How to overcome overwhelm when moving abroad

The Expatability Chat Podcast

Recognising and overcoming overwhelm

Overwhelm – that paralysing feeling you get when you look at the huge amount of stuff you need to do before you move and have the pressure to get it all finished in time.

Being overwhelmed and exhausted leads to poor decision-making. You have too many decisions to make, and a finite time in which to make them, and that can cause ‘decision fatigue’.

Overwhelm is an emotion caused by feeling out of control and unable to manage your circumstances. I can help you gain control and manage all of this!

In this episode, I share my insight, tools and tips to help you overcome overwhelm so that your preparation is a stress free as possible.

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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of

Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat and in today's episode, Episode nine, going to look at overwhelm.

Overwhelm when you are planning a move overseas and overwhelm in general because it gets to us at all times, regardless of our situation. So we're going to look at how to recognise, overwhelm and how to conquer it, once and for all.

Overwhelm is that paralysing feeling you get when you look at the huge amount of stuff you need to do before you move, and you have a bit of a time pressure in which to get it all finished. Time pressure being your leaving date or packing date and it's pretty immoveable.

It's important for you to recognize that moving house is one of the biggest stressors in life. And you're not just moving house, are you? You're moving to a whole other country. You're taking a massive step out of your comfort zone. And so, yes, you will be stressed, you will be overwhelmed and that is completely normal. But getting too overwhelmed can lead to many detrimental issues. For me, it means I actually stop doing stuff which, when you have a plane to catch, is not a good thing.

I think my most overwhelming time was when my daughter moved from school in Berlin to boarding school in the U.K. one Easter. And just a couple of weeks before that happened, we learned we were going to be moving to South Africa in a couple of months. Normally, we have about a year's notice before we move. And I've got used to very, very slow planning. And there was a huge amount of work I had to do before her new school start date; mainly buying clothes and equipment and labelling everything. That meant hand sewing labels into all items of clothing. I'm not a natural needle person.

They were very, very long shopping lists of things that needed to be sourced in the UK for the new school, plus all the moving stuff for us; sorting the pets out, organising storage in the UK for random bits that we've been travelling with since 2006. And well, yeah! Emotionally I was an absolute wreck. My to do list is almost overwhelming during normal life. It's actually at least two notebooks and countless scraps of paper. I'm not even kidding! I have a dreadful memory and it's easier for me to write everything down as it pops into my brain before it falls out almost immediately.

Anyway, I did get through it all, obviously, and with the insight, tools and tips I'm going to share with you now to help you overcome overwhelm so that your preparation is as stress free as possible. I'll give you tips, tricks and tools to help you get through this journey.

So overwhelm... What is it? In the context of what you're going through with an overseas relocation it's completely normal. And it can still weigh heavily on you. You still have your day to day life to deal with, as well as preparing for your move. So it's important to keep on top of your feelings.

And, correct me if I'm wrong, but your mental load is probably overwhelming in itself. You know, all the things that you need to keep in your head for making sure there's enough food in the house so your family can eat, knowing when Sports Day is, etc.

This is all down to you and you alone, and this won't be helping at all. There is probably another adult member of the household who can take on some of this mental load. So let's start with that. Delegate as much as possible.

While we know the causes of overwhelm - moving to an entirely new country - there's a little bit more to it than that. And knowing this will help you cope.

So why is moving house so stressful?

Coping with any change is difficult. Anything that takes us out of our comfort zone is stressful, and it's called the comfort zone because moving outside of it is uncomfortable. Any upheaval of any kind is hard work and you're heading towards everything that is unfamiliar and uncertain. We are naturally territorial and, however much we claim otherwise, are happiest with routine and familiarity. So stepping outside our territory makes us twitchy.

And the practical stuff. There is a huge amount to prepare and do. You end up in a vicious cycle: too much to do. Not enough time. Too many decisions to make. Big decisions, like which removal company? Which house? Which school? Small decisions: do I take this item? Do I need another suitcase? Which clothes will work there? I wonder if I can get tea bags there. And that's usually a no by the way!

