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Moving Abroad and Mental Health: How to Beat the “Expat Blues”

Taking good care of your health and well-being is essential for making life abroad an enjoyable experience. When preparing for your move, you may have remembered to cross most health-related points off your to-do list.

The right medical insurance for your destination, additional immunizations, particular health risks to be aware of  — such practical aspects are rarely neglected. But what about the thorny issue of expats’ mental health?

Let’s Talk Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has put an additional strain on the mental health of everyone, and especially expat need to deal with the added stress of being far away from their home country at this time of uncertainty.

Fortunately, the majority of expats doesn’t believe that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affects their mental health to a large degree. In the Expat Insider 2021 survey, only 7% of survey respondents say that the pandemic has had the biggest impact on their mental health.

However, emotional stress is often an unpleasant side effect of becoming an expat. After all, you are uprooting your entire life!

What can you do to keep the stress of an international move — such as culture shock — from turning into something much more worrying? And who can you turn to if you are among those who find it hard to cope?

You’re Not to Blame for Feeling Blue

In case your mental health should indeed get worse for a while, don’t blame yourself. Unfortunately, there’s still some stigma attached to admitting to this kind of problems.

It also depends on cultural context how such illnesses are perceived. This can make it more difficult for expats to open up, as they may not know how to talk about their issues.

Moreover, some expats might be ashamed of not enjoying the perks of life abroad “properly”: why aren’t they simply grateful for the opportunity to explore another culture, earn a higher salary than back home, or live in a popular tourist destination?

In such situations, try to remind yourself of two salient facts: struggling with a psychological disorder isn’t anyone’s fault, nor is it all “just in your head”. Well, strictly speaking, it is, but that doesn’t mean you are imagining your distress or that its effects aren’t real.

We also don’t know exactly why some people are more prone to mental health problems than others, and why some folks are more resilient and bounce back even after intense stress. Just see it as a predisposition, like some people are suffering horribly from hay fever in spring while others have never had an allergic reaction in their entire life.

You wouldn’t blame any hay fever patients for sneezing and wheezing, would you? Then don’t be hard on yourself for suddenly feeling anxious or depressed after moving abroad!

Do Everything in Moderation

The best advice is often the simplest (and oldest for that matter): all things in moderation, as the ancient Greek philosophers used to say. When you adapt to a new environment and lifestyle, though, it’s tempting to take your new routines to extremes.

For example, if you have moved because of a great career opportunity, you might be carried away by exciting tasks and new responsibilities. After moving alone to a place where you don’t know anyone yet, you might spend every other night partying and socializing.

Or you could be tempted to do the exact opposite: escape from a stressful day at the office and a niggling sense of loneliness by retreating into your bedroom, like a modern-day hermit with a Netflix account.

Neither behavior is a healthy coping strategy. At best, you’ll be overworked and sleep-deprived. In the rare worst-case scenario, you could increase the risk of burnout, substance abuse, or depression.

The trick is to establish a well-balanced routine that works for you. Make sure to get enough rest and eat healthy, and to take the time for some exercise and leisure activities you enjoy.

The emphasis is on the words “you” and “enjoy”! Don’t add even more things to your plate just because you feel you should do them. If exploring the local sights in your new home is fun for you, go ahead! If you’d rather sit in a café with a good book for an afternoon, don’t feel guilty, it doesn’t mean that you’re not making the most of your time abroad.

It Takes a Strong Person to Ask for Help

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to reach out.

Finding a trustworthy and sympathetic person to talk to can be hard, especially if you aren’t fluent in the local language yet. It’s bad enough to fumble for words when trying to describe the symptoms of a cold or stomach flu to a doctor — how on earth should you ask for help with psychological issues?

Now it’s time to make use of all resources aimed at the expat community. If you don’t think you need professional help yet, you could start looking for mindfulness activities, self-help groups, or crisis hotlines organized by volunteers. Religious congregations could be another starting point since they frequently offer pastoral care.

Furthermore, your home country’s consulate may provide a list of local doctors proficient in your mother tongue, including psychologists and counseling services. Online counseling has also become widely available and could be a great choice if you live in a remote location, or a destination without much of a foreign community.

Don’t give up yet: the hardest thing is to admit that you need help and to ask for it. Afterwards, it gets a lot easier, and soon you’ll be able to enjoy life abroad just like you always imagined.

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