Gauging Stress

4192D209-722C-4EBE-9970-6444E18A288C.jpeg

 

In a previous post I talked about stress and being “a pot that boils over”. I’m not an expert in stress management but I am an expert in being stressed out, and I’m always looking for a way be less stressed out and overwhelmed. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I am trying to pay more attention to myself and why I get so overwhelmed so easily.

(Side note:This isn’t a scientific post; this is about my own experience learning to become more self aware and care for myself. Google the word “stress” and you’ll find all you need to know about how stress shows up in your body. This post is about learning to tune into yourself and recognize your own stress warning signs.)

BE65781C-9773-4136-A31C-0DF0E60EFB0A

One thing that is helpful is to notice when my stress tank is filling up before it’s actually over flowing. In other words I’m trying to tune in to myself so that I can diffuse stress before I actually boil over.

Here are the things that show me that my stress tank is about to overflow:

1-Less stress tolerance
Little things start to irritate me more than normal. I get irritated with my family more easily than I normally would. I have less stress tolerance in general.

2-Quicker and bigger anger
Because I’m more irritable, I snap at my family faster. It takes less to send me over the edge. I’m not at the boiling point but I’m dangerously close to getting there.

3-Environmental stress
My environment starts to really bother me. Any mess or chaos is my home makes me really angry, yet the internal feelings of overwhelm paralyze me rather than spur me to deal with it. I get angry at the mess, yet am too overwhelmed to clean it up.

4-Sensory overstimulation
I start to be extremely irritated by sensory stimulation. Lights, sounds, smells, and physical sensations start to really bother me.

5-Avoidance
I start to avoid more things I need to do. This means I start to spend more time mindlessly scrolling social media or doing meaningless tasks that can wait, instead of dealing with the things I actually need to do. I start stress eating or watching more tv.

6-Physical sensations
I also pay attention to how I’m physically feeling, trying to notice the physical sensations of stress in my body. I realize I’m starting to feel anxiety when I notice butterflies in my stomach, I have a sense of adrenaline, my mind starts racing with all the things I need to do but I can’t focus on any one thing, I feel my heart is beating at a higher rate than it should when I’m resting. I generally feel jittery.

There’s no perfect internal gauge that shows you where your stress tank is at. Often its close to the boiling point before I actually realize it. It doesn’t take much for me to get there. Once I realize that I’m starting to get stressed out, I check in with myself by asking these questions:

1-What am I physically feeling and what physical need can I attend to?

2-What is bothering me in my environment that I can change immediately?

3-What circumstances are stressing me out? Is there anything I can do to attend to them?

Even writing out lists of what needs to be done releases my mind from bearing the mental load of it all.

4- What do I need to do to take care of myself to create some internal space to handle stress better?

In other words, what can I do for self care? Do I need a morning to sleep in with no kids bothering me? Do I need a day out by myself? Do I need a connecting conversation with my husband? Do I need to fold that pile of laundry? Honestly sometimes doing laundry is a form of self care because it really bothers me and I need to just deal with it!

I would love to hear how you notice your internal stress tank filling up and what you do to care for yourself to decrease your stress! Continue reading “Gauging Stress”

American Thanksgiving

0C02A136-F810-4D84-AA0B-68DC8524B504

November is here and it brings with it one of the most important American holidays-Thanksgiving!

If you’re not familiar with it, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving to commemorate the first Thanksgiving feast between the Puritan settlers and the First Nations People (Native American Indians).

The Puritans were a group of people who were persecuted for their religious practices in England. They had disagreements with the way the Church of England and Catholic Church were practicing Christianity and they refused to take part in certain practices mandated by the church and were persecuted for it. To find religious freedom, they immigrated to “The New World”. They landed in the north eastern part of what we now call the United States of America, a place with an extremely hard winter climate. Many of the original settlers died from disease, were killed, or they just could not survive the winter.