You feel you have a lot of responsibility weighing on you right now. What if you make the wrong decision? What if you don't like it there? What if my family don't like it there? What if I like it and nobody else does? All of these what ifs are pointless. And I don't mean don't think them, but try not to spend too much energy, mental energy, thinking about them. And the thing is, you've got all of this going on and you still got daily life; work, commuting, food, shopping, housework, homework, entertaining the kids, walking the dog school runs - it's just endless.

And all of this at the same time as organising your move. Is it any wonder you're feeling stressed right now? Anyway, calm down, I've made you panic, sorry!

Let's delve into what's going on and how to squash down that rising panic. Stress can affect people in different ways. Everyone's different, and some people may not feel overwhelmed at all. Others may feel everything is just too much. Once you recognise how overwhelm can affect you, we'll look at ways to overcome overwhelm.

Hopefully you're aware of your own personal stress responses so that you can be on the lookout for them. They could be mental or they could be physical. Some signs may be frequent headaches, difficulty sleeping, skin outbreaks and so on. Mood swings and irritability are common... Oh, so common! If you find you're lying awake worrying about stuff, I've got a tip to help. I find it useful to always have a notebook nearby and brain-dump before bed each night.

I'll give you more information about brain dumping in a moment. It's a great way to reduce overwhelm. And sometimes you just find yourself completely overwhelmed by all the decisions and choices you have to make each day. You may find yourself researching and analysing everything in way too much detail, which ends up as you being completely stuck and unable to make a decision. This is known as analysis paralysis, and I'm definitely guilty of this. It's actually a form of procrastination. You don't necessarily need to analyse everything in such detail.

So what effects can overwhelm have? Apart from the physical stress responses I mentioned just now, it can also lead to poor decision making. When you have too many decisions to make and a finite time in which to make them, this can cause something called decision fatigue. Decision fatigue means being low on mental energy. You're not necessarily aware of being physically tired, but your brain is exhausted. You're running on adrenaline, maybe too much coffee and the excitement of the move.

But your mind has had to make too many decisions each day and eventually it just sort of gives up. Making all these decisions becomes too much, especially when there are so many choices. And you may be afraid of making the wrong decision, especially when and if that decision affects other people. There's kind of too much pressure. You may start taking shortcuts, making careless and impulsive decisions. Oh, that one will do. No, we don't need that. I'll throw it away.

And you may regret these choices later. I can't tell you how many times I've regretted decluttering choices when I've become too overwhelmed with everything that I need to do. Quite often I'll spend ages looking for something in my new home to just never finding it and realising that I'd thrown it away or giving it away before we moved.

[Cat miaowing!) Yes, I'll throw you away!

Or you find that you may be suffering from analysis paralysis and find yourself unable to make any decision at all. Your brain is basically just saying "enough" and chooses the ultimate energy saver, shutting down and doing nothing. Which is not great when you fly out in a few weeks. If you get to this stage of complete brain shutdown, just step away from it all. Take a break, a breather, go to a café and watch the world go by for a while. Don't think of anything. Just be in the moment. Don't think forward. Don't think backwards. Just be.

Something that I find really useful to remember is overwhelm is an emotion caused by feeling out of control and unable to manage your circumstances. Just think about that for a moment. So overwhelm is an emotion. You feel out of control. So logically that means if you can control something, overwhelm will go. So let's work on managing them. Incidentally, is a well known fact that us control freaks experience overwhelm far more than others. It's a perfectionist's nightmare.

Just keep chanting my favourite mantra: better done than perfect.

Workout what you can control and just drop the rest. It sounds easy, it takes a lot of work and a lot of logic. For example, you can't change your leaving date, but you can see it as a deadline and set stages to get things done by. You've got a packing date, the date that your children leave school, the date the dog's vaccinations have to be done. These are key dates. And yes, they are time based. So work with them, not against them.

