Mike left his native England in 2005 to become the director of a property company in Portugal. The pay was great, and the location sublime. He loved the warm weather, golf courses and beaches on the Southern Algarve coast.
He bought a big house and enrolled his young children in a local school. His wife, Anna, found a job teaching.
As a long-time admirer of Portugal, he arrived feeling he'd landed in paradise.
Yet when I visited him 14 months into his eExpat journey, he was tense, alienated from those in his company and had an alcohol problem.
What went wrong?
Why is it that expats and nomads, despite seeming to have an enviable lifestyle, suffer more mental health problems than the non-expat/nomad population?
More important than that, how can you avoid this fate?
To answer these questions, you must understand that despite all the benefits of expat life, there are challenges too. To avoid these challenges, you need to learn about expats' problems.
To enjoy the benefits of expat life, you need to know what so often goes wrong. If you know what relationship and mental health issues expats often run ashore of, you can take steps to mitigate or avoid them.
You'll make your expat or nomad journey an easy and fulfilling one if you do that.
Learning about the risks means you’ll be better prepared.
You can protect yourself and live in paradise.
Are You an Expat or Nomad?
An expatriate lives in another country and is planning to return to their country of origin. Often the reason for being abroad is for work. Rather than separate, children and spouses may move with the working partner.
The OECD estimates there are 36 million expats globally.
A nomad is someone who doesn’t have a fixed home. They wander from place to place. Traditionally the term refers to pastoral tribes who move their animals from one grazing ground to another and never live in a fixed location. Today the word has extended to ‘digital nomads,’ people who work online and have no fixed country or home.
The 2021 State of Independence research study found that 15.5 million American workers currently describe themselves as digital nomads, increasing 42% from 2020 and 112% from the pre-pandemic year 2019 (click on the study chart below to enlarge).
Why Expat/Nomad Life Doesn't Live up to the Hype
The reality of expat or nomad life is often very different from that portrayed in the media. It's not all glamour and glitz.
Sure, there's excitement, challenge, and the chance to get out of your comfort zone, but there are also stresses.
There's the stress of moving home, starting a new job, and getting your kids settled in a new school. But there's also the culture shock, identity change and the need to create new habits and social circles.
Mental health issues and substance abuse are common among expat communities. Studies show that expats have a high risk of anxiety, depression, and alcoholism.
Imagine Mike touching down in Portugal. At first, he's excited, and the differences in culture, language and climate are stimulating.
The way of life seems different, but not too different from what he's used to.
The move was stressful. There were flights, visas, healthcare, housing, shipping and schooling to deal with. Mike and Anna arranged a lot before they left, but now they've arrived, there are still a few things to sort out.
The different bureaucracy means things don't go as planned, but they eventually get sorted.
Mike spends the first few months settling into his new job. An expat community regularly meets in bars, and Mike starts to meet a few people.
The community is small and transient, with people coming and going. Many members seem attracted not just by the Mediterranean sunshine but also to be running from problems at home. They're hoping a location change will make the pain go away.
Indeed, Mike thought his insecurities would disappear. Yet he's as anxious as he was back home. And despite his financial success, he's beginning to feel unhappy.
Not knowing the local language alienates him from the locals.
He's too busy with work to take time to understand his host country's customs.
Over time he begins to miss the deep, long-lasting friendships back home. His sense of disconnection from others increases.
Anna sinks into a depression too. She gave up a well-paid job back home and struggled to adapt to life as a full-time Mum. She's temporarily lost her routine and her sense of identity.
The couples' previous experience of Portugal as a holiday destination means they're both drinking too much. Expat gatherings are always alcohol-fuelled.
Mike finds drinking in the mornings when he first wakes up the best way to cure his hangover. But then stopping becomes a problem.
And boom! There it is.
What started an exciting journey abroad has turned Mike and Anna -- and possibly you -- into feeling isolated and alone. You’re disconnected from others and your identity is in question. You're turning to alcohol or other substances to remove these feelings of pain.
Unfortunately, Mike's and Anna's story is all too common.
Yet you don't have to follow this well-trodden path.
You can take steps 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.