Some of the First Nations groups helped the Puritans by teaching them about food they could eat and how to survive off the land. When they had their first bountiful harvest, these groups of people came together for a celebration feast. They celebrated the abundance of their harvest, knowing they would have enough food for the winter challenges that lay ahead.

This is important for Americans because one of the founding principles on which our nation was built is religious freedom; it’s a value we proudly hold dear. Thanksgiving is a time for sharing a meal with family and friends, a time to be with each other and rest, and a time of nostalgia as we eat traditional foods and watch American football.

As Christians there are more layers to this holiday. We take a moment to pause and give thanks for all that we have and all God has done in our lives. Much of the year we, well I, am busy and I’m worried. I’m busy working to provide a home for my children, I worry about all the things they could face in this world, I worry about if we’ll have enough. I worry about whether or not I am enough. I think about all that I lack.

The Thanksgiving season is a time to focus on our abundance. We celebrate with an abundance of food and we share it in community. We pause and reflect on all that we have and remember all the ways God has provided for us over the last year. We simply pause to reflect and say thank you. We hold this in our heart because we know that the next year may bring hardship, but God has been faithful and He’ll continue to provide for our needs.

In many American households you will find traditional foods such as roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, and pumpkin and apple pie. Fall is the season for American football and there are special annual football games on Thanksgiving Day and weekend. The air is generally crisp and cool and the leaves have fallen off the trees or are still in beautiful colors on their branches. It’s really a wonderful time.

The American holiday season (October-January 1)can be an incredibly busy season with Thanksgiving often overlooked. It’s smack in the middle between Halloween and Christmas, and sometimes can feel like just one more thing on a packed to do list.

I encourage you to take this Thanksgiving, even if this isn’t your tradition, to take a moment to pause the business and simply breath. Take a moment to give thanks. Take a day to enjoy the present moment. Reflect on the abundance you have and it will make the lack seem less. Focusing on what we have diminishes the sense of not having enough.

If the past year has been hard, then simply enjoy the present day. Take a minute to pause and do something you enjoy. Gather hope for the coming winter and rest before you move forward.

May you rest in your abundance have hope for the coming year!

Distress Tolerance: When Your Pot Boils Over

boiling pot

Have you ever found yourself in frustrating situation in which your reaction was bigger or harsher than the situation deserved and wondered later why you acted that way? Me too.

You all know those people, they are seemingly unflappable and cool as cucumbers, they seem to handle their children in public situations with ease, navigate a new city with excitement, or manage their homes without getting stressed about the mess. Their internal thermometer for handling stress seems to be higher, meaning they handle stress-environmental and internal-without getting stressed out. They seem to be able to navigate through stressful situations without their anxiety rising, or at least on the outside appearing to have everything together.

Imagine a pot boiling water on the stove. The chef needs to leave room in the pot to allow the water to rise or else it will boil over. The water needs room to expand from the heat put under it; it can take the heat but it needs room to process the heat. If there’s too much water in the pot, when its put over heat it will boil over the sides of the pot, causing burning or a big mess, and ultimately resulting in the water inside the pot being depleted.

Each of us has an internal stress level, some can handle more stress without it causing them to boil over than others. For some people it’s their temperament that allows them to be more calm. Other factors like environmental stress, grief, loss, hunger, exhaustion, or children can all contribute to a higher stress level (I’m only half kidding about that last one). My husband, for instance, is very even keeled. He doesn’t get anxious at certain situations that cause me to have a meltdown in public. He’s just built less emotionally reactive than I am.

There was a time in my life very recently where I felt like I was a pot constantly boiling over. I was overwhelmed with circumstances in my life, had a level of accumulated stress that I couldn’t seem to heal from, and was exhausted by activities of daily life. I felt out of control and my level of “distress tolerance” was very low. Every little thing seemed like a big deal. I was physically exhausted, emotionally fragile, in a perpetual state of stress. I just couldn’t get room in my pot to allow the water to boil without boiling over. I was in a constant state of “boil over”.

