Expat Urban Loneliness – Are You Affected?

Settling down overseas is a very exciting prospect for most people who dream of experiencing a new culture and lifestyle. However, moving to a new city is no piece of cake, even if you have done it before!

Life in urban areas is fast-paced and hectic compared to life in smaller towns and rural places.Daily activities such as work, classes, gym, commuting, housekeeping, and running errands are likely to take up most of your day, leaving you little time for anything else, including essentials like relaxing, socializing, and keeping in touch with your family or friends. Challenges like long working hours, high living costs, crowds, and traffic jams have also become a regular part of any urbanite’s life. As a result, city residents often end up feeling very lonely and isolated. A charity network called Acevo set up the Loneliness Project in 2015 to tackle social isolation across London, and their published report stated that the younger generation of Londoners was twice as likely to feel lonely in comparison to their counterparts all over the country.

The situation is similar in most large urban centers around the world, and the problem is likely to be much worse when you are an expat, living all alone in a foreign land. The situation is further aggravated if you don’t speak the local language fluently. The worst part is that the loneliness doesn’t necessarily last for a short while; for many, it is an ongoing issue.

Unfortunately, people in certain countries tend to be wary of strangers and often end up alienating outsiders, rather than giving them a chance to connect on a personal or social level. As a result, foreign nationals in some cities claim to not know their neighbors in spite of living in the same area for many years. In the recent past, there have been several reported cases of people suffering from a phenomenon known as expat urban loneliness. This problem has been seen among a higher number of foreigners living in London, New York, Hong Kong, Dubai, and Buenos Aires. This shows that while becoming a part of a competitive, dynamic, and goal-oriented global society does have its draws, it is also more stressful. Many expats simply give up after a while and go back home, as they see no way out of their predicament.

There is a common belief that only expats who live alone suffer from isolation. However, contrary to this assumption, you could feel extremely lonely even if you are with your partner or family. Statistics show that isolation and loneliness are more common among dependant expats (especially teens and spouses) than any other expat demographic.

However, most urban expatriates are forced to grapple with a number of emotional challenges, and sources of help are either limited or difficult to access. These are some of the most common symptoms of isolation among expats:

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– Anxiety or nervousness when venturing out
– Chronic fatigue
– Constant homesickness
– Persistent culture shock
– Depression or frequent mood swings
– Difficulties in adjusting to the new place
– High levels of stress
– Inability to make new friends
– Insomnia or other sleep-related problems
– Lack of energy, enthusiasm or excitement towards anything
– Low confidence
– Physical afflictions like headaches, body pain and indigestion (with no obvious cause)

Most expats deal with these issues in their first few months in any location, but eventually they settle into a more happy state. However, if these symptoms persist and refuse to diminish in their intensity, you might have a more serious problem than mere culture shock. Fortunately, there are a couple of fairly simple steps and behaviors that can help alleviate this problem to a great extent.

Stay focused on your original goal

Many people start off on a new adventure with great intentions and a lot of determination. However, maintaining that consistency over a period of time is likely to become a challenge, as you get caught up in the mundane tasks of settling down in a new place and building a new life there. You therefore need to keep reminding yourself about your original goals.

Think of all the reasons why you decided to move abroad in the first place. If even one of them is still important and valid, make a note of it and place it somewhere that forces you to view it every day. This will help you focus on why you are there and what you need to achieve. Always keep your dream in sight and talk about it every time you get a chance to do so.

It is easy to lose motivation when you don’t realize your dreams immediately. However, do bear in mind that the most important part of any achievement is the journey. A good technique to avoid losing steam is to set intermediate milestones that eventually lead you closer to your final goal, and reward yourself every time you complete one.

Make an effort to discover new things

One of the advantages of moving to a big city is that there will probably be a lot to see and do. Go through a few tourist brochures and make it a point to visit at least some of the main attractions of the city. You may just come across people who are in a similar situation to your own.

Another great way to discover more about the place that you have moved to is by joining a class, library, fitness center or social club. In your spare time, try to read up about the new place as much as you can. Also, sign up for a language class or take up a cooking course to learn more about the local cuisine. This will also help you better understand the culture of the new place, and you may get a chance to bond with new people outside of work or school.

Push yourself to be proactive

Making friends can sometimes be a bit more difficult when you are a foreigner. However, don’t get disheartened if the people seem pleasant but wary of extending an invitation for an event outside of work. In such cases, it is often up to you to take the first step.

