Expats are a particularly vulnerable group when it comes to maintaining mental health. This should not be surprising: the upheaval of a move, taking up a new job, and being uprooted from familiar surroundings and loved ones, plus the challenges of a different language and culture, can all take their toll – especially if it’s your first experience as an expat. Things can easily become overwhelming. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to deal with issues such as homesickness and culture shock, and how to maintain your mental health when you’re abroad.
Homesickness often takes time to set in – there’s generally a ‘honeymoon’ period in which you are so busy exploring and acclimatising to your new surroundings that you don’t have time to miss home. But as your environment gradually becomes more familiar, especially if you’re in a new place for the long haul, thoughts of home begin to creep in, sometimes accompanied by disillusionment with your new locale. It’s easy to start making negative comparisons, particularly if you are on your own. It can be difficult, too, if you’re a ‘trailing spouse,’ when your partner is busy in a new job but you’re just along for the ride. If you’ve been working, a suddenly empty day can be a challenge, however much it might initially feel like a holiday.
Modern communication can be a godsend – but it can also remind you of what you’ve left behind, especially if you are not happy where you are and have left your family. Seeing them engaging in familiar routines on social media platforms such as Skype and Zoom can really cause homesickness to kick in. So what can you do about it?
The first thing is that it is important to address homesickness: not just assume that it will wear off eventually. A significant percentage of expats end up throwing in the towel and returning home. If you’d rather not be one of them, then there are some practical steps you can take to combat the issue.
Psychologists have divided dealing with homesickness into an ‘ABC’ approach. ‘A’ stands for ‘Affect.’ This refers to how you’re feeling, and the experts suggest that you don’t ignore negative emotions but make a note of them and try to take positive steps to deal with them, such as incorporating familiar habits (such as going to the gym or re-reading favourite books) into your routine.
‘B’ is for ‘behaviour’ – is there anything that you’re doing or not doing that is affecting your mood and could be changed? For instance, frustration at not understanding people could be channelled into learning the local language. Make sure that the basics are covered: that you’re eating properly, taking regular exercise, optimising your sleeping habits and taking some enjoyable down time.
‘C’ refers to ‘cognition’ and that relates to examining your core assumptions and how you’re feeling about them. For instance, someone coming from a culture where alcohol is readily available might find dry countries a challenge, and if you’re from a culture where women’s rights are a feature, moving to more repressive countries can be a significant shock.
Talking to the locals to gain a better perspective of where they’re coming from can be helpful, and trying to understand the people around you. An estimated 10% of expats become what’s known as ‘Adopters’: they ‘go native’, in the terminology of the last century. You don’t have to go this far unless you really want to, but you can enhance your experience by not living in an expat bubble and getting to know some locals. Some surprising friendships can be made when you’re abroad: make the most of the opportunity.
Keep a journal: writing down your feelings is a good way to put some distance between your thoughts and yourself, and it’s easy to feel ‘stuck’: having a record of your daily emotions can often show you how far you’ve come when you look back on your notes.
Keep in touch with family and friends, but note that psychologists recommend that you limit this: rather than spending all your time on home-side social media, go out and explore your new environment. Check out interest groups on sites such as Meetup, either for an existing hobby or a new one. Expats relocating to regions which aren’t similar to their home locale report taking the opportunity to learn something new: mountain biking or skiing, for example, if you’ve moved near the mountains, or sailing or paddleboarding if you’re near the coast. Make a bucket list of ‘things to do’ before you head back home, if your stay in a new country will be limited.
Be prepared for homesickness to ebb and flow if you’re in a place for a long time. Expats report waves of homesickness when, for instance, relatives start having children and they miss out on landmark moments for grandchildren or nephews and nieces. Don’t keep quiet about it – any mental health issue is more easily addressed if you do so early on. Talk to other people about your feelings, as they may have gone through the same thing and have some tips. Does your workplace run a mentoring programme, for instance? Another expat who is a few years further down the line from yourself might have some helpful ways of dealing with your feelings. Don’t feel guilty about it: if you’re an expat, you’re likely to be a high achiever, but feeling homesick doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s normal.
Finally, if things feel really rough, you might consider online counselling. The recent pandemic has made medical advice sought over the phone or internet a more common phenomenon, and some counsellors specialise in online 1-1 sessions, particularly if they are expats themselves. Check online resources to see if there is an expat counsellor in your region who speaks your language and who might be able to navigate you through the cultural waters of your new life.