If you ever find yourself in this place, its important to note that this is actually a state of crisis for your brain. There are different theories on this and science to back it up (it has to do with the amygdala and frontal cortex but there’s books that talk about that!). Basically you have a logical, calm, reasonable part of your brain. And you have an emotional and reactive part of your brain. They both need to work together in order to stay in the middle rational part of your brain; some therapists call it the wise brain. If you’re too far in the logical part of your brain all the time, you can’t connect with or relate to people and you’re overly rational (yes, its a thing!). If you’re too far in the emotional part of your brain you can get lost in anxiety and be completely irrational.

When you’re using your wise brain you operate using your logical, rational part of your brain to direct your emotional response to situations. You’re not so irrational that you don’t feel anything, but you’re not out of control emotionally. You control your reactions and respond rather than react to things that happen.

When you get in the state of “over boil” or “flipping your lid”, when you can’t contain your emotional reaction, you are out of control. Everyone does this at some point, but you don’t want to stay in that state, you want to go back to operating out of your wise brain. People who have a higher distress tolerance are able to operate in their wise brain more of the time than someone who has a lower distress tolerance.

So what happens if you’re more of an emotionally reactive person, or if you find yourself in a constant state of boiling over?

1-Control what you can control in your immediate environment.

I recently realized that I was feeling stressed out in my home. It was constantly messy yet I avoided dealing with the mess because it felt overwhelming. Then I realized that my immediate environment was contributing to my stress and feelings of overwhelm, but that was something I had control of. Well, I still had 3 small children to deal with but I could control a lot more than I admitted to myself! I made a commitment to do certain tasks everyday before bed that would help keep the house tidy and help me feel better in the morning. You know what? This worked! As soon as I got into a consistent routine of taking care of some specific household duties before bed instead of brushing them off because I was too tired, I immediately felt a decrease of my stress level in the morning.

There are things that you can control about your environment. Control those things. If it feels too overwhelming, just choose 3 simple things you can do everyday to help you feel better about your immediate environment.

2-Pay attention to how you feel physically

When I find myself getting stressed out at home with my kids, I take a moment to check in with my physical sensations. Sometimes I realize there’s too much noise in the house. The music I put on to soothe us has actually now become a background noise that’s no longer soothing. Maybe my sweater is actually itchy and irritating me. Or maybe I notice I’ve been so busy I haven’t taken time to use the restroom or get a glass of water. Those are things that were irritating me and causing my internal stress level to rise yet I was too distracted or busy to notice.

Stop and do a physical inventory. What is going on physically and what can you do to care for yourself in that moment?

3-Play

When’s the last time you created a “play” experience for yourself? In other words, when’s the last time that you did something fun that you enjoy doing? Did you get out of the house with a friend for coffee, have a date night, enjoy a hobby, play and giggle with your kids? This isn’t something that always comes naturally to us as we get busy with life, especially navigating life overseas it can be harder to create those opportunities for ourselves. It’s something we need to intentionally do to create more internal space.

When I take time for something I enjoy, even for a few moments here or there or to make time for a special event, I find that it helps me feel physically as well as emotionally less stressed. Just as sleep is important for our bodies, play actually allows our brains to rest.

5-Exercise

Physical exercise is one of the best ways to care for not only your body but also your brain. It’s science. It actually has a chemical reaction in your brain that helps you feel better emotionally and helps you think more clearly. It also helps you sleep better; during sleep your brain actually organizes itself, pathways connect, and cells regenerate. The idea behind the “runners high” is actually true; the chemical reaction that happens in your brain because of exercise helps you feel better in the short term and your body work better in the long term.

6- Inventory your accumulated stress

The topic of accumulated stress deserves more attention, but briefly: small stressors or loss over a period of time, if undealt with, actually add up to big emotional stress. You may not recognize it because the stressor has been going on for a long time or some things happened long ago, but it may possibly be something that’s actually contributing to your stress now. It takes time to unpack that, but ask yourself what you can do to resolve the situation or deal with things now in a healthy way. What are the things you can control now that will help you process that stress or loss?

