we then judge this as ‘bad’ or we push it away and try and stay “positive”.
This can be a mistake. Thoughts or feelings that are hidden or unacknowledged tend to come back stronger and more powerful than before.
Take some time, find a quite place and sit with your thoughts and feelings and let them into the open. What is your mind telling you? What uncomfortable feelings are you experiencing? Where in your body is the feeling? The strategy here is not to judge thoughts or feelings as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but just let them come and go.
For people who can visualise well, it can help to see thoughts and feelings as clouds in the sky – they drift into our consciousness and they drift out.
Practice saying aloud “I am having a thought that I am …” or “I am having a feeling that ….”. Practice allowing the thought or feeling to be present and not fighting it or struggling with them.
Often, we avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings by avoidance techniques such as drinking, eating, trying to change thoughts, over-exercise, sex, drugs and prescription medicine. This is totally normal. It can be difficult and uncomfortable to sit with a thought or feeling that we may not like. However, these generally offer only a temporary respite, and difficult thoughts and feelings tend to return.
When we struggle or try and repress difficult thoughts and feelings that is when they start to have a detrimental impact on our psychological well-being. And the more we struggle the more power they exert of us and stop us leading a quality life.
Some people like to write their thoughts or feelings down in a journal. This can help. It is a method to give them light and acknowledgement.
Writing thoughts down in a journal can be very therapeutic. Photo: DPA
It can be uncomfortable and uneasy to acknowledge our innermost difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions. However, it does help diminish their power and their ability to cause further distress.
Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion
Social media often provides an unreal view of the world – we are all meant to be happy and if we are not happy are defective. In uncertain times like these, we can be especially hard on ourselves if we are feeling low or down. We see terrible images from around the world and we absorb some of this.
Practicing self-compassion and self-kindness is to acknowledge: “It is okay, I am feeling sad today and that’s okay. I am going to be gentle to myself today”.
Society has come to view sadness and grief as ‘negative’ emotions to be banished by ‘positive thinking’. In a quality, fully-lived life we will experience the full gambit of emotions such as sadness, grief, anger, pain, happiness and joy.
Sometimes during times of stress, unease and uncertainty we may feel sadness show up more than usual. The strategy is to let these feelings show up. And be gentle to yourself when they arise.
Sometimes self-compassion can be a nice long bath, a walk by the river, a self-hug or an herbal tea. We forget to love ourselves and by doing so we are extra-hard on ourselves.
It's easy to feel like this when our thoughts get the best of us. Photo: DPA
Part of self-compassion and self-kindness is to acknowledge we cannot control our feelings, thoughts or emotions.
We remind ourselves that the things we value most in the world (perhaps love, travel, new experiences, living in a different country) also bring with them a range of feelings and thoughts – some pleasant others unpleasant.
It is good at tough times to remember why we are here in a foreign land – what values brought us to Switzerland in the first place? Was it the pursuit of adventure? The value of seeking new experiences or an enriched life? Love? Or, to meet new people and experience new cultures?
When we remind ourselves how we are leading a value driven life there will also be uncomfortable and difficult times. Yet we are willing to open ourselves up to these difficult feelings as part of embracing a rich and meaningful life. And we take a moment to practice self-compassion and how much we love ourselves and value the many intricate parts of our DNA.
Set limits on social media and news
Human beings are like engines, what we put into us determines our output. This is true of food – generally the better we eat in terms of healthy and nutritious food, the better we function and are present in both relationships and with work.
This is also true of psychological stimuli such as television and social media. The more negative stimuli we take in, the more chance of an adverse impact upon our psychological well-being.
I have made a conscious effort to turn off CNN and BBC World Service during the day and play music. It is important to set limits on how much new and social media we consume.
Think about other inputs such as music, a walk around a park or reading that can have a positive stimulus on your psychological well-being.
Maintain day-to-day activities as much as possible
Try and maintain day-to-day activities as much as possible. Having a healthy routine can have a positive impact on psychological well-being. This can include long walks, bike rides, exercise, healthy eating, stretching, yoga and alike.
Connect with other people as much as possible
A rich and meaningful life comes from connecting and being vulnerable with other humans. For expats there can be extra difficulties when we are away from our family and friends, but we can still work on connection.
We can take more time to phone or video call with friends and family. We can talk about how we feel, what its like for us and why we may be feeling vulnerable. Opening ourselves up and letting people see some of our difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions is a key to connecting with others.
Yoga at home is an easy practice to remain calm and centred. Photo: DPA
In the days of social distancing, there are many online groups available to still connect with others – it may be a language learning group or a common interest group.
It is okay to reach out and let people know you are struggling and finding it difficult. It may not be easy. And we often don’t do this for fear of being thought of as weak. Its being vulnerable – and western society often views vulnerability as a weakness – in fact being vulnerable is courage and strength.
Unhooking from difficult thoughts and feelings
It is not unusual for expats to become ‘hooked’ on difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences in the coming months, such as “It’s the worst”, “I am going to lose my job” or “I’ll be destitute”.
We become hooked when we have a thought or feeling that refuses to move on. We struggle and wrestle with it and it just grows and becomes more powerful.
Does this sound familiar? This is the path that often leads to anxiety or depression. Thoughts or feelings control us. Perhaps try this simple exercise.
Take ten deep breaths as slowly as possible. Focus on the rise and fall of your rib cage and the air moving in and out of your lungs.
Pay attention to the sensations as air flows into your chest and you feel your chest filling with air. Feel your stomach inflate as much as possible.
Then notice what you feel as the air flows out of your lungs. Notice your shoulders drop as your breath leaves your body. Push out every bit of air. Then pause for a moment, before breathing in again.
Notice thoughts and images that may come and go in your mind and practice letting them go without holding or struggling with, no matter how uncomfortable they are. Keep your attention on your breath and notice the sensations of your breathing, rather than focusing on thoughts or feelings.
This exercise can take a while and its not meant as a ‘cure’ for anxiety, rather it is way to accept and acknowledge difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations so they don’t become overwhelming.
For more support
If you do feel overwhelmed by difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations and feel you are constantly in a state of sadness or anxiety and may be feeling depressed, it is vital to seek help from a registered psychologist or psychiatrist.
Matthew Reynolds is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Frankfurt specialising in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy using an online method of delivery to clients all over Europe. Matthew’s business www.counsellingonline.biz works with clients with a diverse range of issues such as anxiety, stress, gender and sexuality, work/life balance, relationships and addictions. He also assists business with staff motivation, values, goal setting and emotional intelligence leadership.
This post originally appeared on The Local Germany on March 25th, 2020.