Positive Coping Strategies For Life in Diaspora – Get A Grip: Practicing Self-Care

The second “G” of the Three G’s method involves practicing self-care. Self-care is usually not a high priority for new immigrants who are struggling to survive in a foreign country. Yet without self-care, the migrant is not likely to achieve much success in the host country, in the long term. One needs stable psychological and physical health in order to hurdle the obstacles of life in Diaspora. Emotional strength and mental stamina are created through self care, which involves such aspects as: dealing with grief, seeking professional help when necessary, creating social support networks, learning to de-stress, and maintaining good physical health.

Allowing the Grief Process

The issue of grief and loss is a major part of the migrant life experience. Grief and loss are emotional states that need to be acknowledged and then adequately mourned. The feelings cannot be ignored or shut away inside but must be consciously processed in order for the migrant to successfully adjust and adapt to life in the new country. Mourning what has changed and what is gone is a necessary part of this adjustment. Mourning is not a sign of weakness–it is a normal and necessary process. In order to get past the grief, one needs to go through it.

Individuals vary in their response to mourning. While most people would associate mourning with crying, emotional release can be accomplished through a variety of other ways such as talking, writing, meditating, engaging in art or dance and practicing meaningful rituals. It is important that migrants take the time to process the grief they hold, in whatever manner that is appropriate for them.

Grief might be on-going, especially in the initial post migration period. In other cases, grief might appear only sporadically, as when a face on the street seems oddly familiar, or a fragrance or sound suddenly reminds one of something back home. Although grief and loss are normal emotions, if the feelings become too intense or obsessive, one may need to seek professional help to cope with them. If feelings of grief interrupt one’s ability to stay focused and accomplish the tasks of everyday life, then it is probably time to look for outside help.

Seeking Professional Help

As was discussed in the previous articles, one study of migrants found that a significant per cent suffered from some sort of clinical psychological condition. Depression, anxiety, grief/loss and isolation are normal emotions for migrants to experience, but when these conditions become overwhelming, migrants need to reach out and seek professional help. Furthermore, should Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) be evident, migrants need to find help immediately.

In most democratic Western countries, free services exist that offer mental health counseling to those who cannot afford to pay. This may become complicated if asylum cases are pending, because various countries withhold health services until the cases are resolved. However, should government services be denied, other types of non-state services do exist for migrants. Run by fellow migrants or individuals sympathetic to their plight, these services can be highly effective, and in some cases, perhaps even more helpful than the formal state-sponsored services. Migrants searching for non-government services can look for information and referrals at medical centers, telephone crisis lines, refugee organizations, Churches or by doing a local search on the Internet.

Many migrants with conditions such as PTSD may be afraid to ask for help, due to the stigma attached to mental illness. Yet left untreated, PTSD does not cure itself and will often worsen over time. Also, the longer it is left untreated, the harder it is to treat the disorder. As a result, seeking help immediately can effectively prevent future complications from developing.

In some cases, PTSD sufferers avoid seeking out psychiatrists due to fear of, or aversion to, taking drugs. However, PTSD is typically treated without drugs, using psychotherapy (talk therapy) and other safe, classic healing techniques such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). No drugs are necessary and in most cases, are not warranted.

Along with access to adequate food, housing and employment, excellent medical care is one of the benefits available to those living in the West. Migrants would be in good stead to make use of it while they can. In order to rebuild themselves, most African countries require Diasporas consisting of strong and psychologically healthy people, not a group of exiles haunted by trauma, anxiety and depression. By helping themselves recover from trauma, individual migrants are also inadvertently helping to rebuild the homeland.

Creating Social Support Networks

One of the mainstays of clinical psychology is that social support plays a huge role in maintaining emotional health. Making friends and joining groups, clubs or organizations are not merely enjoyable activities; they are requirements for good health. Social support is paramount to surviving stress, dealing with grief and loss issues and maintaining good psychological health. Due to the hardships they have survived, migrants need to talk about their problems and to tell their story–it is imperative that migrants have people around them who will listen to them in a non-judgmental fashion. Therefore, social support goes a long way to help migrants cope with feelings of loneliness, isolation and marginalization.

Migrants should make every effort to join or create a local community of support, and seek out a network of friends in their neighborhood, church or ethnic club. Men, especially, might have a difficult time admitting they need social support but it is crucial that they accept this fact if they wish to achieve success in their new country. In the previous article on the discussion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it was shown that those in Diaspora have a particularly difficult time achieving the needs-levels of love/belonging and self-esteem. Social support goes a long way toward fulfilling both those levels and can help the individual achieve self-actualization. Social support also makes economic sense–studies show that the presence of social networks in the destination country is vital for a successful post-migration period. If one wishes to “make it” in the new host country, one needs to quickly tap into a pre-existing social network.

No life is perpetually smooth, and when times of trouble set in, migrants need to be able to rely upon others–to care for them when illness strikes, to provide references for acquiring employment or housing, or to pass on useful information about the new country. Similarly, migrants need a social network so that they can care for others, too–a sense of satisfaction and belonging is derived from helping others. Acting in altruistic ways and helping those in need provides one with a feeling of strength and cultivates a sense of meaning in life. Consequently, migrants need to work on actively cultivating meaningful friendships. Although already pressed for time and energy due to education and employment obligations, migrants still need to put effort into maintaining social networks because it is in their best interests to do so. Effort needs to be put into maintaining social networks, just as one would put effort into working or shopping for food, because it is these networks that may be one’s best survival strategy while abroad.