There was an unresolved conflict in a particular relationship for years that caused me great stress. I knew the stress was there but I didn’t know what I could do about it. Eventually something drastic happened that was a catalyst for change, but looking back on it now I wonder what I could have done to change things. The biggest thing that comes to mind is that I wish I had sought professional help sooner.

7-Seek professional help

If you discover that you’re in a constant state of stress and your pot is boiling over more often than you’d like, see a professional therapist who can help you. Sometimes just having someone to talk to, an unbiased party, is one of the biggest factors in recovery. Chances are if you have accumulated stress in your life you don’t feel you can talk to anyone safely about it and a skilled therapist is someone you can talk to.

When I was in that state of “over boil”, it was one of the most impactful things I did for myself in my recovery process. It took time to unpack everything I brought with me into that therapy room, but going to my sessions on a regular basis helped decrease my stress enough that I had room to sort everything out. What it did was give me space. I got to talk about the things that were going on, I got to be emotional in a safe space, I got help accessing my logical brain for areas I was stuck in my irrational brain, and then I could sort out the different layers of what had happened.

All of these techniques help your brain get out of crisis and perhaps get a little less stuck in the “over boil”. Once you’re out of crisis you can start to process the things that contributed to that stress on a deeper level and gain more wholeness and health.

 

Have these techniques helped you? I’d love to hear about it! Please leave me a comment let me know!

Life as a TCK 25 years later

girl with suitcase
I’ve started this post several times but never knew exactly where to begin. Where, exactly, is the beginning? Where am I in the process of self discovery? Will I ever have a strong sense of cultural identity or will it always be a constant struggle?

It’s hard to believe it’s been 5 years since I wrote “Life as a TCK 20 Years Later” (you probably want to read that before reading this!) as life has unfolded at the speed of light. 5 years, 3 kids, and 2 international relocations later, I’m still unpacking my “third cultureness”.

I was raised in a place that was culturally quite different from the country where I hold my passport. The immediate community of expats my family was most connected with were people from all over the world, an international community. I knew I was not “from” where I grew up and wouldn’t be there permanently. People came and went, so while I felt a sense of belonging within the expat community there was also a sense that things were never permanent; change and transition were normal.

One thing I learned about myself during our move to China was that back in the international expat community overseas I had a sense of belonging I hadn’t felt in a long time. Looking back on it I don’t know if I actually did belong. But I felt I did. I was among people from all over the world, similar to how I grew up, people who were interested in travel and studying cultures and learning about the world. People with a sense of adventure and with a sense of humor about life.  

To be clear, I’m not saying that people at home were not like this at all. What I mean is that here was a high concentration of people who were interested in many of the same things I was, who had similar backgrounds and stories as me, who were on the same cultural identity journey as me. Although I was completely out of place in my new setting, I was also in my natural habitat: the expat community. A piece of my soul that was long buried tentatively emerged.

Now that I have children I’m faced with the new challenge of raising children overseas. I still have so many questions about how to do this and many unresolved feelings are triggered within me. I want to give them this international experience but be able to do it differently in some ways than I experienced. I’m aware now of how important cultural identity formation is, and how it affects you if you spend a significant part of your developmental years outside your passport country. I hope that I have a lifelong conversation with them about their experiences and give voice to any accumulated stress or grief.

Relocating again has brought to my awareness the accumulation of grief that the state of constant transition contributed to my life. Growing up abroad was a wonderful and magical experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world (pun intended), but there was grief. My family lived in Saipan for about 12 years and we were considered long termers. Living that long in one place you see a lot of people come and go, as soon as you develop deeper relationships with someone they move on to a new place. Every two years our family would have a home leave, but we would never stay in one place for long as we’d be traveling around the country visiting friends, family, and financial supporters. And then we would say goodbye again. It was what I now call the expat life cycle.

