by Andrea M. Darcy
Expat life offers many exciting advantages, from learning a new culture and language, to earning more than you would back home.
But your new life abroad can also bring with it unexpected stresses the best laid plans might not foresee.
What you need to know about expat life
What are the hidden stress factors of working and living overseas, and how can you best navigate them and protect your psychological wellbeing?
[You might also want to read our article The Moving Abroad Blues].
1. Pre-departure overwhelm.
It sounds romantic, to run away overseas… and then the paperwork hits. Although most companies generally do most of the visa paperwork for the potential employee, some countries require stringent medical tests, criminal background checks and attestation of qualifications. There are often costly and time-consuming procedures. Then there are friends to see before you leave, and arrangements to be made.
And if you are like many people, the more you have something important to do, the more you might fall into procrastination, leading to even more stress or side effects like insomnia and feelings of panic.
HOW TO COPE: Break the mountain into rocks. Make a list that includes not just the big items, but breaks each one down into smaller goals. For example, for those medical tests, what doctors do you have to call? Do you have those numbers? If not, put down the step of finding them.
Then rally up a support team. If you are a procrastinator or suffer from Adult ADHD, then ask a good friend or your partner for help. Can they remember to call you at certain points over the next few weeks to check you are on track?
2. The reality of expat life might not match your fantasy.
You thought your new life abroad would be romantic and exciting – and then the challenges begin.
You can’t have your own car at first because your license needs a new piece of paperwork, and you feel trapped, and the the nearest shop is a drive away. Your new colleagues aren’t as welcoming as you hoped, and what were you thinking, moving to a country that has a humidity level that makes you feel like you are living inside a giant armpit?
Your dream has dwindled into what in moments seems a nightmare. Worse, you are too embarrassed to turn to friends back home who don’t understand your expat life now anyway.
HOW TO COPE: Gratitude can help – five minutes each morning writing down what IS working about your new life is proven by studies to elevate your moods. Or try the power of a new perspective – what would this experience look like if you were five years old? How fun would this be if you had just escaped jail? How will you see this in five years time?
Then take a tip from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and find a balanced thought for each negative one by writing down the exact opposite of your negative thought then choosing one between the two. For example, “I can’t stand the drivers here” is the one end, “I love the drivers in this country” is the other end, and “some drivers are bad here but I’m getting used to them slowly” is a balanced thought.
3. Culture shock can be, well, a shock to the system.
You read the right books, you think you know the new rules of your new country. But knowing and experiencing can be two different things. Work culture might be entirely different – take, for example, promptness. In several Gulf countries, the sense of time is very relaxed and to have meetings delayed or postponed is not uncommon. If you are someone who takes pride in being punctual and meeting deadlines, this acceptable tardiness can be excruciating.
And sometimes culture shock might feel more personal than you expected. Yes, you know that you were expected to cover your legs and arms as a woman in your new country, but you might find you don’t feel yourself in the clothes you have to wear.
Or it might just be that it’s not in the culture to speak openly, so you have a non-stop feeling you are always someone ‘doing things wrong’ and find your self-esteem dropping.
HOW TO COPE: Do reach out to the expat community. Sure, they might not be as cool or cultured as your friends back home, or the sort of people you would normally choose as friends, but you might actually find that you have more in common than you expect and learn new things about yourself in the process.
4. Discovering you’ve lost your relationship skills.
While you may know how to please the crowds back home, suddenly you can’t reach out to people in the same way.
Even if you’re learning the language, you may be a long way from fluency, and cultural mores might mean you don’t even know how to best communicate.
As for your relationships back home, they might be harder to maintain than realised now your life is on a different page entirely. Your friends and family might be at a loss to understand what you are talking about, or feel insecure with their own life compared to yours.
HOW TO COPE: Again, don’t let the loneliness go on too long. Do reach out to other expats. And remember that sometimes the best way to communicate is not by words in any case, but by shared experiences. Try a new activity, such as a sports group, a dance class, or a cooking workshop. You might find you learn new ways of connecting while having a good time to boot.
5. Losing your stress release outlets.
You’ve spent a day and a half trying to set up a bank account and Internet, but you got nowhere fast and feel like you’re going to blow a gasket. At home you’d hit the gym to sweat some of the stress away, or debrief with friends over a pint at your local pub. Maybe escaping to nature was always your way of re-charging, only now you’re in the middle of an urban jungle.
In your new environment you don’t have the same means to diffuse stress. Even simple things like finding solace in the silence of a local library might feel like something you used to take for granted. Before you know it, the stress mounts up and you feel edgy, frustrated and anxious. This can lead to burnout, anxiety or depression in the long-run.
HOW TO COPE: See if you can find another form of your favourite release. You might be in an urban jungle, but ask around for good parks or consider growing plants on your balcony – gardening is often cited as lowering stress. Don’t overlook a good long walk instead of the gym as a physical activity – it lowers stress and can also mean you learn the local area more. And try new local sports on offer. Or consider taking up something that is proven to release stress that can be done anywhere such as journalling, yoga, or mindfulness meditation.
The most important thing you can do when dealing with expat life?
What really matters when dealing with stress overseas, just like dealing with stress and anxiety at home, is not to suffer silently. Although it can be tempting if you are used to being independent, or don’t want others to know your perfect new life is not so perfect, staying connected to those you love and making effort to meet new people is crucial.
If you don’t feel there is anyone you can turn to and feel the stress is becoming all too much or just want more support, don’t forget that nowadays most major psychotherapy companies offer online or phone counselling, where you can talk to a professional who can offer unbiased support when you need it.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and writer. She also runs a consultancy helping people find their perfect therapy and therapist. She has experienced expat life in England, Japan, and France, so knows a thing or two about it! Follow her on Instagram for useful life tips @am_darcy