Expat life is fabulous. Life here in Chile revolves around skiing, swimming and Shiraz. Well, yes and no…
At times, expat life can be very tough. Sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes we can’t find the tunnel, let alone the light.
Been there, done that…
I’ve experienced horrible anxiety after the sickness of my middle child. Even after the trauma I was still feeling horribly anxious for no apparent reason. One minute I’d be happy in the shower, the next I’m a sobbing wreck on the floor.
But I guess I do have my reasons. We can’t go from nearly losing our child one day to grocery shopping the next. If we could, we wouldn’t be human, right?
I’m lucky to have a very strong support network, but expat life sure can make things tough.
This week I’ve heard from several (yes, over seven) friends experiencing severe anxiety. I’m not an expert and I don’t know what constitutes depression, anxiety or post traumatic stress.
So I talked to one and wanted to share a few insights. Aurdrey Charneux is a qualified mental health counsellor specialising in online therapy for expats.
Is there such a thing as ‘expat depression’?
Though depressive symptoms may appear following an expatriation, symptoms may be completely normal. Mood fluctuations, especially in periods of high stress, when there are a lot of changes happening, can be perfectly normal, both for expats and non expats alike.
However, a high level of stress caused by expatriation can increase stress. Being away from a support system, having to figure out how everything works (transport, grocery shopping etc.), feeling isolated, finding work or starting a new job are all factors.
For anyone with a pre-existing condition these factors can play a significant role in developing depression or an anxiety disorder.
When to seek help?
Most people experience stress and may occasionally feel more depressed following the expatriation or in a cyclical way (missing events, homesickness, or living in a challenging environment) but they do not necessarily meet the criteria for a mood disorder.
However, even though those changes may be normal, a person may still need to implement strategies and see a professional to help them navigate expat challenges.
It’s important for expats to keep in mind that if they have noticed that these symptoms or feelings are interfering with their daily functioning in a significant way for an extended period of time that they seek professional help. For example, if they’re experiencing recurrent tensions in relationships, if their work or hygiene is affected, and also if substances (alcohol and drugs) are used to cope.
Any tips on staying positive without a social support group around, especially for those who normally thrive on a busy social life?
The lack of a social support network can be a big challenge for people living abroad, especially for a very social person suddenly finding themselves in a rural environment.
Depending on how remote the area is, reaching out for an online community can help. It’s definitely more challenging than in larger cities and the person may have to be more of an initiator, for example proposing regular meetings and recruiting people to join the group.
Planning regular meetings, weekly or once every two weeks, on Skype or other video chat platforms, may help break this isolation and secure a habit of staying in touch with family and close-ones.
Joining (offline) activities and interest-based groups can also help. This can be easier too, since it doesn’t rely entirely on conversation, especially if the person doesn’t speak the local language.
It’s important for people to consider these factors before they move, if they have a choice. If a person is very social and needs a lot of social stimulation, they may want to consider, at least in the long term, moving to a larger city.
And what about those preferring a calmer life who are plunged into busy social situations?
The introvert/extrovert is a spectrum. Most introverts do like to socialize and need a support network like extroverts, but may need more quiet or alone time to recharge.
For people living abroad who live in busy city environments, I’d suggest finding places and activities that suits these needs, for example public libraries, interests-based activities, parks, quiet cafes etc.
Regarding the workplace, it depends on the workplace culture, rules and physical space. Most offices, even the open plan type, have calmer areas. Noise canceling headphones may also be useful for concentration.
It fluctuates a lot from one person to another, but for both introverts and extroverts it’s often about balance.
Expat life can make it hard to keep in touch with friends and family back ‘home’. Any coping mechanisms for those of us who really miss our friends and family around us?
People who were highly reliant on their family back home may want to plan regular meetings through video chats to keep in touch with their family and close ones.
Waiting until something comes up to contact them can make it harder to maintain a close relationship and increase a feeling of ‘’apartness’’. Moreover, on a practical level, not scheduling a definite time can make it harder to work out the time difference.
However, though these online meetings may be very helpful, it’s also crucial to put effort into creating a new social support network abroad. There are multiple interest groups, for mothers, families, etc. Check MeetUp, expat forums and Facebook groups.
Often it’s a matter of trying different groups and building a supportive network that feels right. It’s also a matter of patience. Creating deeper, more meaningful relationships does takes time.
It can be hard to stay positive and grounded when expat friends, including ourselves, keep moving. We just progress in our lives and then need to start over again. What do you recommend?
Seek out routine. Regular patterns of sleep, healthy exercising and eating habits are daily steps that can have an important impact on reducing stress.
This routine could also involve finding communities in a particular area of interest – sports-based, meditation, yoga, etc. Connecting with communities in various cities that share similar interests can help create stability.
It’s also a good idea to maintain a circle of fellow ‘nomad friends’ and do your best to see each other whenever possible.
In terms of career, it very much depends what the person wants to do. There is a plethora of options for remote work, but these are very case specific.
And while not all expats are nomads, there are challenges specifically related to frequent moving. Frequent moving can enhance the impression of instability, not having anchors, on top of the initial stress of settling into a new place.
Building a routine and finding anchors based on the person’s values can really help create stability in the instability.
Audrey offers free initial consultations to determine if online therapy can help and to discuss her approach with the client. In certain cases, she will refer the person to a colleague who may be a better fit. The process involves clarifying difficulties experienced and progression, and then suggesting coping strategies, as well as helping define personal values and anchors. Meetings are carried out through a confidential, secure online portal (doxy.me).