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Calm in the Chaos: How to Move Without Leaving Your Sanity Behind

It is that time of the year again where many of us around the world are getting ready to pack out and move on to our next adventure. We are thinking, planning, laughing, crying, and getting garbage bags ready for the inevitable that lies before us.

The problem is that no matter how we talk, strategize, plan, process, and network- it never seems to get much easier. There are so many variables to consider, like what goes, what stays, what we need now, later… and pretty soon everything just looks disposable. “Throw it all away and get me the hell out of here!” has been something I have said more than once.

What it all boils down to, is that moving is super stressful. It makes us all feel crazy inside, no matter how many times we have successfully gone through it. According to the New York Times, one of the ways moving increases stress is through the anxiety it creates. Persons planning to change locations worry about school quality, housing desirability, cost of living, spousal employment opportunities, climate change, safety, security, and others. For expats specifically, this may also be a time of some sadness and loss. Even though we are used to frequent moves around the world, where we live right now is our home, our community, and leaving it for an unknown place can be scary.

Indeed, many of us have some crazy and frustrating stories that back up our concerns. Kristine M recalled a time she moved to Asia immediately following a typhoon. There was no electricity, running water, or way to see in the dark in a place she had never been. The worst part? She was supposed to be placed in a hotel, but instead was taken to her assigned house, with no way of knowing where anything was and only 2 tea light candles to guide her!

Many expats relocation mishaps occur as a result of miscommunications with the moving company itself. Dorritt L. shared that she was relocated to New York, when the movers showed up with all of her boxes clearly labeled for storage. Instead of having the expected supplies for her new apartment, she was given garden tools and other outdoor items! Andi LM requested the movers to unpack her kitchen boxes, which they took to mean to unpack ALL of the boxes. Her basement looked like a “4.5 foot 7 layer dip” of all of their belongings until they could organize them. Charity C. was relocating from Moscow when the moving company took too many items from her home, leaving her husband to use a couch cushion for a pillow, and a bath robe for a blanket for a week before leaving post.

However, it is not always the fault of the movers. Well-intentioned (or maybe well-planned) spouses can take some blame for some of the mishaps too. Nicola F.’s husband was tasked with unpacking boxes into their small beach house. When she arrived home, she found that all of the boxes had been unpacked- EXACTLY where the movers had placed them. Her husband was in luck that day, maybe purposefully so? She never asked him to unpack again!

So, how do we cope in these situations without losing our minds? Thing #1 on your to do list is to breathe. I know, I know, it sounds silly, but I am being totally serious. As a fellow planner who has to do everything myself (because I have done it so many times), I know how important it is to take a step back and relax, even if it is only to center your brain for a couple of minutes.

Therapist Pro Tip: Breathing may seem trivial, but it has a great impact on how we feel. When we panic, we take quick, shallow breaths, or we don’t breathe at all; both of which cause light-headedness and anxiety. When we feel calm, we breathe more slowly and fully, which causes our bodies to reduce the feeling of stress both physically and emotionally. One of the ways we can breathe to calm down is simply by paying attention to and controlling how we breathe. A quick and easy method to do this mindfully is to do what I call circle breathing. To do this, you simply start by inhaling slowly through your nose for a count of 5 seconds. You then hold it in your lungs 5 seconds, and release the air out through your mouth for another 5 seconds. This 5-5-5 process is then repeated for as long as is necessary for you to feel some relief, usually about 2-3 times. There are also many apps to help you gain breath control, including Breathe2 Relax and Paced Breathing.

The next step, is of course, planning for change. It is not just thinking about what is going to happen, but rather taking manageable steps towards the goal of getting to your next post. Psychology Today recommends that satisfying change is the result of actively planning for what will be different and how. Start with the tangible things, like schools, clothes, and household necessities. These are the things we are all good at, and have much practice planning for and managing. Hook up with your new sponsor via email and ask questions. Then, move on to the factors that will impact your quality of life beyond the basics. How does the community there fit with your values? Will there be activities that your family enjoys? What is the proximity to other Americans? Answering some of these questions and sharing them with your family can help you prepare for what life will be like shortly.

When asked for advice on how to make moving easier, EM Dyer, II, an experienced expat, and an administrator for the popular Facebook group Trailing Houses, expressed several solutions. Primarily, he stated “at some point in your life, everything will get lost, stolen, or destroyed, so don’t get attached to things. You will always forget some step in your move; it just happens… acknowledge that it’s ok to not be in complete control. It will all get there eventually.” Oh, and this blogger’s favorite, “ALWAYS over-estimate weight.” On the other hand, if there is something you or a family member cannot live without- make sure it fits in your carry-on luggage. If not, a picture may be worth more than a thousand words, and maybe it is wise to take a reminder rather than risking taking the item abroad.

One last point I would like to make is how incredibly important it is to remember to reward your own hard work. It can be very difficult in the middle of everything to reward yourself for what you’ve accomplished, especially the small things. You thank others for their efforts, give your kids incentives for chores, pay money for good grades, and even give your dogs treats for just… well… being a dog. But what about you? What do you get for managing all of the chaos? Well, that is essentially up to you. I like to write myself a positive note and put it in a pocket or box so I’ll find it on the other side. Some people will set up a massage appointment, dessert trip, or even a night out once they’ve accomplished a portion of their moving goals. It is important to be able to not only tell yourself what you should do, but what you can actually get for doing it. It is OK and in fact, recommended to reward yourself for a job well done!

A Therapist’s Easy Reference Tips for Minimizing Moving Stress:

  1. Breathe. Need an App for That? Download One.

  2. Create Manageable Goals and Crush Them- One at a Time.

  3. Organize and Make Decisions that Don’t Include Throwing Everything Away.

  4. Leave a Little Time for the Unexpected Mishaps. They ALWAYS happen.

  5. Reduce Your Caffeine Intake and Increase Your Sleep.

  6. Reward Yourself for Following Through, Even on the Little Things!

  7. Find the Humor. In everything.

  8. Accept Your Situation and that You Cannot Control Everything.

  9. Handle it Like a Boss. You’ve Got This!

All the best,

Dr. Nelson

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Special thanks to all those who contributed stories for this blog post!

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