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The psychology of an expat: solutions to expat difficulties

Have you ever lived abroad? Even gone for a few months? It can be difficult to do so for a short time, let alone a permanent move, even to another English-speaking country, or especially a country where you don’t speak the language.

Especially in today’s world, imagine for a second that you are in another country alone. Or perhaps you moved with your partner. You wouldn’t just be leaving your other immediate family and friends behind, you’d be leaving familiarity behind. What does that even mean?

Sometimes that can mean everyday things like getting in the car to that job you had for ten years or going to your parents. It can mean being able to hang out with that close friend on a Friday or Saturday. It can be catching up on your favourite television shows on a Sunday night in your spot on the sofa.

Moving to another country and the major change it involves can invoke feelings of loneliness, depression, low self-esteem and anxiety. If you’ve done it yourself, maybe you felt lonely being away from family. Maybe you’ve been depressed as you were unsure you had made the right move. Your self-esteem could be affected, especially living in another country that speaks another language where you’ve been made fun of or not understood when trying to communicate. All of this can increase your anxiety day to day.

These are the challenges that can be faced by an expat.

It can be very exciting though of course. You can experience the high of being in another country, particularly as you explore new neighbourhoods or even new people. But there may be times when you experience that feeling of loneliness, depression, lack of self-esteem and increased anxiety.

So what can you do about it?

Managing difficult emotions 

It’s not enough to say fight it. It first starts by acknowledging that these feelings are real. Some may try to power through it. But how? We currently live in a world where travelling in airports is taking a risk, which can keep you from loved ones in your home country ever longer. You can keep in touch via phone, Skype, Zoom or other online platforms, but does it feel the same to you?

When you switch that computer or phone off, your connection to them ends, and the difficult feelings might begin. You’re not in the same time zone, going to sleep at the same time as them, you’re all of a sudden back where you are, far away from them. You’re abroad.

Especially when you first move to another country, it may help to:

1. Set a schedule of activities

Staying busy really can help, especially when you feel down. Did you mean to check out the new museum? Mean to call that new friend you made you hadn’t spoken to in a while? Check out that new park? Set exact times and also say how long you want to be there for and on which day. Having something to look forward to can keep you from looking backwards.

2. Open up to those around you

Part of the reason you may feel anxious or depressed is because you are suppressing your feelings. And why not? When you first move abroad, you may not know many people, or maybe you don’t want to be seen as a burden to others. Fear not! If you’re with a partner, who has gone through the same move as you, irrespective of his or her motivations for moving, your partner is there.

There is also plenty of help now, more than ever before. Therapists are working online more thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you had a therapist in your home country, see if that therapist would see you again. It would give a connection to home that you seek. Or, if you want to find someone in your new country, there should be plenty of therapists around. Connecting with a therapist in your new country may help acclimate you to your new surroundings. Even knowing your therapist is from, or at least living in your new country may help give you confidence that you’re connecting with someone from your new home.

3. Push your own interests in your new country

You’ve probably heard others say it’s important to get out in your community, join a church or house of worship, join a sports team or social club. That’s great if it is of your own interest. But joining in on activities just to join them, only to stay busy, and then not like the activity, or perhaps not like the people in the activities on top of the activity itself can be detrimental.

If you were an avid jogger at home, a movie-goer or reader at home, it may help to stick to those same activities, at least when you first move. Why? It provides a bridge of familiarity that you need to help get you through when you first move to a new and scary place. And best of all, if you stick to an activity you like, chances are people you meet doing the activity you like will share your interest and friends will be made in no time.

As an expat, you are brave. You’ve moved to another place. You may be sacrificing something, whether it be time with friends or family in your previous country or your temporary happiness for the sake of your partner or family you move with. But this does not mean you should not look after yourself or forget about yourself, your own interests and doing what makes you happy, and familiar.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Dr Joshua Bourne

Dr Joshua Bourne is a Counselling Psychologist registered with the BPS, BACP and HCPC and qualified Life Coach . He has over 7 years of training and work experience offering evidence-based practice to help clients find solutions to problems in therapeutic, business and corporate contexts. Please call him for a free 15 minute consultation for more!… Read more

Written by Dr Joshua Bourne

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