You don’t often read about it on social media, but if you have lived abroad, you will know what I mean: expat life is not always easy. Living abroad is an extraordinary experience that is often exciting and adventurous. But it can, at times, also affect expats’ mental health. Various studies demonstrate that people with a migration background are at high risk of mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, substance use, low self-esteem, and poorer psychological well-being.
When you left for your adventure abroad, were you emotionally prepared for that? Like many other expats, I only worried about practical things. I wasn’t aware of the psychological impacts of living in contact with another culture. I learned about them the hard way, and I know I am not the only one. In my practice, I see expats struggling with adjusting to a new country every day. That is why, in today’s post, I will share with you five ways to care for your mental health while living abroad.
1. Open up to new experiences!
When you meet new people, how much time do you take before you decide whether you like them or not? Judgment is an inherent part of being human. Our brain is wired to make quick decisions. This serves a function: it protects us from dangers. In social situations, however, this may lead to a quick assumption or even judgment about people around us. When we follow our assumptions and judgments, there is less space left for questioning or changing our minds. When we move to another country and start interacting with people with a cultural background different from our own, this judgmental side becomes much stronger. This can be a problem because you might miss out on the opportunity to make friends from different cultural backgrounds or integrate into the society you now live in.
Step one in taking care of your mental health is awareness and willingness. In order to avoid quick assumptions about the people around you, try to understand them. Study the differences between your country of origin and your country of residence. What are the communication styles, and what do people value? How do people typically dress, behave, and speak and how does that differ from what you are used to?
In other words, study the history of your new home country. Use curiosity to your advantage. Instead of judging, reflect: why do people in this culture behave this way? What can I learn from this culture?. There will always be something to learn from those differences. And maybe, people around you will learn something from you as well.
Our mind is biased and will always direct us to what we believe. Have you ever realized that maybe you are missing the opportunity to be surprised, reinvent yourself, and amplify your knowledge and new perspectives? What if there isn’t only one right way of doing things? How about exploring the curious side of your mind and being open to exploring a new world around you? In the end, you can always decide what makes more sense to you, but if you are open and willing to connect with your new country, this is a much healthier approach than judging.
When we move abroad, our surroundings change, and so do our daily routines, eating patterns and habits. Sometimes we also experience a different climate. The truth is that there is a lot of change to digest. These changes can affect our mood, sleep, and our mental health.
Our mind and body are directly connected. In other words, this relationship is a two-way street. By taking care of your body, you will be taking care of your mind and vice versa. However, a change of surroundings often causes us to neglect our physical well-being. Your favourite gym is not around, your favourite sport is not being played, and your sport friends are not around. For many, these changed circumstances are a reason to work out less or even stop completely. If you come from a country like mine that is warm all year long, the lack of sun can also affect your mood and energy levels. Therefore, exercise will be your ally in pursuing a healthy life abroad. If you don’t prioritize your physical health, you are prone to becoming sick, weak, feeling down and lacking energy for day-to-day activities.
So: take care of yourself! Include regular exercises in your routine, take your sleep, rest, and eat healthily. I invite you to observe the effects of these actions on your mental health. I am confident that you will feel much better about yourself. What actions can you start today to take care of this aspect of your life?
3. Socialize and build your support network!
We are social beings. There’s no way around it. We need contact with other people. We want healthy relationships with people who care about us, respect and support us.
So, another step to improving your mental health while living abroad is taking care of your social well-being. The goal is to feel positive about your interactions with people around you and proactively develop and maintain these relationships.
Loneliness and the lack of a support network are the main problems that affect expats, especially those who moved recently. This lack of support may lead to alcohol- and drug abuse, stress, anxiety and even depression. By taking care of your social well-being, you will increase your feeling of belonging and create a positive connection with the country you live in now. Most importantly, you will also be caring for your mental health.
How can you do that? Try to meet new people or improve the quality of your existing relationships. You can participate in meetups, start a new hobby, join a sports club or a language class. The internet is also an excellent tool. There are several Facebook groups and Apps that can help you with that. I met many of my best friends in the Netherlands through Bumble. I advise you to give it a try.
Another way of taking care of your social well-being is by maintaining the relationships you already have – either in the new country or back in your home country. You can spend time connecting with your (new or old) friends and family, even if the only option is through online contact. Lastly, participate in activities that give you pleasure and make you feel good.
4. Practice self-care!
Self-care is essential in any situation in our life and is even more necessary during our journey abroad. Taking care of our well-being is an ongoing journey. It’s something we should do intentionally, especially when we’re feeling down.
Practising self-care is much more than every now and then doing an act of self-care. Practising self-care means that you regularly take the time to ask yourself who you are, what you want and need, and take responsibility for meeting those needs. Sometimes that means turning down requests, delegating activities, setting boundaries, or having a moment of connection with yourself. Self-care is not just an action to feel good but also to function healthily in your daily life.
So, I encourage you to actively reflect on your needs and find ways to meet them.
5. Talk to a professional!
We constantly deal with emotions that we don’t always know how to handle. Living abroad can evoke a whole new set of emotions. You will come across unique experiences that present different emotions, opportunities and difficulties. Adapting to a new country is difficult. I know that because I also experienced the challenges of adjusting to a new culture. But I also know it can be much easier if you have the support of a professional in this process. Someone who understands your struggles and helps you to overcome challenges by developing intercultural awareness and healthier coping mechanisms. Seeking help in difficult times is a sign of courage. Therapy can help you with your feelings of comparison, judgment, loneliness, self-exploration, exhaustion, non-belonging, anxiety and much more. I am here to support you if you think you might benefit from therapy during this transition. You are not alone!
Written by Suyanne Lima, an English and Portuguese speaking Psychologist, specialized in working with expats. Originating from Brazil and having lived in four different countries, she now lives in the Netherlands. She experienced the challenges of adapting to and living in a different culture. This allows her to add extra value to her services by offering a shared, empathic, non-judgmental understanding of expats’ struggles. Find for more information here.