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3 Strategies to Deal with Uncertainty as an Expat/ Immigrant

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

The only thing we'll ever really know about tomorrow is that the sun will rise. Everything else is uncertain.

As expats or immigrants, some of the uncertainties we face include the question of finding a new home that we will be comfortable in, adjusting to a new culture and language, building a social network in our new city, navigating the job market, and accessing healthcare services.

Add to this global political turmoil, rising prices, an unstable economy, and the threat of AI taking over our jobs, and we now have a potent cocktail of unknowns.

Fortunately, we don't need to let uncertainty rule our lives. There are ways we can manage our response to it, and take care of our health.

Here are 3 suggestions based on research in Psychology:

1. Mindfulness, looking AT thoughts and feelings

In times of uncertainty if our stress is not managed, our default is to go into Fight-or-Flight mode where the Sympathetic nervous system takes over, making us more vulnerable to making irrational or destructive decisions.

However, thoughts are not facts. By learning and practicing mindfulness techniques, looking AT our thoughts and feelings rather than FROM them, uncertainty becomes more manageable. Meditation, journaling or therapy are all effective ways to start.

2. Use worry as a motivator for proactive problem solving

Worry can actually be a useful thing, if we channel it smartly. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, it's only transformed. The next time you feel a lot of nervous energy, you can transform it into an action that moves you closer to your goals. In Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), "opposite action" is a technique where we 'run toward' our fear, rather than running away from it.

3. Living by your values, finding meaning

According to research by Van den Bos (2009), we can reduce the anxiety associated with uncertainty by reflecting on what our values are and living by them. This way we can feel greater control over certain aspects in our lives, wherever it is possible to have control - like the choices we make about where to live, whom to start a relationship with, where to work etc. The research also shows that when we pursue activities that facilitate self-improvement, learning and mastery, it can give us a feeling of accomplishment, mitigating the anxiety.

Note: These are only a few first steps based on research, and I hope they have been meaningful to you. For more customised and detailed support, I would recommend personal therapy.

About the Author

Diya John is a counselor and psychotherapist with a Masters in Psychology and a Diploma in Counselling from Australia. She founded Therapy Garden to make evidence-based counseling more accessible to expatriates, immigrants and the international community. She is based in Japan, but works with clients in different parts of the world via online therapy. Read more about her areas of specialisation and services here.

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  • Hafenbrack, A. C., Kinias, Z., & Barsade, S. G. (2014). Debiasing the mind through meditation: Mindfulness and the sunk-cost bias. Psychological Science, 25(2), 369-376.

  • Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320-333.

  • Lerner, J. S., Li, Y., Valdesolo, P., & Kassam, K. S. (2015). Emotion and decision making. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 799-823.

  • Sweeny, K., & Dooley, M. D. (2017). The surprising upsides of worry. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(4), e12311.

  • Van den Bos, K. (2009). Making sense of life: The existential self trying to deal with personal uncertainty. Psychological Inquiry, 20(4), 197-217.



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