Tag Archives: living abroad

Beating the Holiday Blues

Another holiday spent away from home, another emotional meltdown narrowly averted. Easter has now long passed but I am still reeling from the aftershocks: the desperate calls home to Minnesota, the rapidly vanishing mountain of chocolate eggs, the box of tissues by my side (just in case). And my mental state does not discriminate. Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving – no matter the festive occasion, I can’t help but turn into a sourpuss each and every time. Without fail, I catch a horrible case of the holiday blues.

Upon careful introspection, I have determined that the problem is not the holiday itself. After all, despite my dad’s hopes for my Catholic confirmation in the 10th grade, I never had a thing for Jesus, or any religion for that matter. And the rare times where I have been invited to share one of these important moments with a French family, the doom and gloom is still roughly the same.

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So I know what you’re thinking – it’s an easy one, right? I just miss my family. But it’s not so simple. Take last year, for example, when I went home for Thanksgiving and spent a week guffawing and gorging myself on turkey with my immediate and extended family. It should have scratched the itch, non? Yet when I found myself alone in France just one month later for Christmas, my reaction was similar to that of stopping antibiotics in the middle of treatment – a nasty holiday funk that returns more vicious than ever before and is now even harder to treat.

What makes holidays abroad so tough is our pension as humans for traditions, and what they mean for us individually. Traditions come in the form of religious celebrations – like Passover or Christmas – or in secular, seemingly baseless forms like April Fool’s Day. At each fête, we come to expect certain things, based on what we have learned from our family, our culture and our country. If our tradition doesn’t deliver, a gut-wrenching, highly personal disappointment may ensue. Think, an overworked dad who forgets to play Tooth Fairy to his six-year old daughter, Sally. Sally is waiting for her 50 cents, and if she wakes up and no money’s in sight, there will be tears – guaranteed.

Thus perhaps why celebrating a holiday like Easter without family – your own family, to be precise – can be so excruciatingly difficult. Although you appreciate the invitation from your French friend to join him for Paques, his Oncle Pierre just doesn’t have the same comedic timing as your Uncle Jack, and you sort of miss that awful pink marshmallow and pineapple salad your Aunt Charlene always makes. It’s the little things that make our traditions so strong and without them, we are frankly a little bit lost. Add the fact that we may either be surrounded by French people we barely know or all alone in our apartments, and you’ve got a top-notch recipe for depression.

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The only way to save ourselves is to do what expats around the globe have been doing for years – create new traditions. So, you can’t go home for Christmas? Organize a dinner amongst your international friends and instead of opening presents, sing karaoke and play charades. Or at Thanksgiving, offer your chicken dinner (because let’s be realistic, there’s almost no turkey in France) to the homeless in your community. If you’re scared off by this much change, try to at least recreate your home-country tradition with the same people each year – this way, you’ll all come to know what to expect in future seasons.

With this plan of attack, instead of looking to the holidays with dread, you may even come to enjoy them. Just remember that nothing has to look the way it once did. You’re in France now and you are changed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go prepare my three-egg omelet, chocolate Nesquik and game of Scrabble for the 4th of July.

Originally published in Brit’Mag – May/June 2010

When Christmas abroad isn’t so merry

Family, gifts, travel and more – the holidays are always a time of hustle and bustle. But what happens when the stress becomes more than you can handle? Dordogne-based therapist Nikki Galleymore talks about coping with the holidays


Although Christmas is undoubtedly merry, it can wreak havoc on your stress and depression levels. Maybe you’re spending the holidays in France for the first time and are worried about being away from your family. Or perhaps you’ve got the opposite problem: all your loved ones are flying to France to experience the holidays in your new home, meaning you’ve got to play the perfect host or hostess. Either way, the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s can put a damper on your mood during what should otherwise be a festive time. Do you know how to cope?

Just leave me.

Depression is one of the most widespread mental illnesses in France. According to a survey led by the INPES (Institut National de Prévention et d’Education pour la Santé) in 2005, 8% of French people (or 3 million) aged 15-75 had already experienced depression during the 12 months preceding the survey. Of those 15-75, 19% (or 8 million) of people suffer or will suffer from depression during their lifetimes. It is an illness that seems to affect women more than men – almost twice as often. Equally damaging is stress, which affects most people at some point in their lives, some experiencing it more often or severely than others.