Living abroad can be an enriching time.
Let's start by looking at the challenges expats and nomads face.
7 Risks to Your Mental Health as an Expat or Nomad
Expats face unique challenges. What happened to Mike and Anna happens to millions of expats and nomads around the world.
Learning the risk to your mental health as an expat or nomad will give you a greater chance to avoid them.
Far better to be prepared and to know what to watch out for than to be ignorant or complacent.
Here are the seven main risks to your mental health and wellbeing when you go abroad.
1. Culture shock
Culture shock is the experience you have when you arrive in a culture different from the one you're familiar with. It's everything from Uganda's green bananas that you must cook before eating, strange festivals such as Mexico's 'Day of the Dead' and Dutch greetings that involve two or three pecks on the check regardless of sex.
Almost anything might shock you, including the different weather, rules of etiquette, or not knowing what food you're eating or where to find the staples you like.
2. Being an Alien
One of the biggest problems you will face as an expat is not having solid friendships and other support networks around you. You'll probably find expat communities exist, but they're small and constantly changing with people coming and going.
Old friends and family are distant too. They live in different time zones, thousands of miles away. Even if you regularly call or FaceTime, you may find it hard to relate and drift apart.
3. Not Fitting in
Despite your best intentions, you might struggle to integrate. You can never entirely accept or understand the way things are done locally. Or why the locals treat you as an exotic novelty. Or how your lack of understanding of the local language acts as a barrier to making new friends and feeling like you truly belong.
Over time you can feel the sense of difference wearing you down. You feel isolated and estranged from your environment, as though you’re always a stranger and never quite fit in.
4. Getting Out of Sorts
You probably had a well-organised routine involving work, family, friends, and social activities or hobbies in your home country. One risk to be aware of is that you won't have these routines when you move abroad, and recreating them can be tricky.
You may feel unmoored and adrift, especially if you gave up your job as part of the move. And relocating abroad can mean an identity change. If you've moved for work, your role in the company might have changed.
5. Relationship Problems
Navigating change in a relationship is tricky for any couple. Moving home, changing your kids' school, and starting a new job are significant life changes and stressful events. They’re difficult enough to manage as a couple in your home country, never mind having them all happen at once with a move abroad.
It's not surprising that many expat relationships suffer.
6. No Services or Support
As an expat or nomad, you may not have access to the same sorts of resources you used to have. State organisations and charities may not be accessible to you. Language barriers might hinder the level of support you get.
And you might be leaving issues behind at home. You may not necessarily be running away from your problems, but at the same time, being abroad gives you an excuse not to have to address them.
7. Expat Partner Challenges
Those who relocate with their partners but do not come to work face an additional challenge. They have no job to structure their days. Often, they’ve given up successful careers and struggle with the change in identity this brings.
You might think that you'll enjoy the break from work, but the loss of colleagues, roles and the change of identity may hit you harder than you expect.
The good news is that you can equip yourself in advance.
How to Get Prepared Before You Go Abroad
If you're thinking of moving abroad, you may worry about what you'll experience.
You've read about the dangers to your mental health and worry about the risks.
You're looking forward to your trip but can't help feeling a little nervous.
Follow these 11 steps to make sure you prepare well.
Doing so will ensure you maximise the opportunities while abroad. It will minimise the risks to your mental health and your relationship.
Step 1: Research your destination: use guidebooks, internet forums, books and movies.
Step 2: Connect with locals: before you leave, try to contact expats and locals in the city you'll be living in.
Step 3: Get online: choose the methods -- email, social media, phone -- that you'll stay in touch with your friends and family back home on and make sure they'll all be able to share your journey with you.
Step 4: Arrange regular times to get in touch with your friends and family back home so that your connections don't drop away with the distance.
Step 5: Think about the activities you might like to try when you arrive in your host country. Will you look for a new job, volunteer at a charity or start new hobbies?
Step 6: Make sure you get organised with all the things you'll need to do both before you set off and after you arrive. At least initially, there is a lot to manage and get right.
Step 7: Consider getting good expat insurance covering physical and psychological health.
Step 8: Consider working with an online counsellor who's familiar with helping expats make the transition abroad. They can provide you with both practical and moral support.