I’ve also become profoundly aware of my global cultural identity. Just as when I went to South America for six months and came to terms with my identity as an American, coming to Japan has shown me that I’m also an internationally minded person, an expat. And that I can be both an American and an international. It doesn’t matter where I live because I’ll carry these two cultural identities with me everywhere I go. I realized that I do indeed have cultural identity roots; they look different from other peoples cultural identities and that’s ok. Just because I’m don’t feel like I fully belong in my passport culture, or anywhere else really, doesn’t mean I don’t belong. I just feel out of place at first.

It’s like a plant that you move to different pots as it grows. You plant it in one pot and it roots in the soil though it may take time to get completely settled. When you transplant it to a new pot, some of the soil from the previous pot remains. If you replant it again, it will carry the soil from the previous pots with it as it takes root.

To answer my questions at the beginning of this post, I know I’m in the middle of this journey of self discovery. I’ll probably always be unpacking it, struggling with it, perhaps putting it on the shelf to rest for a bit, then dusting it off and wrestling with it again. I’m ok with that. I’ve been replanted and my heart is learning not to be afraid to take root.

Life as a TCK, 20 Years Later

This post was originally published on March 14, 2013 on my previous blog lulukangaroo. It was my most viewed and commented post ever so I thought it fitting to share the post here as well, my new blog dedicated to expat life. I wrote this before I had ever thought about moving abroad again! I plan to write a follow up post to it now that I’m 5 years, 3 kids, and 2 international relocations down the road from this. If you’re a TCK, I would love to hear your thoughts on your TCK life!!

**********************************************************************************

From the lulukangaroo blog, originally published on March 14, 2013.

I’ll warn you this post is going to be longer and heavier than my normal diatribe. Read on if you feel like gettin’ real.

I recently came across a blog called Djibouti Jones and beautiful post she wrote to her kids entitled “15 Things I Want to Tell My Third Culture Kids”. Perhaps its because its been 20 years this May since my family moved back to the mainland U.S., or maybe its because my daughter is the same age I was when my parents moved overseas, but the article really touched me and stirred something in me. I need to process. When you’re training to become a therapist, they often tell you that when your kids hit the same age as you were when something significant happened in your life, it can trigger you emotionally. Although I don’t remember what it was like to move across the ocean to the tiny dot that is the island of Saipan in Micronesia, I know that this event set the course of my life.

Reading the blog made me think about things I don’t often dig into because they’re buried deep in my psyche. The fact that I grew up in another place doesn’t register with me all the time, but its a deep part of my life experience that influences my thoughts and decisions on a daily basis. I think this is because it has shaped my identity. All of my life I have wrestled with these questions: Where do I belong and fit in? Where am I from? To what culture do I belong?

You see, Saipan is a Commonwealth of the U.S., which means its technically part of the U.S. (protected by federal laws where the people are U.S. citizens, speak English, and use the U.S. dollar) but are self governing and don’t vote in presidential elections. There is an American school system, a few stop lights, and cable TV is imported and 2 weeks late (at least it was back in the ’80s.). As a white person, a haole, I didn’t fit in to the local culture. As an MK (missionary kid), I grew up playing mostly with the other missionary kids whose families came from all over the world. My friends were American, Australian, German, English, Filipino, Japanese. We fit in together because none of us fit.

Back on the Mainland, I didn’t really fit in with kids my age. I didn’t play AYSO soccer or go to school in a building with indoor hallways, and I didn’t watch the cartoons or movies other kids got to see. My family moved back to the States when I was almost 13 and entering the 8th grade, an awkward stage in and of itself. Growing up in another culture was a point of interest for other kids but I seemed younger than my peers and pretty out of it socially.

When I got to college, I joined the club for MKs, but I didn’t fit in there either. Their families still lived in other countries and they were “fresh off the boat” so to speak. They spoke another language, didn’t wear shoes, played drums, and generally stuck together. As I had lived in the U.S. for several years and my family was now living nearby, I was too American.

It wasn’t until I was 25 and on a six month trip to Argentina and Chile that I was able to say, “I’m American” and be at peace with that. I had to live in yet another country to come to terms with my cultural roots and be okay with it.