Try to understand the preferences of your colleagues or classmates and suggest an appropriate outing over the weekend. Alternately, you could invite some of your acquaintances over for a drink or meal. This may mean that you end up footing the tab, so choose the place and group carefully.

If you possess any special skills or talents, you could let your colleagues and mates know about them, and offer to help them learn.

To avoid any misunderstandings, make it a point to include people of all genders and varied ages. The more people you invite, the better your chances of making friends and integrating yourself into local society.

Connect with other expats

Talk to your friends and family members who have also lead the expat life, even if they are settled in a different country. This will bring home the fact that you are not alone in how you feel. You may also receive some useful advice on how others handled the same situation.

There are numerous expat forums dedicated to bringing people in specific countries closer. A few of them may be physically present at certain locations, but most of them have an online presence that is also very helpful. You can sign up with as many of these forums as you like in order to network with other expatriates who are settled in the same city as you. However, some of the sites charge a one-time or annual registration fee. Do check all the terms and conditions before signing up with any expat group.

Many foreigners have benefitted professionally and personally by registering with real-world or virtual expat communities. The websites usually list all the necessary details you need to know about settling down in each place. Some of them actually organize weekly or monthly events so that the members can meet up on a regular basis. These forums will send you regular updates about other cultural and social events that are taking place around you.

Maintain ties with people back home

Being away from your country doesn’t necessarily mean that you will lose touch with your family and friends back home. In fact, it is probably essential for you to stay connected with your old life to some extent. Fortunately, you no longer have to worry about huge telephone bills or waiting for snail mail. Social media has played a very important role in bringing people closer regardless of geographical distance.

At the same time, technology can actually take you farther away from the people who are physically close to you. Do bear in mind that maintaining the right balance in such situations is very important. If you spend the majority of your time keeping in touch with the people back home, you are less likely to form connections with new people.

Many expats feel homesick until they make a visit home; sometimes, all it may take for you to appreciate the new city you are living in is a trip back. A number of foreigners based overseas make at least one trip to their home country each year, to meet up with their family and friends as well as to rejuvenate themselves.

Avoid comparing yourself with anyone

This is one of the most common problems faced by many new expats, and it tends to worsen the isolation and loneliness.

You may come across other foreigners in the same city who have a huge friendship circle and absolutely love their life, while you are struggling to settle in. On the other hand, some of the expats that you meet may still be facing adjustment problems, triggering anxiety in you.

Before you let any of these situations get to you, do bear in mind that everyone has a different journey and each person handles change in their own way. What is important is that you maintain a positive attitude and work towards enhancing your new life.

Acknowledge how you feel and seek help if required

Some medical experts are of the opinion that awareness of a problem is half the cure. The first step in dealing with loneliness is therefore to admit that you are suffering from it. Do not ignore your feelings or try to push them away; doing this may actually make things much worse in the long run. Suppression of emotions is one of the main reasons expats fall prey to depression and give up on their dreams, only to return home after spending a few months in a foreign country.

Once you acknowledge that you are prone to frequent negative thoughts, you will be in a better position to avoid them or at least steer your thoughts, and eventually actions, in a more positive direction.

Of course, not everyone can overcome loneliness on their own. Keep your close colleagues, friends and family members back home informed about how you feel. Speak with them about your emotions as much as you can. In some instances, you may find it necessary to seek professional help. Unfortunately, many individuals avoid doing so because of the stigma attached to it. However, do remember that even the strongest people can be victims of isolation, and there is no shame in needing professional help to overcome it.

Engage in volunteer work

Doing something for those who are less fortunate is very fulfilling in various ways. You don’t have to donate a huge amount of money to give back to society. A number of expats take up volunteer work in their spare time. If you are interested in this, you can spend some time helping out people at a local old age home or orphanage. In many countries, there is a huge demand for volunteers who can teach children. Charity work can help you feel good about yourself and is likely to put you in touch with other like-minded volunteers.

Acevo’s report also recommends that a mayor’s Fund for Young People’s Resilience and Inclusion, worth £ 3.2 million (US $ 4.2 million, € 3.8 million), should be established in order to help ensure that London’s young adults build a strong social network as well as some stable connections to get rid of their loneliness. Similar suggestions have been put forth for other cities too.

Sources [1], [2]


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