Step 9: Plan to stay active when you move abroad. Think about what exercise habits you will maintain after you've arrived, whether online yoga or running with the locals.
Step 10: Plan new routines. Like the above step, think about what new habits you might have after arriving. Your days must have structure to them.
Step 11: Don't leave a mess. If you have any mental or relationship problems before leaving, make sure you deal with them first. Don't think moving abroad will magically make things better.
You're right to be concerned about moving abroad. Expats and nomads are at a greater risk of mental health problems.
But you can take steps to ensure that you minimise your risk.
Why not go through the steps above and start working on them straight away?
Focus on the ones that you think will be most beneficial for you, but don't skip any if you can.
And if you're already overseas, it's not too late.
There are also steps you can take after you've already landed that will keep you sane. You can start these steps at any time no matter where you are in your expat or nomad journey.
10 Steps to Take Once You’ve Arrived
Here are 10 steps that will keep you in vibrant mental and physical health, no matter where you are.
Step 1: Learn to Bear Hug
Make sure you learn about your new home. Talk to expats who've lived there a long time. You may find forums such as Internations and TheExpatBlog useful. Or is there someone in your company you can talk to?
It's essential to learn about the norms and the values of people in the country you've moved to. See if there are any valuable guidebooks or introductory histories to your new country.
Doing your research will also help you mitigate any culture shock. If you're visiting Russia, you won't worry when a local picks you up in a bear hug – which is a sign of affection there!
Step 2: Create New Networks
It's essential to start to build a new network. Doing so can be time-consuming, and you'll need to be patient.
Some expat communities are small. You may not get on well with the other expats. If you’re a nomad, it can be tough to find others in the same situation.
Yet making friends with locals can be tricky too. Natives may not understand your culture or see you through the prism of their culture. In places not used to high levels of immigration, it may be hard to overcome stereotypes and break barriers down.
Whatever difficulties you face, you must persevere. You're in for the long haul. Be social and attend events you're invited to.
Be open-minded and don't close yourself to any person or group of people.
Step 3: Gift Yourself
You're unique. You have unique life experiences and a perspective shaped by these. It would be selfish to keep this gift to yourself.
Most of the people you'll meet abroad will be locals who'll never have the chance to leave their country for an extended period. Meeting you could be the only meaningful contact they have with someone from another country.
You're an ambassador for your country and a gift for the people you meet. You can show people different perspectives and ways to live. You can introduce people to new customs, possibly even to new ways of democratic participation.
As a teacher in China, I sometimes taught a class on stereotypes. I would explain what stereotypes are: a truth about some members of a group of people that is applied to the whole group. As a class we would discuss stereotypes Chinese people have of others, such as ‘all Americans carry a gun’ and the dangers of stereotyping.
Step 4: Get New Missions
With the change that moving abroad brings, you might need to set yourself different goals from those you've had in the past.
For example, you might start a new hobby or take up a new cause. Or you might switch careers and start freelancing or running a small business.
Start by brainstorming activities that interest you, and then see what's available where you now live. The best way to meet people is to do activities you enjoy, and the rest will follow.
Consider writing a to-do list of things you’ll need to do to make these new missions come about. Break each one down into simpler tasks.
Don't worry if you don't catch everything the first time. You can always add stuff later.
And set a deadline for each task. It’ll help keep you on track. You'll have the added pleasure of crossing out each task when it's completed.
Step 5: Build New Structures
A daily routine is essential. When you move abroad, it's easy to fall out of regular routines.
Yet humans thrive on routine, and your days must have some structure. It's best for you mentally and physically if you eat and sleep at roughly the same time each day.
Many people swear by morning routines that set them up for the day, whether it's journaling or yoga or walking. My current morning routine is to grab a cup of coffee and then read for about an hour before doing some writing.
I wind down with an hour of piano practice before bed. What’s your ideal daily routine? How can you add more positive structure to your days?
Step 6: Do the Right Things
You must stay physically and mentally well when you move abroad. The best ways to do this are well-known: diet, exercise and sleep.