And that will help you prioritise. Control your time and don't let time control you. It's all a matter of prioritising. If everything gets too overwhelming, prioritise and prioritising helps you prevent overwhelm in the first place. A key point to remember is to remove yourself from the situation. Being surrounded by papers and to do lists is overwhelming in itself.

So make a promise to yourself to take regular breaks. Breaks when you do not think about the move at all. Remember, that overwhelm is caused by feeling out of control. So you need to work out how to take back control. I'll talk about that in a moment.

So one of the key tips for planning a relocation is prioritising properly. Taking action is infinitely better than inaction. It sounds obvious, but when you're in the depths of stress and overwhelm, nothing at all is obvious. It can often take an outsider to see a way through everything that you may not have considered.

Ask for help. Don't be proud rope in friends and family to help you with your day to day life. Perhaps they can take on some child care or dog walking for you, freeing you up to deal with the stuff that only you can deal with and don't forget. That's what I'm here for, too. I am excellent at cutting through decision making process and helping you prioritise what's important for you. I'm the outsider in this situation, so use me.

So prioritising. Let's delve a little deeper. Work on your focus. Focus helps you prioritise and prioritising helps you focus. Only deal with the actual things that you can do right now. Priorities will become a daily key word for you. And I'll keep going on about it too. Focus only on that that you can actually work on - those things are within your control. You will waste time if you focus on how long the visa office takes to get back to you. This is something you cannot control, ever. So eliminate it from your mind. There is no point worrying about something that you cannot control.

Delegate: delegate, anything that can be worked on by someone else. This may not be part of your move per se, but perhaps they can take the weight off your daily life so that you can free up more time for yourself. So delegate something like can somebody take the kids off you for a little while just so that you can get some things done? Perhaps get a cleaner in? Delegate as much of the mental load as you can. As I said before, I'm sure there's another adult in the family who can do much of it.

Get rid of anything that does not need to be done. No, it really doesn't need doing, honestly. Step back.

Multitasking doesn't work either. Well, it kind of does, but not in this instance, because it's too easy to miss a really vital step. Focus is the key here. Focus on one task at a time and get that done and ticked off your list and then move on to the next task.

Don't try and do half of one task and half of the other task at the same time. Don't fire fight. What's fire fighting? Fire fighting is reacting to things as they happen. So answering an email as it arrives, cleaning up that little bit while you're here, picking up that rubbish as you pass. It dilutes your focus and becomes procrastination.

Managing your precious time helps a lot. Set aside time for one task and then stick at it until it's finished. Set aside time to deal with emails, clean another time. Basically, you need to become incredibly methodical and logical at this point, which may come naturally to you or it may not.

It's very easy to get caught up in emotion when you're getting overwhelmed. So try to stick to facts and logic as much as possible. And remember what I said just now, overwhelm is an emotion caused by feeling out of control and unable to manage your circumstances. But you can manage them, I promise you.

So be methodical and be logical. That's the key point here. Prioritise logically. Prioritise methodically. And ignore any speculation, you can do that later. There is no point worrying about the what ifs and what hasn't happened yet. Take control of your life means dealing with what's right here, right now, not what might possibly happen.

OK, so prioritising tips for you. And yes, you really need to get on top of prioritising.

Planning really important. Basically, you're going to make lists, lots and lots and lots of lists. It's really easy to drift off into easy and fun plans. But let's be honest, the priority now is to get you and your family on that plane with everything necessary to start your new life abroad. Everything else is just fluff. There is no point planning what colour you'll paint your new house if you forget to actually make sure you sign the right papers to get that house. Do you see where I'm coming from here? Be logical, be methodical.

Some things to do in preparation for a move abroad are very time sensitive. Getting your visa, for example, can take longer than you expect, especially when you have to travel for interviews at the embassy. If you're moving with pets, the timing and bureaucracy is compulsory. Maybe you need vaccinations too. You don't want to get all of these at the same time, believe me. I once went on a fairly impromptu backpacking trip to South America, a long time ago now. But that meant I had to have something like 15 vaccinations for six or seven heavy duty diseases in the space of ten days. By the end of that, I was pretty ill.

