To Live the Expat Dream, Plan to Cope With Stresses

What do we do when the place we’ve moved to—or the job or the relationship we’ve moved for—doesn’t turn out as we’d hoped?

When things go wrong, the excitement and adventure of expat life can be supplanted by feelings of loneliness, isolation, nostalgia and loss. Anastasia Piatakhina Giré, a Russian psychotherapist in Paris who has lived throughout Europe, believes that expatriate life heightens these universal human experiences. “Between excitement and anxiety lies the experience of expatriation,” she says. “Every expat, at some point, moves within these two poles.”

Here are some strategies for addressing the “anxiety” side of the spectrum:

Lack of support. Richard Jefferson, a British-American therapist who has lived in Argentina, Cambodia and now London, believes the main issue for expats is support—all the things we do that make us feel better when we are low, from social life to organized exercise to religion or spirituality.

“When you arrive in a new place, all those supports are now gone, and you’re in a more vulnerable place,” he says. New expats should seek out the things that help maintain their well-being, from exercise classes to religious services to social events.

As a starting point, Mr. Jefferson suggests asking, “What do I like in the country I came from? What did I do, who did I call, what action did I take?” Since sources of support take time to find in a new place, it’s important to make them a priority.

Loneliness. Along with the excitement of the unfamiliar, expatriation can involve feeling alone. Often we are struggling to develop relationships in places where we must start from scratch, learn the language or have the experience of not fitting in.

“When we feel isolated and lonely, and we do not know that many people yet, sometimes it’s so easy to get more isolated,” Ms. Piatakhina Giré says. In extreme cases, she has seen isolation lead to substance abuse or addiction.

She sees contact and relationships as the best response to loneliness—through scheduling regular phone calls with loved ones from home, signing up for expat networking events, accepting invitations from work colleagues and other locals, joining clubs or groups and perhaps finding a therapist. “The best thing to do is get some support,” she says.

Physical acclimation. Mr. Jefferson notes that many expats who move to a different climate—be it warmer and sunnier, or colder and grayer—experience physical changes that can take about a year to settle. The blood thickens or thins; the body can be more susceptible to local colds or flus. Some may need to adapt to less sunlight and vitamin D in winter.

For expats in northern countries, he stresses eating fresh fruits and vegetables regularly and perhaps buying a specialized lamp for cases of seasonal affective disorder. In less-developed countries, taking probiotics can help the stomach adjust to local food. He also advises patience, and trusting that the body will adjust. “I know it to be a truth because I’ve moved so much,” he says. “Every time it does change, no exception.”

Shame. However excited or comfortable we may feel when we move somewhere new, we are necessarily different. We come from a different culture, we may speak another language, and it takes time to learn the local social and cultural norms. In the process, Ms. Piatakhina Giré says, expats may experience a level of shame every day—whether using the wrong tone in a work email, forgetting how to say “train ticket” or having to ask multiple people for directions home.

We aren’t always conscious of these sources of shame, she says, “but when we experience it, we all develop tactics and strategies to survive, to make it bearable.” One of them is withdrawal, or further isolation—and that’s where relationships and reaching out can help. “It’s not something we can deal with by ourselves,” she says.

If Ms. Piatakhina Giré could give expats one piece of advice, it would be: “Invest in relationships.”

Mr. Jefferson advises savoring the highs: “The longer you’re in a place, the more you become a local. You get such amazing moments when you’re new. Enjoy those, because they will pass, too.”




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