By Kim Frolander, Vineyard Missions Blogger
Coming home from a missions trip on a mountain-top “high” can be an exhilarating experience. Even more surprising can be the depressing aftermath, an unexpected crash back into normal life in your own culture. From science to experience, we discuss the varying symptoms of “normal” re-entry, what to watch for, how to prepare yourself and your team to ease into the transition, and how you can help friends returning from the field make their adjustments to living in a new normal.
Part 1: Jet-Lag
What the heck is re-entry? What should I expect and how should I prepare my teams? By definition re-entry is coming back into someplace you’ve already been. By experience re-entry can be different for every person. And every time!
When we talk about re-entry in missions, we are generally referring to the two weeks or so after you come home from a mission trip. Or in the case of long-term missionaries (2+ years abroad) the first years settling back into your home culture. We can use words such as normal, usual, or expected when you come home from turning your whole world upside down, but the words might not mean much. Everybody responds differently to culture shock, especially when it is your own culture that is shocking you.
What re-entry is not referring to is the physical symptoms of jet-lag, (1) such as
Waking (way too) early
Gastrointestinal issues such as constipation or diarrhea
Zoning out or daydreaming
Dizziness (not in the source material, but I experienced it!)
These symptoms of jet-lag can show up after crossing 2+ time zones and it can take as many days to recover as the number of time zones you crossed!
Jet-lag’s contributing factors include changes in airplane cabin pressure, the high altitudes used for flying, and dehydration due to the airplane’s dry air and not drinking as much as you need (because you’re trying to sleep, and you don’t want to ask a row-mate to let you out to use the bathroom).
Fortunately, there are several ways you can help your body adjust more quickly to the place you are standing (both going away and coming home).
What is Jet-lag anyway?
The Mayo Clinic (1) says jet lag is related to disrupted circadian rhythms and can be brought under control. Certain cells in the tissue at the back of your eye (retina) transmit light signals to an area of your brain called the hypothalamus. At night, when the light signal is low, the hypothalamus tells the pineal gland, a small organ situated in the brain, to release melatonin. During daylight hours, the opposite occurs, and the pineal gland produces very little melatonin. You may be able to ease your adjustment to your new time zone by exposing yourself to daylight in the new time zone so long as the timing of light is done properly. (1)
The Better Health Channel of Australia (2) suggests staying well-rested before you go, and upon arrival, “Expose yourself to daylight or, if this is not possible, bright light to help ‘reset’ your body clock. The stimulus to reset the clock is light entering the eyes, especially the blue spectrum of light.” (2)
During the flights:
Limit or avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks.
Drink plenty of water.
Try to nap whenever you feel sleepy.
Eat small meals frequently, choosing lighter foods like fruit and vegetables.
Wear loose, comfortable clothing.
Whenever possible, walk around the cabin.
When you sleep on the plane use your destination’s time zone.
Wear an eye mask.
Maximi(z)e comfort with a pillow supporting your neck and head.
In the Field of Physics
Here is another jet-lag explanation from the field of physics (in everyday language): flying messes with the body’s natural magnetism electrons and the body has to adjust to its new location and not having been in touch with the earth’s surface which keeps us “grounded.” Now, there can be a lot of psychobabble, new-age, or evolution-based (pseudo) science (author’s opinion loud and clear right there!) surrounding this practice of grounding one’s body after crossing time zones. According to Dr Joseph Mercola, (3)
Grounding (a.k.a. “earthing” in Europe) is defined as placing one's bare feet on the ground whether it be dirt, grass, sand or concrete (especially when humid or wet). When you ground to the electron-enriched earth, an improved balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system occurs.
The Earth is a natural source of electrons and subtle electrical fields, which are essential for proper functioning of immune systems, circulation, synchronization of biorhythms and other physiological processes and may actually be the most effective, essential, least expensive, and easiest to attain antioxidant. (3)
It may sound strange, but it is not like we’re ask you to dip seven times in the Jordan River or something (Elisha in 2 Kings 5). Just try the following and see if it helps you!
Here’s what I do: Within the first 24 hours on the ground in my new location I take off my shoes and socks for at least 30 minutes and walk around or stretch or sit, but keeping my feet flat on the ground. (I do wait for daylight, so I am using a cross-practice with the Mayo Clinic’s instructions too.) I do this every time, in both directions of my flight, and rarely do I experience jet-lag. (Exhaustion after missing sleep and long ministry hours, yes; but not jet-lag).
Here is when I knew it worked: I was flying from Israel to New Zealand in 2008, and since we couldn’t safely fly east out of Israel at that time, I flew to London first, and had 12 hours on the ground. Then I flew east to Hong Kong for 13+hours. With two hours on the ground there I flew another 13+ hours to Auckland. Fifty hours it took to get there! I went from the Auckland airport to an afternoon picnic on a grassy hilltop. Spent about two hours sitting and playing in the grass. I ate an early dinner and went to bed about 9 PM. When I woke up at a normal time the next morning, there was not a trace of jet-lag to be found.
Since then I’ve been an advocate, challenging as many fliers as will listen, “Try it, what can it hurt?”
In part 2 of this series we will discuss possible symptoms of re-entry, which can include irritability, sarcasm, general malaise, and 20+ other symptoms to watch for...
Mayo Clinic. (2018). Jet-lag disorder. MayoCinic.org. (para 11-13). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/jet-lag/symptoms-causes/syc-20374027
Better Health Channel. (2017). Jet-lag. Victoria, Australia. Retrieved from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/jet-lag
Mercola, J. (Nov, 2012). The ultimate antioxidant: Fight premature aging for free. Mercola.com. (Para 8-9) Retrieved from https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/11/04/why-does-walking-barefoot-on-the-earth-make-you-feel-better.aspx
Going With the Return in Mind: Re-Entry Resource Guide
Kim Frolander started attending Inverness Vineyard Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1994. She spent two years as a volunteer/missionary in Jerusalem, Israel, and upon coming home, she trained with Bubba Justice and led missions at IVC for 3.5 years. Now she uses her experience and degrees in research and writing, (formally known as English and History) for curating resources for Vineyard Missions. She has authored eight books and recently founded a non-profit ministry, the Ruth Israel Initiative.