What are the ‘expat blues’? Well, as any expat will tell you, there tends to be a ‘honeymoon’ period when you first move overseas. This is the time when you feel like a tourist and everything is a novelty.
How long does this honeymoon period last? Well, it varies from person to person and country to country. But usually, it is followed by a slump….and the expat blues.
When we moved to Germany it was summertime. Everything looked beautiful, the sun shone every day and we spend our days doing trips to vineyards and castles. And then the kids started school, the weather started to turn…and I hit the slump.
How to minimise the Expat Blues
If you have moved overseas before, you will know the the ‘expat blues’ is a real thing.
Of course, everyone is affected differently but, speaking from my own experience, our first six months here knocked me for six. I mean, this was our second expat assignment and, you know, I had survived Bangkok, so how hard could Germany be??!
The answer was: very hard.
I had expected it to happen and yet I wasn’t prepared for it. The problem is that when you hit the slump, it can be hard to pick yourself up again. The ‘Expat Blues’ can easily turn into depression.
I can only speak from my own experience, but I certainly felt very lonely…and then the fact that I was alone a lot made it even harder to interact with people. I am a pretty sociable and outgoing person, and suddenly I just wanted to hide away. I had trouble sleeping and felt apathetic. Days would drift by and then I would feel so guilty for not ‘achieving’ anything…
Looking back, there were a lot of factors at play. If I could go back in time, this is the advice I would give myself…
Be prepared: being an Expat Spouse can be lonely
Humans are social animals and companionship is essential to our well being. Loneliness is something that is difficult to admit to, because it somehow feels shameful – to say you are lonely implies you have no friends, which implies there is something ‘wrong’ with you. In her book ‘The Lonely City’, Olivia Laing describes loneliness as,
‘…like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge.’
When I read this, it really chimed with me. That is exactly how I felt in the winter of 2016. I felt so lonely…and the thing with loneliness is that it makes itself worse. It makes it harder to ‘put yourself out there’ even though you know that’s the only way to break its hold on you.
This can be particularly hard for the expat spouse. While the working partner continues with the routine of their job, the spouse is often left feeling isolated; and I do think this is especially hard if they had previously been working. Not only are you in a new place where everything is unfamiliar, you are also away from your people – your family, your friends, who would normally support you when things got tough.
It’s important to make connections
The only way around this is to make connections with people. Making friends when you move isn’t easy, but it’s critical.
But if I break it down to a basic level, it’s about getting positive interaction with other people every day. I will admit the fact that my day was often made – or broken – by random people. The woman in the supermarket who helped me when I dropped the contents of my handbag all over the floor (has there been a study to prove that loneliness makes you more clumsy? Because I’m sure it does…). And then the woman in the bakery who mocked my German – which admittedly, is bad. On a normal day I might have laughed with her…instead I cried all the way home.
I guess what I am saying is that, even though you may not yet have made ‘real’ friends, any positive connection you make is good for you.
I had always been a bit sceptical about connections made online, but there are lots of great groups for expats. I am a member of I Am A Triangle and which is a really supportive online space, as are some of the expat focussed Facebook Groups.
The importance of making connections is one of the reasons I set up The Expat Book Club – an online community connecting women all over the world through a shared love of reading. Sometimes the smallest of positive connections can make the biggest difference to our day.
Take Good Care of Yourself
Taking care of yourself is fundamental to feeling good…paradoxically this often slips when we start to feel bit down.
We all know the general advice on taking care of yourself – exercise, eat well, get enough sleep. Don’t smoke. Drink in moderation. Yet when we feel down, it’s somehow harder to keep all this on track. We may not feel like eating…or just want to eat all the time. The odd glass of wine at night becomes a bottle. We can’t get to sleep…and then everything feels worse when you’re tired.
Don’t ignore the warning signs – and don’t be hard on yourself.
Of course there is the external perception that expat life is just a long, glorious, gin-soaked holiday. And that can make it even harder when you are finding it tough – ‘What’s wrong with me? I should be have the time of my life…??’
If you get into this pattern, it’s time to call yourself out. Whatever you’re feeling, you’re feeling it. Who cares what anyone else thinks that you should be feeling!
Now is the time to be kind to yourself; do the things that make you feel good and don’t feel guilty about it. A soak in the bath, a manicure, reading a good book. If the only thing that makes you feel good is draining a bottle of wine, then listen to the alarm bells…
Practice Good Mental Hygiene
It’s important to be honest with yourself about how you are feeling. If this is more that just feeling ‘a bit down’ then ask for help. Depression is something that can affect anyone, and it is not something that goes away easily just by itself.