Learning to De-stress

As pointed out earlier, migrants face an enormous amount of chronic stress, due to socioeconomic pressures, immigration status anxieties, culture shock, the double life existence and the toxicity of daily life in western society. Therefore, migrants will need to learn to deal with stress on a daily basis in order to cope with pressure and avoid health problems. Some effective ways to deal with stress are:

Talking it Out
As discussed above, social support is vital in one’s arsenal against stress. Talking about problems, venting and reaching out to others for help is key. Persons who have experienced trauma especially need to tell their stories to people whom they can trust. If migrants are unable to find social support in person, they can also turn to telephone crisis lines or Internet forums to find the support they need.

Breathing Exercises
The fastest way to immediately de-stress is to take a few deep breaths. Throughout the day, physical and emotional tension can be released by using slow, steady diaphragmatic breathing. The best method is to ensure that the diaphragm pushes out while inhaling and recedes upon exhaling. Breathe in to a count of six seconds, and then exhale to another count of six seconds, repeating the technique for a minute or two.

Meditating is one of the most ancient forms of stress management and can involve breathing techniques such as the one just described, or other spiritual techniques used to focus the mind. There are many books that teach specific kinds of meditation. One can also simply sit quietly, gazing into nature or at a beautiful piece of art. The goal is to stop the warp-speed pace of the day, quiet the emotions and still the mind for an extended period of time.

Developing Spirituality or Practicing a Faith
Practicing a religion or a spiritual tradition can help one to develop trust, resilience, courage, gratitude, faith in positive outcomes and patience–all useful traits for dealing with life in Diaspora. The daily practice of religious or spiritual rituals is also calming and soothing.

Physical Exercise
Assuming one’s job is not already too physically consuming, physical exercise is an excellent way to burn off stress and frustration. Playing sports with friends or simply taking a brisk walk can bring numerous benefits to the body, mind and spirit. For those who are exhausted at the end of a long workday, gentle stretching or yoga-like exercises can help re-energize the body and relax the mind.

Listening to Music
Music that is pleasant and soothing can help the mind and body to calm down. Music can also help process difficult emotions, and transform mood. For relaxation, choose lulling classical pieces, instrumental music or pieces without a beat. To transform mood, start by playing music that is similar to one’s mood (for example, a discordant, aggressive piece for anger) then switch to a piece that reflects the mood one wants to create, such as a happy, upbeat tune or tranquil melody.

Taking Life One Day at a Time
When life becomes too difficult, and worry about the impending future becomes too great, it is important to remember to take things one day at a time (or one hour at a time or even one minute at a time, if circumstances feel particularly overwhelming.) Excessive worry about the future can become emotionally crippling. It is more helpful to keep focused on today. Dale Carnegie once said, “Remember, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.” During the war in 1939, the British government created a motivational slogan that has recently gained popularity once again: “Keep calm and carry on.” Seventy years later, it is still the perfect mantra for life in the stress-filled West.

Play and Humor
Play is not something just for children. Recreation and leisure time help keep adult lives balanced and whole, and add creative spark to the spirit. Taking moments out of the day to engage in activities that are enjoyable can help reduce stress and restore pleasure to the process of life. As far as the situation allows, it is important to strive to maintain a sense of humor. Black humor (humor geared toward the darker side of life) can go a long way toward helping one de-stress and cope with the difficult aspects of our experience. Humor and a sense of irony can be especially useful when dealing with culture shock and cultural adaptation – just ask US president Clinton, who, when making a televised speech in Moscow in 1994, unwittingly set off a political and cultural maelstrom. Clinton made a hand signal by joining the thumb and forefinger to form a circle–a gesture that amongst Americans means, “OK.” Little did he know that to the Russians, the hand signal meant something entirely different and that he had unintentionally given the entire Russian nation an obscene gesture? The moral of this story? Making mistakes in a new country is inevitable. Consequently, maintaining a sense of humor can help one deal with these errors and can lighten up some of the darker moments in life.

Techniques for dealing with stress are relatively simple. What isn’t simple is sticking with them. Regular practice is what makes them effective, as opposed to sporadic use. Practicing the methods outlined above throughout each day will help to create positive results in the long-term.

Maintaining Good Physical Health Habits

Young, energetic and on the go in a new country, migrants are not likely to be paying much attention to their physical health. Food is plentiful in the new host country and the migrant now has money to buy it, so the chief health problem of the past – chronic malnourishment–has ceased to be an issue for most.

However, in highly developed countries, where much of the food available is non-nutritious and disease promoting, it is easy to fall in line with the bad habits of other Westerners and start eating a poor diet. The typical western diet is high in caffeine, sugar and over-processed food devoid of nutrition. This diet gives one a huge energy rush to get through the hectic workday, but the energy provided is not consistent, and in the long run, is harmful to the body. Eating proper meals with lean protein and vegetables will provide more energy, more consistently. One simple but effective rule to live by is: eat something green every day, preferably raw. This does not require hours of shopping and cooking and can help stave off some serious health issues down the road. Eating properly also makes one feel better emotionally. The body and mind become calmer and more energized to meet the rigorous demands of daily life.