The Emotional Passport

The “emotional passport” is a dynamic toolbox of skills learned and practiced during the full-circle of intercultural exchange: pre-departure, on site, and re-entry. Those who carry an emotional passport recognize that moving between cultures can contribute to high emotional arousal (discomfort, irritability, anger, homesickness, sadness) and understand that disengaging from emotional overload to quiet the mind will contribute to improved interactions cross culturally. To have a good emotional passport one must acquire skills to regulate emotional challenges experienced in cultural transitions. 

How can travelers become more resilient problem solvers, better at tolerating ambiguity, and more competent with cultural difference? I believe that the resilience necessary for positive intercultural exchanges involves important psychological variables that are often overlooked.To be able to seize opportunities when crossing cultures requires a toolbox of healthy strategies acquired as part of the emotional passport. 

The human brain operates a bit like a battery through an oscillation of energy – energy spent and energy renewed. We consume energy during periods of activity or concentration and renew energy in periods of quiet or disengagement. After a period of concentration, the brain needs to recover, and then another focused period can begin. As result of intense and new learning experiences, fatigue sends our body signals to disengage. If we ignore the need to re-fuel, behaviors that have been called “culture shock” can follow, eg irritability, withdrawal, hostility..

Our American culture works against promoting the stress and recovery cycle because we encourage little practice with self-regulation. Taking time out is seen as a weakness. Understanding that best performances come with the practice of disengaging from high arousal which then can better serve cross cultural individuals. The excitement at each stage of pre-departure, arrival, and re-entry uses high levels of energy. With so many uncertainties in transitions, maintaining a high level of focus is necessary, yet difficult. A significant goal for cultural transition, then, is managing energy not time. Ask yourselves: how are you spending your energy?

Calming down, we feel more in control, more able to make informed choices, and more ready to take in the rich culture learning available to us. A quieter mind promotes the capacity to tolerate discomfort, uncertainty, and ambiguity, leading to better problem solving and greater potential for intercultural sensitivity. The capacity to calm down, self-regulate, in the face of strong reactions to uncomfortable or even disturbing events is a dynamic process. With a refueled brain, there is more energy to sit with negative thoughts and feelings. Calmer, one can then begin to put things into perspective and embrace multiple points of view and alternative interpretations.

There are many ways to harness wellness practices to support positive moods and focused learning. I usually start with encouraging breathing practices.  Deep breathing slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure, both of which can be elevated if the body feels “danger” in the face of “difference”. The sympathetic nervous system is triggered quickly, like a light switch, as the fight or flight response. We can quickly lose our capacity to think clearly, and regaining our thinking cap takes time. Sitting quietly, closing one’s eyes, and taking in deep belly breath takes practice.


Here are some other ideas to facilitate disengagement from high arousal. Develop your own toolbox and practice.

• Create periods when cell phones, computers, and other electronics are off limits.

• Support healthy eating, minimizing high sugar intake.

• Mindful awareness: through breathing, shift attention to the present. This increases capacity for self-soothing. If you are present in the moment, you are not worrying and feel less helpless.

• Exercise moderates the impact of high arousal, but be sure to include additional strategies to supplement your toolbox.

• Yoga: a nice complement to aerobic exercise

• Tree-forest images: practice stepping back and taking stock of the moment.

• Half-smile. Try it!

• Change the Channel: Visualize a set of images ahead of time so that they are a resource, eg.

Channel 8 could be the immediate imagined catastrophe, and Channel 4 (pre-selected) is

“you” sitting on your porch at home watching the sunset.

• Dial Down: put your fist on your forehead and “dial” down your high intensity to a lower

level. This is a re-set to a quieter place and provides a pause to begin clearer thinking.

• The Arts: use a variety of possibilities around the arts: music, painting, dance, singing,

poetry, pottery, all provide respite from high arousal.

Be sure to practice at pre- departure, reinforce and add to the toolbox on site, and review again at re-entry. Skills need to be rehearsed along the way so that one feels more in control when those out-of-energy and anxious moments arise.

Crossing and integrating cultures is a process, and like breathing, not a single event. As a cross cultural mental health therapist, I am passionate in helping individuals who travel internationally address these questions: What are some ways to self-regulate those normal intense emotions that come with cultural transitions? What is behind the variety of stress “signals” that contribute to the process of transition? How does disengagement work? How does one refuel? My hope is this bog entry entry has encouraged you to begin processing those questions and when the next opportunity arrises to travel internationally, that you will not only pack your physical suitcase but that you would take the time to also pack your ‘emotional suitcase’.