Alejandro Pawliszyn

Loss of control. Expat coping with COVID series.

pandemic has brought unexpected challenges for all of us. Our expat experience is also being affected.


Limits to our sense of control.


Expats are used to navigating novelty and challenges. Being in Buenos Aires, or anywhere abroad, requires us to adapt to doing things differently, from our most intimate habits like to adjusting to cultural differences. We all had to learn to cross the street safely here and find our way in the negotiation of kisses, hugs, or handshakes when meeting porteños. Living abroad is about challenging ourselves, being enriched, giving up some control in order to immerse ourselves in a different reality. In most cases, however, we rely on a deeper sense of control: that any loss of control, as expat, is part of a chosen identity, a chosen journey, which contains the ability and freedom to change course or go back home. In the current pandemic, our expat sense of freedom and control over the course of our journey is being challenged at many levels. For example, there are not flights back -unless permanently. This loss of control can be very stressful.


The need for control varies depending on personality characteristics and the complex interplay of environmental, personal, and developmental factors. It is one thing to be told you cannot fly to the US if most of your family is in Argentina with you, and another thing is if your aging parents are back ‘home’ and you are their primary support. You may have low need for control as a personality trait, but if you just opened a restaurant, you will react strongly to the loss of control because of the unfortunate timing and financial loss.


Loss of control may trigger personal vulnerabilities that lead to distressing subjective experiences and the aggravation of personal vulnerabilities. Ongoing loss of control can lead to learned helplessness. Some people experience agitation, anxiety, depression, interpersonal conflict, relapses in substance use and the a host of unhealthy behaviors.


Fortunately, there is much we can do to cope with loss of control. I will talk about three approaches: bio-psycho-social care, the cultivation of experiences of control, and seeking help and support.


Psycho-bio-social care


Humans, and that includes expats :), are biological, psychological, and social creatures. Our wellbeing depends on the nourishment and care of these three domains. If any of the three domains is in trouble, we suffer, and the other dimensions of our lives are affected. Think about when you are physically sick, how much your emotions and social life is affected. Think about how conflict or joy in a relationship can affect your body, thoughts and emotions. Our bio-pscyho-social wellbeing will determine how a particular experience, including loss of control, is experienced. If we are nourished, loss of control can be managed with more resources, or buffered by co-occurring experiences of wellness. Think about how different it is to get stranded at an airport, i.e. loss of control, if we had gone for a run earlier in the day, or we have a good book, or we are in love. So, the general strategy is: take care of your body, of your mind, and your relating, and this will have a positive effect on your coping with loss of control.


I won’t list all the things you can do to nourish yourself psychologically, biologically, and socially. Instead, I will mostly share ideas to help you think. When you read them, reflect on your situation. What can you to care and nourish yourself?


Psychological nourishment:


– Intellectual stimulation. Creativity. Curiosity. Examples: reading, writing, doing art, starting/re-taking personally meaningful project.


– Care for your attention. We are in an overflown state of information and unhealthy attentional stimulation. Learn to manage the quality and quantity of your exposure to social media, news, blue light, and attentional demands. Be intentional in managing what you consume with your mind.


– Cultivate activities that help you live your values. For example: spirituality, involvement with a cause, self-care, supporting others, doing something that feels intimate with the good.


– Intentional living. Imagine who and how you want to be. How can you craft your life?


– Play. Explore. Connect with the unexpected from where you are.


– We all want to identify and be part of groups and systems that we value. Cultivate psychological belonging by engaging with those communities.


Biological nourishment:


– We don’t have a body. We “are body”. Our embodiment needs care, like a garden, every day.


– Our embodiment is constantly trying to clean, heal, and renew. You can always stop an unhealthy habit and will see the results. There is also a limit. Some damage can be irreparable.


– How healthy is your eating, hydrating, resting, ways of engaging your time?


– Exercise. Cardio, strength, flexibility.


– Sensual pleasure, subtlety, intimacy with yourself, others, the world.


– Beautifying and aesthetic joy.


Social nourishment:


– Care for the relationship with your self. The self is a relationship. Can you improve the way you relate to yourself?


– Cultivate nourishing connections. Be mindful of over-expansion and pay attention to quality.


– How much are you giving and receiving, and around what?


– Consider activities you can do with others near and remotely. Examples: talk, read the same book, schedule periodic meetings that create a sense of continuity.


– Cultivate community. Join groups that meet remotely or share beliefs or activates.


– Work on your immediate relationships to bring them closer to your hopes and values, including the cultivation of patience, acceptance, and love.


Cultivate experiences of increased control.


– Take time to recognize how much you do control. It in the face of loss of control, we may become so focused on what we don’t control, that we lose sight of all the much that we do. If it would help, make a list of all the things you control. You’ll realize they are a lot. Some people benefit from starting a gratitude journal. Gratitude allows for strategic re-framing and refocusing, so more complex picture can be considered. Covid will pass. Until it does, try to focus on the many things you do control. Care for the things you control, make them thrive.


– Strategic acceptance. There is a Buddhist tale that tells of a teacher who asks a student if the mountain is heavy. The student answers “yes, master, very”. The master responds, “well, not really, if you don’t want to lift it…”. Control is relative to the conditions to which we want to apply it. During the pandemic, strategic acceptance means that we stay away from wanting to control that which we cannot., while focusing on cultivating patience and redirecting our efforts to things we do control.  Acceptance help us minimize the emotional distress from an unwanted situation, while liberating us and our energies, so we can invest them in productive coping and more pleasurable possibilities. Strategic acceptance is intelligent and uniquely personal. It does not mean not caring, but rather a resolved sense of dignity that helps us tolerate the unwanted and direct our attention to other aspects of our lives.


– Invest in things you already have that feel good. Think about the things in your life that you enjoy, and you know are good for you. Protect them. Cultivate them. Can you make more space for them? Can you help them thrive further?


– Stop things that you know are not good for you. We can derive a significant sense of control by taking action and showing ourselves that we can protect ourselves and the good we cherish. How about cutting down on X? How about not engaging in Y? How about making changes in the ways you do Z?


Seeking help and support

As part of our deeply interpersonal nature, being supported and helped by can help us cope and buffer the effects of loss of control. We are all hyper-connected, and yet, it is common for people to feel lonely and alienated. Start by examining how you are spending your ‘connection’ time. Are there specific connections that feel more caring and nourishing? When thinking about support, who comes to mind? Is it possible that you need help about something? What is that? Who could you ask for help? Do you let others help you? Remember that, when helping, the helper is also nourished and benefited. If you participate in a supportive relationship, you may realize that your experience is normal, and the relationship may help you see all the much you are already doing well in coping. Can you think of ways in which you would like to be supported?