The emotional hurdles of the expat experience

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Author: Blanca Connelly who is part of our English speaking team.

Change is difficult. Even if the change is chosen, engaging, and exciting, it can also be extremely challenging. Moving to a new country involves a magnitude of changes; from geographic to cultural, personal, social, and professional. Research suggests that expats are double as likely to develop mental health problems, particularly anxiety and depression, compared to their counterparts. This is consistent with the fact that moving abroad involves high stress and demand for many life adjustments, as well as social and emotional disruptions. So, while the expat experience may seem outwardly dazzling, it certainly comes with its baggage (pun intended!). Having lived in 5 countries and moved 10 times, I deeply empathize with the struggles involved in moving abroad. From my clinical and personal experience, the difficulties involved in relocating are principally three-folded: 

  1. Tackling the multiple changes and hardships of the “new life”
  2. Mourning the loss of the “old life” 
  3. Pressure to make the most of the “new life” 

While the three are interrelated and difficult to disentangle, for the purpose of this post, they will be approached as distinct.

1.Tackling the multiple changes and hardships of the “new life”

Adapting to your new life and the changes that come with it is not an easy endeavour. With change comes uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes fear and distress. Feeling anxious, nervous, overwhelmed, lonely, sad, isolated, angry, or resentful are all normal responses to change. Aetna International published a report on 5,000 of its members revealing that mental health is a growing issue among the expat community. However, their data also showed that only 6% of expats were concerned about mental health issues before moving abroad. So, if you´re struggling emotionally and didn’t expect to, you are certainly not alone. Addressing and normalizing the psychological hurdles involved in moving abroad is the first step to tackling the hardships and breaking the stigma associated with them. In other words, it’s important to acknowledge, validate, and share your struggles as most expats have been, or continue to be, on the same boat. 

2. Mourning the loss of the “old life” 

Accepting and permitting yourself to mourn the loss of your old life is key to being emotionally prepared for the new one. Denying the loss, as well as fixating on it, are dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Rather, try to accept that missing aspects of your old life is a typical and adaptive response to the loss. While it may be important to stay in touch with your family and friends back at home, try to live your new life. It´s impossible to be present in two places at once, so ask yourself if you´re attempting to do so. Finding the balance between maintaining existing relationships and building new ones is key, but it takes time and practice. While it may be challenging at times, try to focus most of your energy on the present moment and the ocean of possibilities that come with it. 

3. Pressure to make the most of the “new life” 

Stress is a natural response to pressure, and you´re likely feeling pressured from various sources to not only be settled but enjoying your new life. While stress can be motivating and functional at times (check out our post on functional anxiety), too much stress can be detrimental to mental and physical wellbeing. Aim to set realistic goals and expectations, embracing the hurdles that come your way. Expecting a seamless transition to your new life is unrealistic, therefore bound to cause feelings of disappointment and failure. Try to avoid idealizing the life you previously had; it wasn’t perfect either, nothing is. Both your old and new life have their pros and cons, but ultimately, they are different, and different doesn’t have to be a bad thing. 

4. What you can do

So, what now? While there´s no quick fix or set timeline to the end of your hardships, try to keep the following in mind:  

  1. It´s completely normal to be finding this moment in your life challenging. It also makes sense if you´re feeling excited one minute and not okay the next. Moving abroad can feel like an emotional rollercoaster and every emotion on the spectrum is valid. 
  2. The fact that you´re finding it difficult now doesn’t mean it will be difficult forever. Time, patience, and self-compassion are key. It may take you a while to adapt and enjoy your new life, and that´s okay. 
  3. Avoid comparing yourself to others; every person, story, and journey is distinctly unique. 
  4. Assess whether social media is making you feel better or worse at this moment in your life. It may be worth considering taking a break from it if it´s making point 3 difficult and taking a toll on your mental health.
  5. Don´t overdo it. While there may be a lot going on, trying to do too much can increase feelings of anxiety. You don’t need to say yes to everything just because you´ve moved abroad. Remember to prioritize self-care and good sleep hygiene.   
  6. Consider getting professional psychological support. You don´t have to struggle alone; this may be the perfect time for personal growth and inner work.

Often the greatest and most rewarding experiences are those that involve discomfort, courage, patience, and perseverance. As said by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers (1967), “the good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination”. 

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2 comentarios

  1. As a mother moving countries with one , three and fiven children I can totally relate to your post. The sooner you make at least a couple of good local friends the easier it becomes although the de sense of loss is always lingering there as well as the guilt for not keeping in touch enough with your old life. Thankyou for bringing up such a good insight.

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