Nikky Galleymore is a Zimbabwaen therapist in Eymet who sees primarily English-speaking clients. She says that the Christmas holidays can exacerbate stress and depression in already sensitive people, especially foreigners living abroad. “It is well known in the psychotherapy world that there is this problem, particularly in France,” says Galleyway. “Expats are separated from their family and social groups… or whole families are visiting France. People get incredibly stressed… There’s already huge stress when moving to a new country and holiday time is absolutely heightened.”

The three main issues that bring people to Galleymore for treatment are anxiety, depression and lack of confidence. Whereas expats may have had successful careers back home, now they are without work or doing a lower level job. Not understanding the French language can make simple tasks like going to the bank or post office stressful and affect one’s self-esteem. And financially, people may not be as viable in France as they were in their home country. “All of these things come together as a lack of confidence,” says Galleymore. So even before holiday stress comes into play, there are often new negative emotions for foreigners to deal with after a move abroad.

Galleyway says that another stressor during the holidays is the intense guilt some may feel from being away from home, especially those who have left elderly parents and aren’t able to return for a visit. “The other problem is financial pressure – to buy presents and airfares, to entertain, or having many people over to stay,” says Galleyway.

Every year she sees a similar scenario in her office: “During Christmas, it’s very quiet. It definitely slows down. Clients try to maintain the situation themselves, then their coping mechanisms shut down and that’s when they seek intervention.” Galleyway says that the depression and stress that come with the holidays won’t necessarily appear for those without previous symptoms and primarily exacerbate existing problems.

So what can you do to cope with holiday stress? Galleyway suggests dealing with negative emotions before they come to a head. “If it’s not possible to return home, I encourage clients to stay in contact in other ways,” she says. “There is also perceived ideas and reality, and the question of how people are perceiving their problems.”

In any case, take time out this Christmas for yourself to relax and reflect. And if you’re receiving therapy, be patient. “A lot of people expect immediate results from therapy,” says Galleymore. “It’s a heavy process. I can’t help anyone who won’t first help themselves.”

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Looking for other ways to beat holiday stress? Try these techniques:

Use essential oils. Drop some lavender oil on a tissue and inhale deeply, or dab a bit on your wrists or even under your nose. Take several full breaths and feel your muscles relax.

Meditate. Pick a quiet spot in the house, light some incense and take 5 or 10 minutes just for yourself. Whether you choose to sit or lie down, the most important thing is to be comfortable – no need to twist and turn into awkward yoga poses. Breathe deeply and repeat a calming word silently while attempting to release all other thoughts from your mind.

Exercise. An oldie but goodie, working out ups your endorphin levels to make you feel happier and more at ease. Run, walk, do yoga or go ice-skating with your kids. Expending a bit of energy will relax your body and soul.

Jam out. Music, whether you play an instrument or listen to CDs, can have tremendous calming effects. Play some slow tunes, preferably something light like classical, slow jazz or chanting music, and lie down on the couch to enjoy.

Golden reflection

Visualise calm. Just like athletes or musicians do before a big game or performance, you too can “act as if”. Imagine yourself at the beach, on the top of a picturesque mountain or any other place that brings you calm. You’ll soon find that your body relaxes into the fantasy along with your mind.

Jump in the bath. When was the last time you opted for a long, hot bubble bath as opposed to your five minute shower before work? Fill up the tub, light some candles and let your mind – and stress – drift away.

Feel the love. Take a moment to give your spouse an extra hug, cuddle with your dog or cat, or have a chat with a friend. If you can’t be around family over the holidays, call them up for an impromptu pre-holiday conversation. Seeking human contact during an otherwise stressful moment will boost endorphins and help you calm down.

Eat well. The holidays are full of rich desserts, highly-caloric meats and cheeses, and the temptation to overeat. After all the big meals, you may be left feeling sluggish not only physically but mentally as well. Take a time out from the holiday food fest and fill up your plate with fresh fruits and veggies, nuts and low-fat yoghurt. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

Laugh. Do whatever you can to get at least one belly laugh per day, even during the stressful holidays. If your friends and family don’t get one out of you, pop in your favourite comedy, tune into a funny radio show host or re-watch family videos. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying your holidays to the fullest.

Let go. Anxiety and stress can often lead to regrets and mental torture of what should have or could have been. Sometimes you need to accept that things are what they are and cannot be changed, even regarding negative situations. If this is the case, it’s probably time to let it go.