Stress and Burnout in Expats
She has everything. A beautiful house, well educated kids, her husband is satisfied at his new job, coming back every evening with exciting stories from around the world. They have enough money, they have comfort, she doesn’t need to work, but she is not happy. ‘I’m not allowed to be unhappy, I have it all’, she tells herself. But what she doesn’t have is passion, fulfilment, a supportive social network, something exciting to talk about at the dinner table, feeling like a role model to her children… she feels like a shell of what she used to be. Stress, anxiety and depression lurk around the corner. ‘Could I be burned out without a job?’
He was so full of hope when he moved to be with his beloved new wife in her home country. They both agreed they can have more opportunities and a much better future for their children in her country. But as the months and years went by, and he lost his job, couldn’t make ‘buddies’ like he had back home, didn’t feel ‘man enough’ to protect and support his family – his world collapsed around him. His identity, manhood, passion, strength—made way to anxiety, stress and depression. It didn’t take long for their emotional and sexual relationship to deteriorate, damaging his self-esteem even more. He gained weight, stopped going out, was often sick. ‘Have I made the worst mistake of my life? i don’t know who I am anymore’.
From my personal experience and from working with many expats in the last few years, I have come to realize that immigration is a stressful situation that might even be experienced in our bodies as a trauma, same as a car accident for example. Whether or not the relocation itself is a traumatic life event is a topic for another article, but it is my personal opinion that it is one indeed.
Researchers found a strong connection between the migration process and major adjustment stressors. Anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and higher prevalence of serious psychiatric disorders have all been found to be strongly linked to immigration experience. Symptoms include both physical illnesses and mental symptoms.
Burnout is a common in expats. It occurs when one feels a loss of meaning and identity, lack of inspiration and passion. Symptoms include feeling drained and lacking physical energy, having negative thoughts about one’s daily routine, being easily irritated and frustrated, feeling misunderstood or unappreciated, feeling isolated, ‘not good enough’, lacking plan and focus.
Moving into a new country entails many stressful situations, experiencing culture shock and its 4 stages, which I wrote about before. It is more common to feel burned out and stressed at the 2nd and 3rd stages of the culture shock (the Crisis stage and the Fight/ Flight/ Freeze stage – read more in my previous article here). But it can skip you altogether in one assignment and then pop up afterwards when you least expect it. Sometimes it can be linked to dissatisfaction from one’s job or routine, disliking the new country or one’s stage in life (e.g. having a new baby, kids leave the nest etc.). Sometimes it is simply connected to the outrooted feeling, loneliness, isolation and being away from one’s social support system.
If you’re experiencing severe anxiety, depression and stress, especially if you experience thoughts about suicide – please find a professional to talk to! Don’t stay alone, reach out and get help.
Here are some ‘first aid’ tricks to tackle overwhelming negative feelings.
How to deal with those expats’ blues?
Structure your days, routine is important when feeling stressed and overwhelmed
Re-invent yourself; find a job or anything else that will keep you busy and fulfilled, such as volunteering, fun hobbies or other pleasurable activities
Regain control and power over your life – this will increase your self-esteem and confidence
Find or create your new supportive community! We humans are social beings and this element is crucial to our survival and wellbeing
Keep in touch with old friends and family from back home
Learn the local language – it will enable you to communicate with locals, increase your confidence, your options of finding a good job, socialize with other people in your situation, stimulate your brain, and get you out of the house!
Find joy in the small pleasures of life. Finding a new great coffee place that serves the most delicious cheese cake can be such a satisfying accomplishment!
Let go of expectations – be open to new experiences, explore the new city and its surroundings, get out of your routine and out of your comfort zone and try new things!
Getting a lot of exercise and fresh air is vital also to our mental wellbeing, not only to our bodies – so go for a walk at the nearest woods!
And remember – the first year or so is always difficult, don’t burden yourself with calculating pros and cons and making decisions every day regarding moving out or staying put. I suggest to set a deadline when you’ll make a decision about your future and until then – give yourself a break from those tiring repetitive thoughts and just enjoy what you can.
And another last point, but not least: Setting intention and planning our desired future is crucial to achieving our goals and feeling fulfilled. Stop to think where you want to be and who you want to be and aim there. It’s in your power to change your mode from surviving to thriving as an expat.
Do you need support? I am helping internationals integrate and be happy, overcome relocation struggles, frustration and stress, to re-discover their resources, passion and joy.
Sources for further reading:
Foster, R. P. (2001). When immigration is trauma: Guidelines for the individual and family clinician. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71(2), 153-170.
Perreira, K. M., & Ornelas, I. (2013). Painful Passages: Traumatic Experiences and Post-Traumatic Stress among Immigrant Latino Adolescents and their Primary Caregivers. The International migration review, 47(4), 10.1111/imre.12050. doi:10.1111/imre.12050
Immigration & Trauma: Before, During & After / ANDRÉS HOYOS, MS, LCSW
We Are Expats, We Are Strong: Experiencing trauma while away from home / Rensia Melles