If you had to pick one word to describe life abroad, it would have to be this one: stimulating. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve spent planning and preparing, the second you step off the plane into a new (or even relatively familiar) overseas location, you are bombarded with sights and sounds and words and culture that it can even sometimes overwhelm just a little.
And while the sun may shine more often in your new location, it doesn’t always follow that a new expat life will necessarily be emotionally sunny every day. In fact, recent studies have indicated that expatriates are more than twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety. But before we go any further, let’s stop to consider an important fact – while the risk may be increased, it’s not everyone who is affected. And by being aware of what contributes to the risk – as well as the support on offer, we’re much better placed to develop our own prevention and coping strategies.
This statistic mentioned above could be down to several factors for example, the feeling of isolation, lack of family support or a change in routine. Few would be the experienced expats who’d be able to put hand on heart and say that everything in life had gone completely smoothly. But the same could be said for those who chose not to move abroad. However, a big change in circumstances would affect any of us to some degree. We are, after all, only human!
So how long should it take to start feeling that everything is fitting into place? According to Dr Sean Truman of counselling services provider The Truman Group, transition is a staged thing. But after approximately three months, says Truman, most people have become used to all the new sights and sounds, and can really start to enjoy their new home. But he also points out that the first two years are all about accommodating all the adjustments. So it’s a process like any other – and happens bit by bit.
In another interview, (with The National, UAE) Truman outlines a common phenomenon he refers to as ‘the 90-day crash’. This is where, following all the excitement, the novelty and the big challenges of settling in, people suddenly begin to feel a bit flat. It makes perfect sense that many feel this way. It’s as if you have been facing so many challenges and so much stimulation that your brain is starting to expect it constantly. But once these challenges have been met, it’s back to the business of everyday life, hence the comedown, or ‘crash’. He points out that for the majority this is strictly temporary, and passes after a few weeks.
Optimising your expat wellbeing can be broken down into a number of areas to focus on.
The first of these is emotional wellbeing and staying mentally healthy, concentrating on the following factors:
- Being social. In the whirlwind of starting a new job, living in a new town, and maybe even speaking a new language, it’s natural to want some time to yourself. However, psychologists often stress the importance of making time to be social. You’ll meet new people and be invited along to things. This is your chance to build a new social network. And maybe even make potential lifelong friends in the process.
- Staying active.If there’s one true stress buster, it’s exercise, according to NHS Choices – and it can also protect against a host of other illnesses.
- Communication and social media. Staying in touch with family back home has never been easier in this connected age. And if you have friends or family in your new location, making time to catch up should be a wellbeing priority.
- EAPs (or employee assistance programmes) are offered by many employers, especially the kind of large globalised companies that often send staff abroad. Find out what’s available, and …
- Seek help if you need it. If there’s one thing that mental health professionals always seem to advise, it’s that bottling things up is not good. Being familiar with the kinds of support available and what they offer can often mean that first step to asking for help is a little easier.
The second expat wellbeing factor to focus on is physical health –and some of these areas of physical health are worth paying extra attention to:
- Diet. Moving far from home may mean eating differently. Don’t get stuck in the groove of only eating familiar stuff. Many foreign dished are super-healthy: just think, for instance of all the vegetables and olive oil in many Mediterranean meals.
- Skin care. Be sure to protect your skin from the sun, especially if you are fair-skinned. We may associate sun cream with beaches, but for many it’s an everyday essential.
- Office wellbeing. Too much time sitting? A health risk, say the experts.
- Moving to a long-hours working culture? Sitting in a bad office chair can create poor posture and lead to back problems. However, some of the prolonged sitting risks, according to Science Daily, can be offset by getting up and taking a ‘short walking break’ every now and then.
- Getting enough sleep. Being well slept has the advantage of improving alertness. And given the enormous variance in road traffic safety across the world, if you’re in new and unfamiliar conditions, getting enough rest every night could also mean being safer in the road.