If you're active, then you get a regular sense of achievement. Exercise releases chemicals called endorphins that put you in a good mood. Exercise can also help eliminate stress and depression and is well known for being good for bodily health.
Eating well is also vital for your body and mind. Make sure you eat a balanced diet full of colourful plants rich in pulses, whole grains, and nuts.
Food and shopping may be different in another county, you may need to hunt around for the foods you like. Don't ignore markets where lots of fresh, healthy foods are sold. Worst case, you may have to bring some dry goods, like nuts, back with you each time you make a trip home.
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'll start to feel depressed and anxious.
Step 7: Embrace Moderation
Alcohol addiction is a severe problem for many expats. Expat communities are known for relying on using drinks to socialise.
Alcohol is an excellent social lubricant, but overreliance on it can cause problems. If all your socialising occurs in bars and clubs or if wine is present at every meal, then that's a warning sign. As is drinking alcohol when you're alone.
A small glass of wine occasionally is fine, but if you find yourself drinking to numb complicated feelings and if there is barely a day you don't drink, then you need to stop.
It's not about not drinking. It's about being sensible and not letting alcohol come to dominate your life.
Step 8: See a (Mind) Doctor
Every so often in life, we see a professional for some assistance. I see an optician, dentist, doctor, and masseur on a reasonably regular basis. I have a friend who regularly visits a chiropractor.
It's no different with your mental or relationship help.
Sometimes it makes sense to get some outside support. It makes sense to work with someone who has experience in the area troubling you and to benefit from a professional's study in this area.
Through your insurance, you might access local or online support.
Even if you have to pay out of your pocket, it may be worth it. What's a few hundred dollars if it means your time away will be stable, and your relationship will prosper?
Step 9: Make the Effort
Don't forget to stay in touch with your loved ones back home. When I first started my time abroad, phone calls and postcards were all there was. Emails came shortly after, and then social media, WhatsApp and Skype.
Nowadays there are so many ways you can stay in touch with people back home, it would be a shame if you didn't do so.
Try to maintain contact. Loved ones may provide essential support and help mitigate some of the homesickness you could be feeling.
Some expats swear by the importance of regular chats with friends and family back home. They don't think they could have survived abroad without them.
Step 10: Write Wildly
Consider writing. For some people, journaling can be incredibly helpful.
Nina Hobson, who runs the blog The Expater, says journaling was one of the most beneficial things she did. Nina feels writing helped her combat the loneliness, anxiety, and sense of unfulfillment she experienced when she gave up her career to follow her husband abroad.
According to Nina: "Writing out my thoughts helps me clear negative energy so that I can sleep better. 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."
Next up, let’s focus on home.
Why Expats Need to Take Special Care of Their Relationships
Moving abroad can be especially difficult for couples and families.
You might wonder if there’s anything you can do to prepare. Or you've been abroad for a while and are realising that you're not coping as well as you thought you would.
Thriving as a couple living an expat and nomad lifestyle isn’t easy. It has all the usual relocation challenges with a few more thrown in.
But if you’re aware of the challenges, you can meet them head on and avoid many of the stresses that could tear you apart.
Moving abroad can put enormous strains on any relationship. Even if you and your partner were getting on fine before your move, you can't take your eye off the ball.
This may be the most significant challenge your relationship has faced. Now is not the time for complacency.
As a next step, go through the list of things that happy expat couples do and check that you're doing them all.
10 Things that Insanely Happy Expat Couples Do
John and Julie Gottman are relationship researchers in the US.
Throughout 40-years of research, they've filmed couples in their home, following up with them every few years.
They developed the idea of a 'Sound Relationship House.’ The house contains all the things that happy couples do.
In my work, I've been adopting these to expat couples.
Start out by reading through each of the principles and note whether you're adequately applying each.
Read up more on the ones you're not sure about and make a list of the ones you want to focus on.
Most of the expat couples I've worked with were surprised by how much strain moving abroad put on their relationship.
At the very least, learning about the Sound Relationship House will get you prepared. It will help you assess how strong your relationship is.
If you can do all the things that happy couples do, your relationship will weather any storm.
1. Build Love Maps
Love Maps are the foundation of the Sound Relationship House.
