October 2

How To Look After Your Mental Health While Living Abroad

Expat Counselling


You've moved abroad and want to stay well.

Or you have an upcoming move and you’re getting prepared.

You don't want to leave addressing your mental health until it's too late.

Be honest: you're worried and afraid. 

And that’s understandable.

Expat life has difficulties as well as rewards. Moving abroad is not as easy as YouTubers make out.

First off: life's difficulties don't disappear just because you've left home. And being away from friends and family, losing your old routines and life structures and being surrounded by unfamiliar customs and languages brings challenges.

You might be depressed and anxious, alienated from the locals and feeling out of place in your host country.

You wake up unsure how you're going to face the day and wonder if you need support.

You may even be wondering if you're cut out for expat life and possibly thinking of going home.

But there are steps you can take that will make your journey through expat life an easier one. These will ensure you make the most out of your time abroad and mitigate any danger to your mental health.

Let's make sure your memories of your time away are fond ones, ones where you can look back and say: "Yes, it was challenging, but I had a great time."

Follow these ten steps to ensure your time abroad is a fulfilling one. Pick a few to start with. You can work on more than one at once.

Step 1) Learn to 'Ganbei'

Before you move, seek advice from someone who's been there before. If you're moving with your company, you may be able to find a mentor. Alternatively, there may be online forums such as Internations and TheExpatBlog where you can reach out to current and former expats.

And make sure to do your research. It's beneficial to learn about the norms and the values of people in the country you'll be moving to. Different nationalities have different customs or ways of interacting.

The Chinese drink small glasses of beer and toast each other with the words 'gan bei' – dry the glass. They expect you to consume the glass’s content in one go to show your respect. Even if you don't drink alcohol, knowing the custom will mean you can decline politely or complete the toast with orange juice.

Sometimes a little knowledge goes a long way.

Doing your research will also help you mitigate any culture shock. So you won't be worried when a Russian picks you up in a bear hug – which is a sign of affection there!

Step 2) Use Bullet (Points)

Moving to another country involves a lot of preparation – there's a tonne to organise and a lot of paperwork to get right.

Write out a to-do list as soon as you can and prioritise your tasks. Start as quickly as possible and set a deadline for each job.

Doing so will allow you to see where you are and how you're using your time. Most importantly, it'll let you see how close you are to getting everything done.

Writing a list out early will also encourage you to start early and help ensure you don't miss anything. It's always much easier to add something to a list you've already written.

You also get the satisfaction of ticking off each item when it's complete.

Step 3) Create New Networks

Support networks are crucial to how you handle the challenges life throws at you. They’re essential for expats who've lost regular contact with their home networks, but unfortunately, building new networks abroad can be tricky.

The expat community is often tiny. You might find yourself thrown together with people you wouldn't usually hang out with and who share different interests, values, and outlooks on life.

Natives may see you through the prism of their understanding of your culture. Or your status as a Westerner may make you wealthy by local standards and affect your ability to make meaningful relations with locals.

Even where the cultures are similar, you may find it hard to break into long-established friendship groups. Denmark, for example, is notorious for this. Natives form small life-long friendship groups and seldom change or expand them.

Whatever the difficulties, persevere. Be social and attend events you are invited to, keep an open mind, and offer friendship and support where required.  

Step 4) Gift Yourself

Try to integrate into your new home country by setting a new set of goals. These could be working with a local charity to learn the local language or joining a club or interest group. Even grabbing your local guidebook and wandering the streets sampling new food is better than staying at home with nothing to do.

There will always be something to get involved in wherever you are, and as an expat, you have a lot to offer. Not everyone gets a chance to go abroad, and for many locals, you may be the only contact they have with someone from outside their country.

You bring with you a unique set of experiences and a fresh perspective. Don't keep your gifts to yourself. Get out and share them, whether through support for a local group or new friendships or simply interacting with the locals in a friendly, open-minded way.

Step 5) Build New Structures

Make sure you have a daily routine. When you moved abroad, you may have fallen out of your usual patterns.

Give your days some structure to them so that you eat meals at regular times and get up and go to bed at the same time each day.

