by Andrea M. Darcy
For some of us the dream of moving abroad is to go somewhere more low-key and relaxing. For others it’s somewhere more exciting, a big glamourous city.
Regardless, the original idea is that living overseas will make things wonderful. Life will be better then it’s ever been, and you’ll finally be free to be the ‘the real you’.
So why is it you secretly feel so glum now it’s finally happening? Or lonely and let down if the move abroad has already happened? And what can you do about it?
The Great Myth About Moving Abroad
Moving abroad feeds into a fantasy that most of us have – the fantasy of escaping. Escaping our jobs, our boredom, escaping the city we live in that costs too much. Perhaps escaping our marriages that have lost their spark, or our family and the secret disappointments in us we are sure they harbour.
Unconsciously, what many of us want to escape is ourselves. The idea is that if only we lived somewhere more relaxed or exciting, we, too, would be that more relaxed and exciting person we’ve always meant to be.
It’s no wonder when we first are offered a new life overseas we feel so elated.
Everyone wants to be you… for now
You’ll find it’s not just you that gets elated when you do decide to move abroad. It’s often everyone around you, which feels exciting and supportive – at first. It can eventually just be part of the problem, though.
The very act of ‘breaking free’ from regular life makes you the great representative of everyone else’s secret hope that escape is possible.
You become the proof that one day they, too, might make it out to a better life.
And that puts a lot of pressure on you to uphold the myth that moving abroad is the answer to inner dissatisfaction. If you do start to feel stressed or uncertain, you might feel that admitting to your worries would let others who are excited for you down. Instead you might choose to suppress your anxiety about the move.
And if once you are abroad things aren’t as rosy as you’d hoped and you feel low? You might deny that you are overwhelmed. The problem with denied anxiety and ignored low moods is that they tend to escalate. Left unchecked, they can lead to depression.
What about moving and living abroad causes depression?
1. It’s a lot of change happening at once.
Change isn’t easy, and it is inevitable that it causes some stress. Even if your thoughts are calm and you feel organised, change can stress out your body, triggering its ‘fight or flight’ response (read more on the effects of change here).
2. For new things to begin, some things have to end.
Endings tend to cause the mind to look backwards and create a romantic (often unrealistic) view of the past that we then compare to the worst things going on in the present or projected future. Even things we thought we hated like our jobs can suddenly take on a rosy hue that makes us panic about what is to come.
3. Moving abroad means you are walking away from your support system.
Most of us take our support systems for granted. We can be so used to having family, friends and colleagues there for us, who understand us without having to ask questions, we don’t even realise how much support that gives us. Even with online and phone calls that trusted connection can feel weakened when you are overseas, so no wonder you feel a little bereft.
4. You are stuck on a big learning curve.
It can be exhausting both mentally and emotionally to deal first with all the things that need to be done before moving abroad, some of which you might never have had to deal with before (health checks, paperwork, life insurance, the list goes on). And when you’ve dealt with all that it’s only to show up in your new country and be met with a learning curve of a culture, food, climate, and weather.
And then of course there is good old culture shock (read our Guide to Culture Shock if this is a concern).
5. If moving with a partner, your relationship can be put to the test.
If you move abroad with a spouse, husband or friend, you might find that your relationship has to take more stress. Where in your old life you both had your own support networks, now you might only have each other. This can leave one or both of you showing a needy or demanding side that might overwhelm the other.
If the relationship starts to suffer or change it can cause low moods for you and you can lose site of the fact that it’s quite normal for a relationship to temporarily take stress when moving abroad.
6. You are still stuck with the same old you, to your surprise.
It’s normal to think that if you move abroad you’ll suddenly be calmer, happier, more adventurous best self. But moving abroad can often trigger your worse self, if only at first. When you put yourself through the stress of change and the vulnerability of living without your support system you might feel edgy, easily triggered, and annoyed with everyone and everything.
The truth you’ll have to face is that no matter where you move, you are still the same person, with the same issues, the same emotional triggers, and the same personality. You might have found yourself in a new location, but you are going to attract the same sort of challenges because YOU are the same.
So what do you do if this rings true? How can you deal with your low moods when you are moving abroad or living overseas?
