Is there a typical "expat stress"? The short answer is "YES". Recent studies show that expats "experience extraordinary high stress as well as social and emotional disruption that result from dislocation and moves. These factors, in turn, would be expected to result in higher rates of impairing emotional disruption and convey higher risk for mental health problems." In my practice of an expat psychologist, I'm usually asked two questions: is it possible to prepare for potential expat stress, and what shall I do to reduce my stress after relocation? There are some effective stress management tools you can use.
Before You Leave
I always advise my clients to learn a proactive behavior. Unfortunately, people used to ask for help, when it's too late and it takes more time and efforts to solve the existing problem.
Expat stress management along with an adaptation to the new culture and environment start BEFORE you leave your home country.
Make a detailed plan, including all possible challenges that will confront you within and outside the workplace. Usually, people are focused on the work they're going to be responsible for. However, a healthy work-life balance is crucial for mental health. Try to collect as much as possible information about the local culture, norms, business environment. Do your best to find a local "insider" or a cultural interpreter, who will guide through the things that you didn't know. Learning a local language is also helpful to reduce the stress level before you arrive.
Preventive mental health care is very important. Learn some behavioral techniques and physical coping skills and start practicing them before you leave. For instance, deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation are effective and easy to use in any stressful situation. But again, be proactive! If you learn them before, you can use them automatically when needed.
When You Arrive
There are dozens, or even hundreds of things you're obliged to fix simultaneously. And that causes stress. Besides, once you leave your home country, you lose your roots, your connection with family and close friends. Trailing spouses often struggle to adapt to their new circumstances and lifestyle and because they frequently don't receive the support they need from their partners, their frustration cycles back to add to the stress their partner feels.
First, take a deep breath (you've already learnt this technique), and make a plan. Planning and prioritizing give you the sense of stability and confidence.
If you're an assignee, try to avoid overload. From my experience, it's one the most common problems among working expats. Their work demands are chronically high. Unrealistic expectations both on the part of employers and employees can also set the stage for stress-related issues. Take a break! Research shows that workplace stress leads to less productivity. So, try find ways to lessen intensity.
Physical and mental health are going hand-to-hand, so invest in activities that keep you physically healthy. This is also a good opportunity to find some new friends and become more integrated into a new community.
Find special time for your family activities and develop an adventure mindset. It's an effective stress management tool, but it's also helpful in preventing the family conflicts.
Think about a smart "expat-local balance". Many people prefer to stay and interact within an "expat bubble" as they find the local expat community comfortable and supportive. However, the longer you stay there – the longer will be your adaptation, because every time you face the local environment, it becomes a source of a stress due to the cultural differences, language, norms, beliefs, etc. Joining a local club, or neighborhood community is a good idea to become more familiar with the new environment.
Expat life is exciting but challenging. Everyone experiences stress while living abroad, however it's you who's responsible for the quality of your life and your effective stress management. You can learn some tools or ask for a professional help – the decision is yours. Just be proactive about your self-care as it makes a significant impact on the quality of your life, wherever you decide to move.