How Can Expats Adjust Abroad

A new survey has revealed that expats are at far higher risk of developing mental health issues once they relocate overseas, and that as a result additional risk factors such as substance abuse become a concern among the greater global expat demographic.

The study, conducted jointly by Chestnut Global Partners and the Truman Group, has caused a flurry of interest among expats on the Internet who can all relate closely to the findings.  Discussions have been wide ranging, but mainly focus on what perhaps causes expats to be at increased risk of internalising or inappropriately externalising their stresses.

As we will discuss in this article, the findings of the survey shouldn’t really be all that surprising, after all expatriates expose themselves to everything from isolation to risk on many levels, purely as a result of making a choice to leave behind all that they are familiar with.  But what can be done to help expats adjust more successfully, and thus avoid the risk of mental health problems and/or substance abuse issues?

The Findings of the Survey Discussed…

The survey, which focused on Americans living abroad, revealed that over 50% of the expatriates questioned were at very high risk of internalising their problems such as anxiety and depression.  This rate was 2.5 times higher than their U.S.-based counterparts.

The study also discovered that three times as many expatriate as U.S.-based staff expressed or endorsed feelings of being trapped and/or depressed, and twice as many expatriates as U.S.-based workers expressed or endorsed feelings of being anxious or nervous.

Study co-author Dave Sharar, Ph.D. commented: “Studies estimate that American expatriates have rates of assignment failure as high as 40%, which often results from stress caused by cultural differences and demanding workloads…This study is the first to examine and establish that expatriates and their families do experience higher levels of stress than their U.S. counterparts.”

You can read a press release about the survey online.

What Causes Expat Stress?

Having followed many threads, blog posts, articles and tweets about the findings of this survey, it’s quite clear that many expats are actually acutely aware of the stressors they encounter and the risks that they are at once they have moved abroad.

For example, expats are aware that they enforce isolation on themselves by moving abroad.  They inevitably leave at least some family and almost all their friends behind, turn their back on the familiarity of their environment, and even place themselves in an unfamiliar role in terms of employment.

The excitement of the new life choice can be very short lived – which can bring an additional feeling of disappointment.  Fear of the unknown is a reality faced daily…and no single area of an expat’s life is unchanged by their relocation overseas.

To try and ignore this fact is impossible.  Therefore it’s perhaps more surprising that greater numbers of expats don’t fall victim to mental health issues…

In terms of substance abuse – it’s all too easy for an expat to drink to excess (unless they’re living in a totally dry (alcohol-free) nation).  This is because expats have to actively socialise in order to meet people and achieve any form of integration.

Integration is the key to avoiding isolation and achieving a positive frame of mind…but there’s a slippery slope if all the expat in question is doing is socialising in an environment where there is alcohol.

After all, expats and alcohol go together like a horse and carriage!

What Can Expats do to Avoid Mental Health Issues & the Risk of Substance Abuse?

If you’re planning a move overseas, or you’re already abroad and aware that you’re facing a lot of challenges, it’s important to understand that being an expat brings opportunities – both positive and negative.

Forewarned is definitely forearmed in this particular instance.  For example, if you’re aware that you may experience feelings of isolation or loneliness you can ensure you have mechanisms and plans in place to cope.

You can ensure you maintain regular contact with family and friends back home, and you can force yourself to get out and about and meeting people a set number of times a week.  You can also make an effort to reach out online and connect with others in your new location, with whom you can meet up in person in good time.

The challenges of a new workplace environment and perhaps even a totally new job need a different approach.  Take time to settle in and don’t set yourself impossible targets and goals, watch and learn from your new colleagues and be absolutely prepared to ask as many questions as you need to in order to feel comfortable and confident.

The onus is very much on you to help yourself – which in itself can bring additional pressures to bear.  Additionally, if you’ve relocated abroad with your partner/spouse/children you may need to give extra support to them to help them cope.

Communication is critical – internalising stressors and concerns will only cause damage.

If you are in a position where the only way you can socialise is in an alcohol-filled environment (e.g., pubs, clubs, parties or get togethers) you need to be exceptionally disciplined and limit and restrict your intake.  Many people relax after they have had a drink – which can make integration and socialisation easier – but it can also lead to another drink following naturally, and before you know it a habit has been formed and a substance (i.e., alcohol in this case) is being abused.

There are plenty of other ways to meet people away from alcohol – and there are plenty of things you can actively do to manage the stress of a new environment and a new life abroad.

You just need to be aware of the potential issues, attuned to your own stress indicators, prepared to work to make your life better, and involved to ensure you avoid traps and pitfalls such as escaping to a bar each night.

Finally, moving abroad is one of the best things you can do on a personal level for you and your family – it can bring massive advantages and positive opportunities – try and focus on the good reasons you had for relocating in the first place, and actively keep in mind some of the good things about your new life.  When you face a challenging day or scenario, reminding yourself of your good fortunes can counteract negative influences.

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