Fretting about what to bring along on your new adventure abroad? Whether coming with only suitcases or loading a container, there’s only so much room… and I know  it’s hard to leave behind those precious keepsakes or favorite books.

Well, I can recommend eliminating one thing. In fact, if you don’t leave this particular item behind, your expat experience will be rather disappointing.

What is it, you ask?  I recently ran into an acquaintance at a social event I hadn’t seen for quite some time. When I first met her, she had just arrived in Panama and by her own admission was run down and overweight.

Now, a year later, I hardly recognized her. She was attractively slim, the excess pounds vanished. I could not help but notice she just glowed! I complimented her and asked her what was going on in her life to cause such a transformation.

She responded with the usual checklist: eating better, more walking, biking and most of all she thought the lack of stress is what caused the radical improvement. I was pleased but really not surprised. After two years in Panama myself, I realized that stress was no longer part of my vocabulary. A stressful situation now is if we can’t find gas for the boat that day or the hardware store is out of screws. Pretty tame when I think about the constant tension and pressure I felt in my world before I moved overseas.

When considering relocating abroad, we often focus on tangible benefits like a lower cost of living and excellent weather. After all, who doesn’t want to rid themselves of financial concerns and a lot of folks (me, for example) wouldn’t mind never being in knee deep snow again.

Less obvious, is the chance to experience life in a whole new way, free of the emotional baggage that often accompanies pursuing a career, raising a family, and accumulating material possessions.

Stress referred to as the silent killer. Studies show that scores of maladies are stress related, some life threatening and many more life shortening. Stress often becomes a habitual response that creeps into every aspect of daily life.

Even vacations. My husband and I were recently on vacation back in the US and our hiking and dining companions were two working couples we knew, all with high powered careers. Being around them a lot for a few days gave a reminder about the life we left behind.

It was all very revealing. No sooner would we finish one activity, one of them would say “OK, before we split let’s plan the next thing we are going to do and when we are going to do it.” and often they would not be available until the following week or more! HUH, do we really need to do that?

At first we dutifully showed up on time, only to find them all there early and waiting on us. We progressively arrived at the “next” thing a little later, until we finally blew off a slide show about the Cosmos for a bottle of wine and a trip to the Jacuzzi.

These were delightful people whose company we enjoyed, but their relentless pursuit of “busyness” made us realize that one’s whole approach to life can generate stress. Plus we realized that we had been transformed by immersing ourselves in a culture that celebrates being in the present more than the future.

For example, we were taught that manana means tomorrow. Throughout Latin America the word is more correctly translated as “not right now.”  This lack of specificity about the future is one of the most maddening cultural aspects for newly arrived and time sensitive expats and sometimes longer term expats who refuse to let go. For example, my husband recently contracted to build a Gazebo with his a Panamanian partner for one expat who had been living in Panama a while. By the time they got to the roof, it was rainy season and it was impossible to prepare materials and work in the muddy rain. When the project took longer than expected, she merely said “rain is no excuse.”

Yet, as you learn to release your death grip on rigid scheduling, you discover that the roses you stopped to smell before in fact have an intoxicating aroma. I am finding that stressful situations happen to me a lot less often now. That is because I rarely have to set the clock, have no rush hour commute (or car), and I have no job, boss, yard work or projects I have to keep on schedule. Sometimes I’m not sure what day it is.

Stress is a choice. Something happens, you decide, instantly and often unconsciously what it means to you and what you are going to do about it. In the “striving but never arriving” culture of the Western world, it is all too easy to get caught up in a stressful cycle.

Now, moving abroad doesn’t eliminate stress right away. Plunging into a new culture, with a different language and customs can be its own kind of stress during those first few months of settling in. Each time we return, we realize we have set up our life a little more and the opportunities just open up.

You don’t have to move to a foreign country to enjoy a less stressful life.   I just think living overseas makes it easier to let things happen instead of always making things happen. You learn quickly to be thankful for what you have instead of always wanting more. What you have is today. Each day is its own blessing and you and you alone get to decide how you want to spend it.

Just try this. Ask yourself if the task at hand truly needs to be done right now. When you decide that stress no longer serves you, a sense of peace and calm becomes the norm. You find yourself more profoundly relaxed than you ever imagined. And your rich reward will be more years of health and happiness where ever you call home.