7 ways to manage depression when living abroad
1. Get honest about how you really feel.
You can’t fix something if you are pretending it isn’t broken. Try to get in tune with how you are really feeling and what is really upsetting you about either moving abroad or about the place you are in if you have already moved. It’s okay to feel lonely and homesick, particularly at the holidays.
Journalling is a great way to get to the bottom of things, without others influencing our emotional process. If the idea of writing out how you really feel makes you feel ashamed or scared, then vow to yourself rip up whatever you write afterwards so you feel safer.
It can be helpful to talk to someone about you feel – but choose someone who listens and doesn’t judge, not someone who will make you feel worse or try to tell you how you feel. Don’t overlook the help of a coach or counsellor who can offer an uninvolved and unbiased perspective.
2. Be a little selfish.
If you are trying to pretend you aren’t feeling low about moving abroad because you don’t want to disappoint others, stop. It’s hard enough to be responsible for our own happiness, let alone that of those around us. And your mental wellbeing is important. Your friends and family might feel worried about you, it’s true, but they would feel a lot worse if you ended up deeply depressed or in real trouble in the future all because you were worried about disappointing them.( If this is a big problem for you, you might also want to read up on codependency and how to manage it).
3. Stay open.
It’s easy once you get to a new country to panic and make sweeping judgements about a place – “nobody here is friendly”. “I will never fit in”. This sort of thinking, called ‘black and white thinking’ in therapy circles, tends to overlook all the shades of grey in the middle that make up real life. The truth is, for example, that there are some friendly people everywhere. The worse thing about black and white thinking is it shuts us down to new possibilities and opportunities.
Try to think from different perspectives. It can be fun to think of three people you admire and keep asking yourself how they would see it or what they’d do. What would Madonna do if she found herself in Cambodia? Find a gym and have a good, endorphin releasing workout?
4. Don’t sacrifice your self-care.
Speaking of working out, one of the first things to go when moving abroad can be your self-care routine. It can seem a big effort to find a gym or a dance class in a new place you might not speak the language, or overwhelming to learn how to bicycle on the other side of the street. You can be tempted to try all the new foods and end up eating a lot of junk food you wouldn’t have back home. Remember that a healthy diet and exercise can greatly elevate your moods so try to stay on top of being healthy.
And watch the alcohol intake – it’s a depressant that can help turn low moods into darker ones (try out guide to knowing if you are drinking too much if you are worried).
5. Keep forward movement.
If you are in a state of culture shock or overwhelm it can be easy to stop trying. Of course pushing yourself is not the solution. Treat yourself gently. Try for a diet of one small new thing a day; a new food, a new walk, talking to a new person. It can also help to create a structure or schedule so you can’t just space out but do keep active.
6. Try mindfulness.
Both when we are getting ready to move abroad and after we are living abroad are times when the mind can become very obsessed with mulling over the past and the future. Am I making the right decision for my future? Why did I not see how much I had going for me in the past? What will happen if I stay here?
The mind can get so caught up in such questions it can stop us from enjoying the present or even seeing what is going right in the present. We might miss opportunities that could lead to things that make us happy. Mindfulness, a mood tool gaining popularity in therapy circles, is a way of bringing your attention firmly into the present (try a two-minute mindfulness break now).
7. Reach out for help.
When we start to feel down the easiest thing can seem to be to not talk to people or go out much but to hide ourselves away. Unfortunately withdrawing from socialising feeds a low mood and encourages it to blossom into full depression. And trying to deal with things by yourself is too much to ask of anyone who is stressed or feeling low. Try to reach out, even if it’s just talking to others on ex-pat forums online. Look around to see if there are any social groups locally that might help, such as an expat community.
As for professional help, don’t feel you can’t get help just because you are in a country where you don’t speak the language. One of the benefits of the internet is the rise of counselling by online, meaning you can access help anywhere in the world with someone who speaks your language and knows your culture. And with a therapist you can also discuss whether if for you, it’s time to return home.
Photos by Nikos Koutoulas, Kate Ter Haar
Andrea M. Darcy is the editor and lead writer of this blog. She grew up moving, and as an adult has lived and worked in five different countries and three continents. She currently lives in Paris. Find her @am_darcy