5 Top Expat Stressors and what you can do about them
I recently took an informal survey of my expat clients around the world and from expat Facebook groups to see what stresses expats the most. The question I posed was ‘What is your greatest frustration as an expat?’
As might be expected, the answers varied greatly depending on where expats lived. And where the expats were from. But there were similarities across the board, some of which were surprising to me.
Here are the top 5 stressors in no particular order and suggestions about how to handle them:
- Missing family, particularly during the holidays
- Making new friends.
- Transacting any kind of business in a foreign country
- A sense of not belonging anywhere.
- Poor customer service and being bogged down by the host country’s bureaucracy (in almost all countries). Frequently changing rules re: visas, residence permits and other issues that affect expats.
1. Missing family members, particularly at holiday time.
This is especially relevant as we head into the holiday season. Not all expats can, nor choose to return home to their families for the holidays, yet they still miss their loved ones at this time of year. This is due in part to the fact that holidays tend to evoke strong childhood memories, and we can find ourselves regressing to an earlier time, when we felt “held” by our families, even if we didn’t have the best family situation in general while growing up.
It’s easy to contrast this memory with feelings of loneliness or alienation that expats can feel when far away from home, especially if they’ve recently moved to a new country,
It’s therefore important to create new holiday traditions, either with your partner or family, or with friends or even by yourself, if alone. You may need to get creative to do this, like having a beach party if you’re in a warm country instead of a white Christmas. Or, take a fabulous trip where you’re completely caught up in new surroundings.
Of course, thanks to Skype, we can now join in a family party while halfway around the world. It’s particularly important for children to have a chance to see or speak with their grandparents and other relatives at this time of year.
2. Making new friends.
The HSBC annual study on expats always lists the importance of women having supportive friends as the single most important factor regarding employee retention abroad. Of course, this assumes that the woman is the ‘trailing spouse” which is not always the case.
Nonetheless, the problem of making new friends, particularly if you move around a lot can be problematic. For the working spouse, it’s somewhat easier as colleagues can become friends, and most children do tend to fare well in school, but for the non-working spouse it is often more difficult.
Most medium and large cities around the world tend to have clubs and organizations where expats can meet and get to know each other. If you have school age children, getting involved in your child’s school is another great way to make friends.
I usually suggest to my clients that they find something they feel passionate about and pursue it, whether it’s learning a language, taking a class, volunteering or pursuing an old or new hobby. Just make sure that the activity involves other people, as there’s nothing like bonding over a shared passion to forge strong friendships.
3. Transacting any kind of business in a foreign country.
This can often seem daunting, particularly, but not only in an emerging market country. Business rules vary from country to country and it can seem like no matter how hard we try to follow the rules there is always something we’re missing. And this can apply to anything from actually setting up a business to opening a bank account or establishing an Internet connection.
Take 10 Breaths
When this gets especially harrowing, I suggest my 10 Breaths Method, which I’ve talked about before. Essentially, go to a quiet place, even if the bathroom is the only spot available. Sit down (on the toilet in the bathroom case), close your eyes and put your hands on your belly, just below your belly button. Then breathe normally, and notice how when you inhale, the belly expands, and when you exhale it contracts. Do a few breaths, like this, then put a count to each complete inhale and exhale. So, it’s one, inhale/expands, exhale/contracts, 2, inhale/expands, exhale/contracts and so on until you reach the count of 10. If your mind wanders away in thought, just gently bring it back to the breath and the belly and the count.
At the conclusion of 10 Breaths, you will fill more relaxed and centered, and hopefully be able to deal with the bureaucracy more effectively.
4. A sense of not belonging anywhere
This seems to be especially pronounced for diplomats and multi-national company employees who are rotated frequently around the world. It may have been years since they lived in their country of origin, and they no longer feel they belong there, and certainly feel no sense of belonging in a country where they may be for only 2 years. This phenomenon is very similar to that experienced by Third Culture Kids, who grow up all over the world.
Some people, especially those with families, seem better able to take this in stride, but many rotating expats have a hard time without a sense of belonging. It is more pronounced for women and single expats than for men and those who are married.
Expats who are married, and especially those with families can derive their sense of belonging from family members, but for singles it is more difficult, particularly if they are continually leaving close friends behind.
If this is a problem for you as an expat, I suggest you envision a supportive circle of people who may be anywhere in the world. This is your circle of belonging. You can let the people in your circle know about this, and get their permission for you to contact them when you need support.
Your sense of belonging can then be tied to people who are important in your life instead of a geographical place.
5. Poor customer service, getting bogged down by the host country’s bureaucracy, and frequently changing rules re visas, residency permits and other matters affecting expats.
What I found interesting about this was that it didn’t seem to matter which country an expat lived in, be it the US, UK, India, or China, expats in many different countries had this complaint. I think we get bogged down by our host country’s bureaucracy because it’s different than that of our home country, which we’re used to. Also, as a citizen of a country, we’re just not subjected to the same kinds of red tape and procedures that we must deal with as expats.
The Buddhists say that the antidote for anger isn’t love, but patience. So when I find myself in these situations getting irritated or angry, I take a deep breath and consciously try to be patient, no matter how inept the person behind the counter may be. This is not easy for me, but I can at least try to move in this direction. It certainly feels better than the experience of anger, frustration and irritation.
I also never go into a bureaucratic situation empty-handed. I always have my Kindle nearby with a good book already loaded, and of course my phone, which I’m now using to re-teach myself French with the Duolingo app, which I heartily recommend. And when all else fails, remember to sit down, close your eyes, and take 10 breaths!
If you would like a free 30 minute De-Stress session, go to Contact Us and we’ll get back to you within 48 hours.