And it might not be depression, but feeling lonely is bad enough. Ask for help. Tell others how you are feeling. Because what you will often find is, they are feeling – or have felt – the same way too.
I am neither a doctor nor a mental health expert; this advice is based on my own experience of living abroad and speaking to other people in the same position.
Regardless of where you are living, your mental health is important. Here is a great TED talk by Dr Guy Winch who urges us all to practise ‘good emotional hygiene’. We would go to the doctor if we had flu, or if we broke a bone. So why are we resistant to getting help when we are struggling with emotional pain? Dr Winch talks about loneliness, protecting our self esteem and battling negative thoughts. Essentially, protecting and supporting our psychological well being and allowing ourselves to thrive. It’s only 15 minutes and well worth a watch.
And as a slight aside – if you are moving to a country with long, dark winters you might want to consider getting your Vitamin D levels checked and taking a supplement. It can make a huge difference to how you feel, and many of us are very deficient (including me!). Here’s some more info about it.
Get a Routine
I am not a routine-oriented person, but when I first moved to Germany I felt like I was falling through the days, getting nothing done and then beating myself up about it. I am now a fan of having a routine – albeit a pretty loose one.
The main thing my routine revolves around? Moving. My body, that is.
I am not super fit – certainly not an exercise junky – but it turns out that exercise really does do you good. Ha! Took me a long time to listen to that advice… Unfortunately it tends to be that, when you feel rubbish and low, it’s the last thing you want to do.
So get a routine and, even better, rope in someone else to exercise with you. I used to walk the dog on my own near our house. Now I take her to school at drop off and I walk with friends. That bit of fresh air, exercise and interaction sets me up for a good day.
Routines can be hard to get into. So maybe this is a way of thinking about it – every day, do something for yourself. Not unpacking boxes, not doing the groceries, but something just for you. I also think that by showing up to the same things at the same time – walking the dog, a gym class, the supermarket – you become familiar with other people doing these things at the same time.
Do What You Love
I have talked before about how a lot of my identity had been bound up with my career. But if I’m honest, the day to day of what i was doing…I didn’t ‘love’ it.
Moving has given me the opportunity to spend time doing things I love. But it took me so long to actually make time for these things. It’s crazy the way we can prevent ourselves from doing what we actually want to do…
What do I love? Well, in a nutshell, I’m happiest when I feel like I have created something. And no, I am not a crafty Pinterest Pin-Up kind of Mum, but I do love to be immersed in a creative process. But this can be anything from organising an event to baking a cake.
I have also learned a lot about myself. I tend to start a million things at once and then get annoyed because I don’t get everything ‘done’. So now I try to take on less things and make sure I finish them – and actually enjoy that sense of satisfaction.
I took a writing course and – drum roll – finished some short stories. I started this blog. And then I realised how much I need social contact…so I set up the Expat Book Club. No, none of these are world-shaking things. But they have improved my world.
What could you be doing that would make you happy?
Count Your Achievements
I, and lots of other women I know, am very quick to dismiss everything we do – ‘Oh no, that’s just an easy recipe’. ‘What have I done today? Just the shopping and dinner’. ‘It’s just a blog’. ‘It’s just a 5km jog’.
This is not an expat thing or a housewife thing – crikey, I saw women who had achieved incredible things at university and at work do exactly the same thing.
So let’s challenge ourselves to get rid of the ‘just’. Why diminish everything we do? And ok, if you aren’t working, the stuff you do may seem like small, inconsequential stuff. Shopping, cooking and cleaning aren’t exactly contributing to the Middle East Peace Process…but they are pretty fundamental to having a functioning family and a happy home.
So when you have those days when you feel like you have got nothing done, take a pause and think of all the things that you preceded with ‘just’.
You got the kids up. You made breakfast. You took care of the house. You went to the shops and bought the groceries – in a foreign country. You’re doing great!
Remember: You Are Not Alone
I honestly thought everyone else had their shit together when I was losing mine. But no, actually, there were a lot of friends in the same boat. We all just wanted to seem like we were doing just fine.
But saying you are fine and feeling fine are two different things. If you are finding things hard right now, if you are struggling with the ‘expat blues’, you are not the only one. Things will get better, but it sometimes takes time and a whole load of effort.
And if you are feeling lonely, remember that you are not alone in this. I hope that knowing that makes you feel just a little bit better.