As the sun rises on a new day, casting its golden hues over unfamiliar terrains and cityscapes, the heart of an expatriate fondly known as an expat brims with a mixture of exhilaration and trepidation. A new country, culture, and life await, teeming with opportunities for growth and enrichment. Yet, within this adventure lies a unique set of challenges; if left unaddressed, challenges can significantly impact an individual’s mental health. This article aims to illuminate these challenges and discuss how therapy can help manage and overcome them.
THE EXPAT EXPERIENCE: UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGES
Moving to a new country is akin to embarking on a voyage across uncharted waters. It’s an experience that evokes a heady mix of emotions- excitement, apprehension, hope, and uncertainty.
The Adventure and Anxiety of Relocation
The thrill of starting afresh in a new land, exploring its nuances, and embracing its lifestyle, is undeniably captivating. Yet, this adventure doesn’t come without its share of anxiety. The logistical complexities of moving; the uncertainty of living in an unknown locale; the challenge of building relationships anew; all can act as potent stressors, leading to feelings of apprehension and unease.
It’s essential to acknowledge that such feelings are normal. They’re a part of the human response to change, mainly changes as significant as relocating to a new country. As humans, we have difficulty with uncertainty and tend to plan and anticipate to manage feelings of anxiety and stress.
This is not always possible when moving to a new country, where you may not know far in advance where you will be living, where your children will go to school or what you will be able to access. This makes it difficult to find reassurance for your family that this move will best for your joint future.
Cultural Transitions and Identity Shifts
Beyond the logistical aspects of relocation, there lies the cultural transition. Every society, every country has its unique cultural fabric—a tapestry of norms, values, traditions, and idiosyncrasies. For an expat, immersing in this new culture often means adjusting their behaviours, attitudes, and self-identity.
This process can sometimes lead to a state of ‘cultural shock,’ causing stress, confusion, and alienation. Recognising these feelings and the complexities of cultural adaptation is a critical step in managing this transition effectively.
Even if you have been an Expat in the past, relocating to each new country comes with its own struggles and triumphs. It may take a while to identify the source of feelings of discomfort or difficulty transitioning to a new place. If you find yourself losing sleep or feeling distressed frequently, seeing a therapist can help you navigate some of these more complicated feelings while placing these situations in context of the local culture.
The Impact on the Family Unit
Relocation isn’t just an individual journey; it’s a collective experience for families moving together. The dynamics within a family can be significantly affected by this transition. Children, in particular, may face challenges as they leave behind familiar friends and surroundings, adapt to new education systems, and confront the many unknowns of a new country.
Often children are unable to identify or process how a move is affecting them. This will be the subject of part two of this article, including resources for children and families.
A family’s ability to communicate openly, acknowledge each member’s unique experiences, and support each other through the adjustment process is instrumental in ensuring a smoother transition.
Make sure to be open with your children and involve them in the process of moving. The more a child feels they know what to expect and have agency in their life situations, the more adjusted they will be during the move.
MENTAL HEALTH AND EXPATS: UNPACKING THE CONNECTION
Emigrating to a new country can be as demanding mentally as it is physically. Recognising the psychological impact of this journey forms the crux of ensuring sound mental health for expats.
Uncovering the Psychological Stressors
Relocation-induced stress can manifest in several mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation. The excitement of the initial months may gradually give way to emotional stress and loneliness as the reality of living away from one’s home culture sets in. At moments like this, someone may wonder about the relationships they have spent years building in their home country and whether they will survive the time apart. You may struggle with how to build new friendships and settle into your new home and/or workplace.
Dealing with unfamiliar bureaucratic systems, forming a new social network, or simply trying to communicate in a foreign language all can exacerbate feelings of isolation, creating a significant psychological burden. Acknowledging these stressors, rather than dismissing them as mere ‘teething issues,’ is crucial for effective mental health management.
Importantly, the length of your placement overseas can have a significant psychological impact. Many Expats move to other countries expecting placements of two years, but often have uncertainty whether contracts will be renewed until close to the time of expiration making it difficult to plan or now how much to invest (emotionally, socially, financially) in settling in.
