The following is a guest post written by Kayleen Mickelson, a missionary who served in Bolivia. Read on to learn some simple and practical ways to cope with the common stresses of serving abroad.
Teaching fifth grade for a year in Bolivia with new pressures on me to help my students ace their standardized tests often gave me tense shoulders and a tight stomach. Far away from the comforts of home, I had to learn how to deal with my stress in different ways. Here are some cross-cultural, missionary-friendly (read: cheap) ways I found to cope:
1. Take the bus.
I loved seeing true Bolivian culture when I used public transportation and walking to and from the bus lines helped me exercise away my stress.
2. Blend in.
Making friends with young Bolivian singles ended up being my favorite way to hang out. Not only did they know the inexpensive ways to de-stress, I learned many things about their culture and was able to improve my Spanish fluency. (Note: I was grateful that a few of my friends had been exposed to other cultures to some degree; they had a high tolerance for my crazy North American behaviors.)
3. Chill out.
Carving out a small time for myself each night kept me from being inefficient during the day. I often used my time to find a music website that allowed me to create playlists for free. In this way, I kept up with some American pop culture and listened to songs that expressed how I felt in my own language.
4. Stay connected.
Sunday afternoons were correspondence time for me. I took a few hours and wrote to friends and family back home, and I weekly skyped with a friend. This both showed that I cared and helped me gain perspective about my volunteering.
5. Work out.
Jogging is so against the laid-back culture of Bolivia that I felt like a crazy person when I went for runs. As lame as they sound, exercise videos helped me stay in shape and release endorphins which kept me happy and less stressed.
6. Buddy up.
I sometimes chose to eat lunch with another volunteer. Being able to process my experience and hear hers kept me from going crazy. Missing ten or twenty minutes of prep was worth the bonding that happened during those lunches.
7. Be reasonable.
Teaching fifth grade does not save the world. Some days, though, I felt its weight on my shoulders. I occasionally made a list of my end goals for the year so that I realized that I was not solely responsible for the people my students would one day be.
8. Write it down.
My journal from last year is one of my dear possessions. I’m so glad that I recorded my actions and emotions. Also, writing down how I felt helped me realize what big growth was happening in my life and feel justified in being a little tired.
9. Wear a smile.
When I remembered that my purpose in teaching was to serve others, I was always a little humbled and a little glad. Keeping a good attitude helped me be confident, and it probably made me more approachable to both teachers and other volunteers.
Being a full-time missionary usually means limited personal time. It wasn’t easy for me to schedule in time to relax, but I’m glad for the times that I did, because they kept me sane during a rough year. I hope they can be helpful to volunteers in similar situations.