Anyway, you have a pretty solid deadline here, a departure date. Actually, before that, the deadline will be packing date. You need to work smarter, not harder, and you need a calendar. There's an online app called Trello, which is a great tool if you prefer online to paper. And you've got your phone, I expect, so you can schedule notes and to do lists into your telephone.

Whether you use digital or paper, it's entirely up to you. Perhaps you need a family calendar with tasks assigned to family members, events assigned to family members. Basically, you choose whatever works for you.

Make the most of the time you have available so that that works for your life. Segment your to do list into tasks that you can do at specific times. So perhaps schedule a morning for making phone calls or an hour listing all utility companies you need to contact.

Sometimes it really does get too much and you do end up paralysed and unable to do much or anything, and this is when the unproductivity guilt sets in. Oh, this is a nice one, I like this. Basically, that's a vicious circle of self-loathing. Yeah. I'm also an expert at that. How to get through this is to just pick three items. If you're feeling really bad about things, pick three items that need to be done today. Or maybe they're just really simple to do. And just do them.

Sometimes you may only be able to focus on one. That's fine. It really is. Even if it's just throwing away one carrier bag of decluttered magazines, you have achieved something. Tick it off your to do list. Tomorrow is another day and you will get there. I've never heard of anyone who's moved overseas and not got everything done first, so I do promise you you will get there.

Once the news is that you're moving overseas, you'll notice all kinds of new things happen and this is something else that's really going to affect your overwhelm if you have a certain kind of family.

So apart from rather odd comments from family and friends, like, "Oh, you're so brave, I couldn't do that". Or "Why do you want to leave?" Or maybe you'll get really pressurised with some expat guilt. You also will get pressurised into making commitments that you can't be sure you'll be able to fulfil. Everyone in your family, all your friends, will expect you to pay them a special visit to say goodbye personally. Relatives you rarely see will suddenly become really close. Facebook acquaintances and people you worked with 10 years ago will claim to be your new best friend... It's probably in order to get a free holiday.

And yes, I'm aware I sound cynical, and that's because I am I've been through it, I've been there, I've done it. And yes, this does happen. A big life changing event like moving abroad certainly shows you who your real friends are. And don't get me started on when you return to your home country for a holiday. I'll cover that in a whole new episode. Basically, I want you to promise me that you won't make promises you can't keep.

I sincerely hope you don't get inundated with guilt tripping, but do be aware it may happen. It usually comes from parents and parents in law, but this is by no means limited to them. You may find yourself promising to come home three times a year just to keep the peace, but you'll find out that this is impractical and will curtail your own life. So try and be vague for now. Again, I'm going to do expat guilt in a whole other episode because it's a massive topic. So do stay tuned!

This is when you need to be at your strongest and most resilient. Don't spread yourself too thinly; this is a recipe for burnout. You have a lot to do and if they are that keen to see you get them to come and visit you, rather than you spend your time traveling all over to see them. Or try to organise a gathering, a dinner party or something so you can see several at once rather than having to visit each one separately. Learn to say no.

And this is a good habit to get into for future visits home, by the way. You may also get sucked into what's known as The Lasts. This is the opposite of new beginnings. It's good to acknowledge to yourself that you're moving on with some visits, some last visits, if you like. So the last day of work, that's fair enough, that's something to treasure. But then you'll also find yourself noting the last trip to your local supermarket, the last trip to the doctor, the last time you'll see that tree and flower and it can just get really silly.

It's really easy to get quite maudlin about all this, especially if you're very, very nervous about your move. After all, the word 'last' generally has sad associations. But remember, this last time will seamlessly flow into lots of fabulous and exciting first times. So don't get caught up in it.

Something that is useful, take lots of photos; especially important if you have kids, as you'll be continually amazed at the questions that they have and the amount of time that they hold in their memory, if you like.