Now, as my husband and I start our family and seek God for the next steps in our lives, I find myself wanting to stay rooted to where I am. Although I always thought I would be a missionary, now I just want to be “from” somewhere and give that to my children.

I want my kids to have the things I never had but always searched to find. I want them to have a house they grow up in and build fond memories in. I want them to be able to play club sports and have access to academic resources when they need them. I want them to “be” from a place they call home. I want them to look like most of the other people in their community and not stand out because of their blond hair. I want them to live near extended family.

Yet I also want them to experience diversity and know what its like to be in the ethnic minority. I want them to travel and understand that there’s more to life than what they see. I hope they have the opportunity to see extreme poverty first hand, and be able to work together to try to help those in need. I want them to know how to navigate an international airport and know how to pack light for a long trip. I want their favorite foods to be authentic Japanese or Korean, because that’s what their friends at school shared with them. I want them to see their parents, as I saw mine, seeking God and loving on others in tangible ways.

I love the parts of me that have developed because I’m a TCK. I love that I am more comfortable with international travel than domestic travel, and I love that I have early memories of traveling with my family. I’m thankful for the diversity I experienced and the way I got to see missions, and development and relief work as a kid. I’m grateful for the way I was protected from the media and social influences as I was developing. I will never take for granted the beauty and simplicity of living on an isolated tropical island.

I feel sad that this TCK part of me is something a lot of people don’t really know. Not because I hide it, but because its awkward to talk about it daily conversation. No one wants to be friends with someone who is always going on about, “Well in Saipan they do things this way”, or, “In Saipan we didn’t wear shoes in the house” etc. I miss being overseas yet I love being in America. I hope my children have the opportunity to learn about God’s work in the world but also hope they find a cultural and personal identity sooner than I did.

I guess I still wrestle with some of these issues, but I’m oh so grateful for the life that I’ve lived so far. I’m fun, silly, and have deep streaks that occasionally surface. I may be a little quirky, but I’m also interesting if you give me a chance. I can talk about shopping for make up and shoes, and the next minute be talking about my crazy boat trip in Indonesia and the issues of children affected by war. I hope, at least, to give that to my children.

Are you a TCK? What questions have you wrestled with? How do you teach your kids about the world beyond what they can see?

 

Begin Again.

family travel pics

 

Years ago, when I became a parent, I started a blog to discuss parenting things. I started parenting in my passport country, the US, and found myself birthing my third child in a new host country, China. When I started that original blog I never imagined that I would begin another journey into expat land, never expected to be a TCK (third culture kid) raising TCKs. That assignment finished 2 years ago and I once again find myself preparing to expatriate, this time to Japan. Again, I begin again the expat life cycle, goodbyes, hellos, ending chapters, and writing new life stories.

 

Perhaps it’s the perfect time to enter a new chapter of my professional life as well. My children, though young, will all be in school in Japan (a benefit of expat life), and I find myself for the first time since becoming a parent, alone at home for most of the day. I find myself increasingly ponderous of my life, desiring to tell my story so that the things I’ve experienced may benefit someone else.

 

I moved overseas when I was 10 months old, the child of missionaries, navigating cross cultural adjustment at an early age. My family traveled extensively in Asia and back and forth to mainland, US, until I was 12 when we repatriated back to Los Angeles. Throughout my young adult life I had the opportunity to travel and participate in student programs overseas, including spending a semester in Jerusalem. After college the extent of my travel included short term mission trips and vacations as well as a six month student study and mission trip in South America.

 

Until one day I was at home with a 1 year old, very pregnant with my second child, when I received a call from my husband asking how I felt about moving to China.

 

And so I find myself a little older, a little more weathered, getting ready to move again. Is it something in our blood that draws us to this type of adventure? Do we have a self masochistic streak that seeks out challenging experiences? Or is it that once you live in another country you always want a little more adventure?

 

Whatever the reason, lets begin. Again.