Many people swear by the importance of a morning routine. They suggest you incorporate a few simple tasks during the morning such as short meditations, yoga or journaling, or some other form of exercise.

Starting your day with simple routines such as making the bed or reading a chapter of your book can have a positive effect throughout the day.

Step 6) Do the Right Things

Regardless of where you are, it's essential to keep yourself healthy; this includes being physically active, eating well and sleeping well.

Activity and exercise are essential for keeping good mental health. Being active gives you a sense of achievement and releases chemicals that put you in a good mood. Exercise can also help eliminate a low mood, anxiety, stress and feeling tired.

Eating well is vital for our bodies and our mind. Make sure you eat a balanced diet full of colourful plants and rich in pulses, whole grains, and nuts.

Finally, it's essential to get enough regular sleep. Sleep is necessary for physical and mental health. If you don't get enough sleep, you can start to feel depressed and anxious.

Step 7) Embrace Moderation

If you enjoy a drink with other expats and on your own, be careful. It's not uncommon for expats' alcohol intake to increase over and above what they would usually drink while in their home country.

Sometimes this is because it appears to take away the problems and pain that can come with expat life. Sometimes it's because it's one of the few ways to socialise that are common across the world and easily accessible. Sometimes it's because living abroad can feel a bit like a party and a chance to be free from your usual social restrictions.

Whatever the reason, be wary. Alcohol consumption is not without its problems. Even a moderate amount can have negative consequences since alcohol is a depressant that can affect overall mood.

Step 8) See a (Mind) Doctor

Occasionally, it would be best if you had the support of a professional to help you with your body – a doctor or a chiropractor, for example. It's no different for your mental health. Take advantage of someone who has studied the subject for years and has built up experience dealing with human minds.

Even as an expat, you may still be able to access a range of mental health care and support facilities in your host country. Make sure to find out what is available in your area.

If local resources aren't available or convenient, or if you prefer online, find an online counsellor specialising in helping expats.

Step 9) Make the Effort

Advancements in modern technology mean it’s easy to stay in touch with loved ones from your native country. There are plenty of cheap and reliable services for face-to-face calls and free chat services such as What's App that allow you to send messages, not to mention social media and the good old-fashioned telephone call.

It's critical to maintain these lines of communication. Despite the distance, your loved ones still provide support and help mitigate some of the homesickness you might be feeling.

Life always involves difficult choices, and one of the downsides of being abroad can be being away from those you love, so make sure to set up communication channels and stay in touch.

Step 10) Write Wildly

Living abroad can be a fantastic experience, and you've probably moved with high expectations and a long to-do list. There are so many places to see and activities to do. Yet, life abroad isn't always easy, and you must accept that.

Set your expectations right from the start. Not every day will be wonderful. There will be highs as well as lows. At times you may feel lonely, isolated, and afraid. You may be homesick and struggle to integrate into your host country.

For some people, journaling helps. Nina Hobson, who runs the blog The Expater, says journaling was one of the most beneficial things she did to help with loneliness, anxiety, and sense of unfulfillment she experienced when she gave up her career to follow her husband abroad.

Sometimes she records her gratitude. Other times she logs emotion through 'wild writing'. "Writing out my thoughts helps me clear negative energy so that I can sleep better," she says, "When I look back at my writing, I can see how I coped in the past and realise how far I've come in terms of managing my emotions.

Start Your Expat Life One Step at a Time

Moving abroad can be difficult.

You're all packed and prepared and wonder how best to look after yourself while you're away. Or you've been abroad for a while and don't think you're coping as well as you thought you would.

Living the expat lifestyle is not easy. It has all the usual relocation challenges with a few more thrown in.

But there are things you can put in place to make the most of this change.

Go through each step and start writing your to-do list. Create a list of activities you can make a start on right away. It's never too late to turn your situation around.

Reach out if you need any help or support. You don't need to feel lonely, isolated, or misunderstood. You don't need to feel unsupported and alone.

I'm here for you.

If you get the support you need and implement the tasks in the post, your time as an expat is sure to be fulfilling.

You can wake up each day with a renewed sense of purpose and vigour.

You can start to feel like your days spent abroad have been worthwhile and that you've made the most of them.

And you can get started today, one task at a time.

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