Furthermore, it is important to note that in certain countries like Malaysia, one spouse will have an employment pass while another will have a dependent pass meaning they are unable to work. This can lead to a huge discrepancy in identity as spouses struggle to find their place in a new country. A person on a dependent pass may have left a long and fulfilling career and/or have to postpone their own life dreams and goals to focus on their family. This will be the topic of further discussion as it is important for everyone to find a way to develop a satisfying and meaningful life, no matter how short their placement is in the country.
The Importance of Mental Health Care
Just as you would take care to pack your essentials, arrange for accommodation, or learn about local customs and language, considering your mental health is a vital part of your relocation process. Remember, seeking support for your mental health doesn’t indicate frailty; instead, it’s an empowering step towards making your expat experience smoother and more enjoyable.
Therapy can be a guiding compass, helping you to navigate these new terrains, both externally and internally. It provides a safe space to voice out your fears, cope with feelings of isolation, and find effective strategies to build resilience. Furthermore, therapy will help each person develop a meaningful identity and meaningful and satisfying life while continuing to develop relationships.
THERAPY FOR EXPATS: FINDING YOUR PATH
The Role of Therapy in Transition and Adjustment
When moving across borders, you pack your belongings and carry along emotions, anxieties, expectations, and identities. A therapeutic intervention can support you in untangling these threads, addressing each with mindfulness and care. From cognitive-behavioural strategies to manage anxiety and stress to integrative approaches that help balance cultural identities, therapy can be a steadfast companion on your expat journey.
Relocating as a family introduces unique challenges, from kids adapting to new schools to parents juggling work-life balance in a foreign land. Family therapy can be a boon in these circumstances. It promotes healthier communication, enabling family members to express their concerns and fears effectively.
Moreover, it can help strengthen familial bonds, ensuring your family remains a strong, cohesive unit even as you adapt to the winds of change.
STRATEGIES FOR SEEKING THERAPY ABROAD
Accessing mental health services in a foreign land can seem daunting. However, many resources and options are available today, ensuring you can find the support you need.
Understanding Your Options: Local Therapists vs. Online Therapy
Choosing the right therapeutic support involves careful consideration of your needs, preferences, and available options. Local therapists can offer a nuanced understanding of the culture you are adapting to, providing contextually relevant insights. However, finding a local therapist fluent in your language or familiar with your home culture might sometimes be challenging, therefore it can be helpful to find therapists who have been Expats themselves or specialize in working with Expats.
Online therapy emerges as a viable alternative in such cases. It offers flexibility, eliminates geographical constraints, and allows you to connect with therapists from your home country or those with a common language or cultural background.
Navigating Language and Cultural Barriers in Therapy
Language and culture play a pivotal role in therapy. If you’re feeling lost in translation, expressing your emotions and experiences can be hard. Similarly, a therapist’s understanding of your cultural context can significantly impact the quality of therapeutic support.
Overcoming these barriers involves seeking therapists who are either proficient in your language or trained in cross-cultural therapy. Platforms that offer multilingual therapists or therapists experienced in dealing with expat mental health can be valuable resources.
Being an expat is like being a sailor, navigating the vast seas of cultural diversity and self-discovery. Remember, it’s okay to ask for a map, in this case, therapy when charting unfamiliar territories. Prioritising mental health is not just about coping; it’s about thriving and making the most of your expat journey.
At MindWell, we specialize in helping Expats, including couples, children and families. Our founder, Dr. Cassandra Aasmundsen-Fry, Psy.D., is both an Expat and grew up as a third culture kid. She is passionate about helping individuals from all over the world adjust, as are the other clinicians of MindWell. We can be reached at 0125472408 if you would like to discuss how we can be of help to you. Please check out our website www.mindwell.com.my.
- Expat Support Groups: Platforms where you can connect with other expats, sharing experiences and advice.
- Expat Blogs: A collection of personal blogs by expats, detailing their experiences, challenges, and victories.
- Expat Health Tips: An online portal offering practical tips for maintaining physical and mental health while living abroad.
In your expat journey, may each step—each experience, each challenge, each victory—bring you closer to understanding yourself and the world around you. Here’s to a journey enriched with self-growth, cultural diversity, and robust mental health!