Love maps are the part of your brain that stores information about your partner— their heroes and villains, their likes and dislikes, things that cause them stress, their hobbies, beliefs, fears and so on.
It's called a map, as it's this guide that you use to reach the heart of your partner.
When you know how to safely travel through the sensitive areas of your partner's heart, then your love map is accurate.
Happy couples make time to stay in touch with each other. They don't let life's routines get in the way of sharing their thoughts and feelings. They make sure their love maps stay up to date.
Remember, landscapes change all the time, and maps need constant updating.
2. Share Fondness and Admiration
Your Fondness and Admiration system is the part of our brain that recognises your partner as worthy of being liked and treated with respect.
Your Fondness and Admiration system:
- Recalls the good times from your relationship's past.
- Can see what is going well in your relationship
- Sees the admirable qualities in your partner.
- Expresses affection for these qualities.
Your Fondness and Admiration systems include the inclination to care for your partner. It activates when you show concern for them. It also has feelings of desire and passion for your partner.
Happy couples make sure to nurture their fondness and appreciation for each other. They make sure to share the things they admire in their partner with that person. They carry out acts of service that demonstrate their care and affection.
3. Turn Toward Instead of Away
The Gottmans also call this the Emotional Bank Account.
Deposits are made through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping commitments.
Each encouraging nod or call to check how your work meeting went, or each errand you complete or activity you do together, is a deposit.
When your partner asks if you can make them a cup of tea and you immediately get up and do it, that's a deposit. When your partner stands by the window and tells you how beautiful the view is, and you join them, nodding in agreement, that's a deposit too.
In each instance, you've had an opportunity to turn toward your partner.
Healthy couples regularly make deposits in their emotional bank account. They recognise when their partner asks for connection, and they turn towards them and strengthen their relationship.
4. Keep a Positive Perspective
A positive perspective grows out of friendship in your relationship.
When love maps are accurate and up to date, you express fondness and admiration consistently. You experience more turning towards each other than turning away. Positive feelings naturally override negative ones.
Make sure you remind yourself of your partners' positive qualities. Remembering your partner's positive attributes strengthens the bond between you, even as you struggle with each other's flaws.
A stronger bond makes it easier to address problems and implement solutions. A positive perspective is also an antidote to contempt: the negative view of your partner that can build up over time.
Maintaining a sense of respect for your partner goes a long way in reducing the damage done when you have disagreements.
Happy couples always try to see the bigger picture and remind themselves of the reason their partner makes them proud.
5. Manage Conflict
Managing conflict is about the degree to which you and your partner can respectfully talk about and accept influence from each other in disagreements.
It also includes allowing the other to calm down when emotions are interfering with listening.
Active listening involves putting aside your initial judgement when your partner is talking. Instead of responding immediately, you listen and ask questions. The goal is to understand your partner first before responding.
You may not agree with everything they say, but can you understand their point of view.
An essential part of conflict management is listening to, acknowledging, and validating the other person's thought's feelings and memories.
Happy couples know that there are always two truths in a relationship, and both are right. They make sure to listen carefully to their partner and show their partner that they've heard and understood what is being said.
6. Avoid the Four Horseman
The Four Horsemen are the Gottmans' names for four types of behaviours that make a conflict worse.
Suppose any of these Four Horsemen are present in a dialogue to a high degree. In that case, both the conversation and the relationship will go nowhere.
The Four Horsemen are:
- Criticism: attacking the person rather than the specific behaviour you're not happy with.
- Contempt: putting yourself on a pedestal and looking down on your partner. Making sarcastic remarks designed to hurt.
- Defensiveness: pushing any complaint against you away without taking even the slightest responsibility.
- Stonewalling: withdrawing from a conversation and ignoring the other person to show your dissatisfaction with them.
Happy couples learn to recognise the Four Horsemen and reduce or eliminate them from their dialogue.
7. Accept Influence
Accepting influence is an attitude, but it's also a skill you can hone if you pay attention to how you relate to your partner.
When you have a disagreement, the key is being able to compromise. You do this by searching through your partner's request for something you can agree to.