Your children enjoy looking back because that's something that they're familiar with. You probably won't look back as much as forward; try and stay in the moment and encourage your children to try and be in the moment but understand that they do like looking back as well. It makes them feel comfortable and it shows them their place in the world.

Right back to practicalities and I want to talk about brain dumping. I love brain dumping. My brain doesn't hold very much, but I do love dumping everything out of it!

Brain dumping is a way to empty your brain of all those thoughts whizzing around inside. It is highly technical so do take notice of this. Have a notebook and a pen and make lists of absolutely everything that is in your head that needs doing. It doesn't necessarily have to be anything that needs doing the next day, just everything that pops into your head. I can sit down with a cup of tea, watching the news, and suddenly into my head will pop "Oh, you need to get apples". If I don't write that down straight away, I will forget to get apples. I think there's a limit to the number of thoughts that one person can have in their brain at a time, and mine's kind of half of what that is.

So yep, write everything down. Write down, I need apples, call the electricity company that gets written down too. New socks? Yep, absolutely everything. Then when I have some time, either that night or first thing the next morning, depending on life, I reorganise that brain dump into a journal or another notebook and prioritise from there.

I have a Super Scary To Do List Buster on my site. I'll put a link to it in the show notes so that you can download and brain dump and prioritise to your heart's content.

So from your brain dumping list, what you do then is you take what is important to do and prioritise it by time, importance and necessity. So you may have a shopping list for the apples and the socks, but you also have a to do list for the calling the utility company, getting the vaccinations done and make sure the most important time related ones are at the top of the list.

Anyway, it really helps you sleep if you can get everything out of your head and onto paper. Basically 'better done than perfect'. Avoid perfection. Perfectionism is self sabotage and an opportunity for procrastination. And you really don't have time to procrastinate right now. Do you really have to declutter every single thing before you leave? No. And the chances are you won't be able to unless you already live a very minimalistic life and are supremely efficient and organised.

Now, I'm not saying you aren't, but just rein it in a bit. You don't need to get rid of everything. If you're able, and depending on where you're moving, you may find it easier to take most of your stuff and get rid of it while you're over there.

Accept that you cannot control everything, work on what you can control and events outside of your control? Let them go. You can only control how you react and respond to those.

Remember to take a break from time to time, switch off from it all once in a while. Perhaps it will suit you better to have a planned couple of evenings off each week. Whatever works for you. Definitely take a break.

So we've looked at the causes of overwhelm as that will help you understand what's going on. You've got the normal causes, which is moving house and a whole new country, yeah, I mean, 'normal?' Don't feel bad if you're feeling it's all too much, you will get there. Just take it all one step at a time. You're making a massive leap forward and well done for that. You're great.

And remember, I do like this phrase, overwhelm is an emotion caused by feeling out of control and unable to manage your circumstances. The out of control bit is the bit that we can control, and the overwhelm is a feeling that will go away once you've controlled what you feel you can't. And that is all down to prioritisation.

Don't panic, it will happen.

So to recap on how to manage your time to prevent overwhelm is conquering the time pressure; focus. Focus on facts and logic, drop speculation and what ifs. Lists, make lots and lots and lots of lists. Use tools that work for you like a calendar, journals, Trello, brain dumps, telephone apps. Prioritise, prioritise and prioritise and prioritise. Accept that you cannot control everything. Learn to say no and take a break.

You manage your time and prioritise your to do list and the overwhelm will lessen.

You're going to be just fine. I promise you. Embrace the change rather than focus on the stress; remind yourself of the positives and look forward, not back.

Decisions can be changed. Nothing's fixed.

And again, please do get in touch if you have anything that you'd like to talk through. That's what I'm here for and this is my speciality.

Good luck with everything. Keep me posted. Let me know how it goes. And I look forward to chatting with you again soon.

Thank you for listening to the Expatability podcast, please check out for more free information and resources and follow me on your favourite social media. Don't forget to join me next week for another episode. Until then, bye bye.

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