For example, you might not be able to work fewer hours when your mother-in-law visits as your partner wants, but perhaps you can shift the timing of your work.
Accepting influence doesn't mean you can never express negative emotions toward your partner. It's not being a pushover.
Relationships can survive plenty of flashes of anger, complaint, even criticism. Trying to suppress negative feelings in your partner's presence wouldn't be good for your relationship or blood pressure.
But happy couples know that they must keep their response proportionate. They must listen to and try to accommodate their partner's needs where possible.
8. Make Life Dreams Come True
Make sure you understand your partner's goals and dreams.
In a healthy relationship, couples have individual goals with which they mutually support each other. They have shared plans for their family and their relationship.
They also understand each other's dreams and aspirations.
Understanding dreams is essential for gridlocked conflicts: those conflicts that go on and on and never seem to get resolved.
To understand why your partner feels so strongly about your gridlocked issue, you need to understand the dream behind their position.
Suppose you're arguing about keeping the house tidy. In that case, it could be because one of you grew up in an unstable, messy house and a clean house has become a symbol of control. The other may have grown up in a strict household, and their dream is to live life in an unregimented way.
Happy couples understand that honouring and supporting each other's dreams is an essential part of a relationship. When they get stuck on a relationship problem, they try to understand the dreams behind the conflict.
9. Create Shared Meaning
Meaning is vital in lives and relationships.
Your relationship must be a meaningful one.
You can create shared meaning by cultivating rituals and shared goals in your relationship.
Shared goals can be working on a common cause together, such as raising a family, running an animal welfare shelter or planning your retirement together.
Rituals are regular events that have set practises. This could be visiting your relatives around Christmas, a weekly foot massage or a daily 10-minute catch up when you both get home for work.
Shared goals and rituals mean that when you look back on your life together as a couple, you’ll find that your time together has been meaningful.
Happy couples know to prioritise and create meaning in their relationship. They talk about it and plan it into their lives together.
10. Face Up to Problems
If you start to notice problems in your relationship, you must face them head on.
Remember, there was no 'Healthy Relationship' course taught at school. You're not expected to know exactly what to do in a relationship.
We all need help and support from time to time. When you're sick, you go to see a medical expert. If you're struggling with a mental problem, you see a professional counsellor. If there is a problem in your relationship, you may also need professional support.
A good relationship expert will give you a safe space to talk and resolve your problems. Crucially they'll also share the skills you'll need for you — as a couple — to stand on your own two feet.
Happy couples recognise that they can't always do it alone and that from time to time, they might need a neutral perspective or some outside advice.
Make Your Expat or Nomad Experience The Best It Can Be
You're worried about an upcoming move for yourself or someone else. Or you've been abroad for a bit and are not coping as well as you thought you would.
The reality of expat or nomad life is often very different from that portrayed in the media. It's not all glamour and glitz.
Sure, there's excitement, challenge, and the chance to get out of your comfort zone, but there are also stresses and strains that you probably haven't thought about.
Living abroad doesn't mean you escape the everyday challenges that life throws at you. On top of that, added stresses come from living abroad.
These can range from lack of structure and stability and a sense of isolation from friends and family to culture shock, alienation, and difficulties dealing with foreign bureaucracy.
And moving abroad will put a strain on your relationship. There’s so much change packed into a small space of time that it's bound to.
In order to thrive abroad you need to:
1. Be aware of the potential problems
2. Prepare beforehand
3. Take steps while you're there
4. Take special care of your relationship
Go through the checklists in this post for each point above and see which ones you need to work on.
Preparing, moving, settling in and enjoying your stay abroad is a huge undertaking.
It may be one of the biggest changes you’ve been through.
And you may not have the support you need, whether that's mental health support from a professional or just someone to talk to who understands.
But you don't have to be alone.
If you need any help or support, reach out. I draw on my training as a psychotherapist and relationship counsellor and my experiences of living abroad and specialise in helping expat or nomad life. You can book an introductory call here to find out if we're a good fit.
Just because you're in a foreign country doesn't mean you're unsupported.
You can make expat life a success and enjoy those exotic locations, new adventures and opportunities to relax.