Hi guys, Emilie writing here! Guiga has kindly invited me to write a post on her blog about expat depression, as I also write a blog Me My Health And I – Managing depression through a healthy lifestyle, and I am an expat too!
Expat depression is a real thing. At first, the idea of expatriation sounds magical and exciting. There is so much to discover: a new country, a new city, a new culture and sometimes a new language! But the excitement can easily turn into severe depression if we are not careful.
“Why?” Well, simply because human beings are creatures of habits. Our habits keep us stable mentally (in a good or a bad way by the way) and big life changes such as moving countries can throw our habits, and mental health, into disarray.
The reason I know all about expat depression is because I expatriated myself a few times over the last 16 years. I never took into account my mental health when I was considering opportunities abroad and I lived to learn the lesson.
There was one relocation, in particular, that proved very difficult for my mental health. About 7 years ago, I was asked to take up a position in Denmark at short notice. Just a few months after I had joined a company in the UK, the Danish lawyer of the team resigned. She was a senior lawyer and there was ongoing work which meant the company couldn’t afford not to have a lawyer in the country.
The Chief Counsel looked around the team and, being single, childless and ambitious, I was the obvious candidate. Within 2 months I was in Aalborg, Denmark. Here is a short video introducing Aalborg, if you haven’t heard of it before.
To The First Signs Of Expat Depression
Interestingly enough, there were friends and family members who had concerns about my wellbeing and questioned whether this was the right time for me. I had just been through a very traumatic year and was just getting back on my feet. But all I could see was the career opportunity and the adventure. And these did not disappoint.
I arrived in northern Denmark in January during a snowstorm and set myself to work and network. All I could think about was work.
I quickly made friends amongst the expat community in my company. This was a fun crowd. I was living the ‘work hard play hard’ life to the full and was loving it. I used to work on average 80h per week and was out for dinner and drinks 4 or 5 times a week.
Funnily enough, I used to spend the entire weekend recovering. After a few months, I made friends outside of work, Danes and other expats, and the partying extended to the weekend too.
To Severe Depression
As you can imagine this could not last forever. From one day to the next I became severely depressed. One morning I got some bad news, started to cry and didn’t stop for months. The news themselves weren’t that bad, but I had become so fragile that all it took was something small to trigger depression.
At the time I did not understand what happened. It is later on, when I started researching depression that I realised where I had gone wrong. I went through a huge life change, moving countries, without a safety net.
- My entire lifestyle had been disrupted: I had stopped yoga, doubled my working hours, quadrupled my alcohol intake, changed my eating habits.
- The system I had in place to support my wellbeing had disintegrated.
- My support network was back home.
- I had moved to a country where I knew no one, didn’t speak the language and where winters were longer, darker and colder than in the UK.
It took me years to recover, prompted my research on depression and how to manage it, and this is how my blog, Me My Health And I – Managing depression through a healthy lifestyle, was born.
What Is Expat Depression
Habits And Emotional Wellbeing
The state of our mental health is a reflection of our lifestyle and how good we are at managing our emotions. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on lifestyle.
Stability comes from our habits. If you have strong habits, whether good or bad, you are more likely to be emotionally stable. Note that I did not say that you were more likely to be happy.
Take someone who drinks, smokes and doesn’t exercise much. They are likely to be emotionally stable provided they are ok with the choices they have made. These choices are natural depressants, so this person might not be the happiest, but if they are used to this lifestyle, they will be ok.
At the other end of the spectrum, someone who is prioritising their health and has ingrained healthy habits will also be stable. Their choices are natural anti-depressants, so they are likely to be in a better mood and feel more positive generally than the first person.
It is when our habits are disturbed that our mood can become affected. Have you ever been close to someone who is quitting smoking cold turkey? They are moving from an unhealthy habit to a healthy one rapidly (literally from one minute to the next). This will most of the time create mood swings. It will take a few weeks and a lot of willpower for the person to return to an emotionally stable place.
The Impact Of Expatriation On Habits
If you thought moving houses was stressful, try relocating abroad. It will require a lot of organisation to make things as smooth as possible and some things will still go wrong.
While all of this is happening, maintaining your healthy lifestyle might not be your priority (unless it is so ingrained that it has become second nature).
And once all of this has settled, you enter the exciting phase of discovery! You want to try everything! You go sightseeing, you try the local food and drinks. You get to know your new city, your new colleagues. While all of this is happening, there is something akin to a holiday feeling. It feels like it isn’t quite real.
Next thing you know your old routine has disappeared and your former habits with it. And you are starting to feel out of sorts.
The Importance Of Your Support Network
Thankfully we now have amazing technology that allows us to stay connected with family and friends back home. But talking on a video call isn’t quite the same as popping over for coffee.
Our support network is something we often take for granted, but it is crucial for our emotional wellbeing. Our sense of belonging to a community is a basic human need that affects our mental health.
When we move abroad it is easy to cut ourselves from our support network and to feel isolated which then starts feeding the expat depression. In fact, it requires conscious efforts to keep friendships going at a distance. This is something to be aware of and keep an eye on. I would recommend booking regular catch-ups, and visits where possible, with your loved ones to create a new habit of staying in touch.
How To Prevent Depression Linked To Relocation
I have good news for you: you have taken the first step by reading this article and becoming aware of expat depression and what triggers it. Congratulations! If you implement even only 10% of the advice below, you will be setting yourself off to a healthy start.
Where Are You Now?
Take a little bit of time to review your current lifestyle. What are the key components? What is your routine (conscious or not)? Who are the people you spend the most time with? Are they coming along with you?
Look at the following:
- Your exercising routine
- Your eating habits
- Your social habits
- Your hobbies
Just a note of caution: we are doing a review of the current situation, not of your ideal life. This is important because what we want to achieve is to replicate abroad the lifestyle that is currently keeping you emotionally stable at home.
What we are not adding are further changes to your life. Your life is about to be completely reshaped, so the minimum changes the better.
If this review motivates you to get in shape or quit smoking, that’s great but park this thought for a few months after the move. One change at a time, please.
Do Your Research and Plan Ahead
Once you have done your review, imagine that you are already living where you are moving to.
Will you be able to keep your exercising routine, eat the same food and continue your hobbies?
If not, what could you do to ensure minimum disruption to your lifestyle?
Let’s say you are a keen sailor, but you are moving to a place where sailing is not an option. Is there another activity you could do locally instead?
Spend some time making enquiries and organising your future life so you are ready to start it once you are settled in. If you are moving to France, Expat in France blog is a great resource to organise your move!
Recreating A Social Life
This could be key to the success of your relocation. Unfortunately, chances are, you won’t be able to take your entire support network with you. But you can create a new one.
Making local friends will be invaluable, especially if they are expats themselves and have been through the same difficulties as you do. They can give you tips and advice to help you navigate the local system.
Making friends who are from the country you have moved to would also be fantastic as they can help you understand the culture.
Here are a few ideas on how to make new friends.
If you are moving somewhere where they speak a different language, I highly recommend you learn it. People might speak English but making an effort to speak their language and understand their culture will go a long way. You are most likely to meet other expats there too which should be fun.
Join a gym or an exercise class
This will depend on what you were doing back home of course, but becoming a regular at a local gym or a class means you will see the same people regularly and might naturally get to know people.
Keep up your hobby
Were you taking salsa classes back home? Find your local class and join! Not only continuing an activity you enjoy will be good for your emotional wellbeing, but you will rapidly make friends with people who have the same interest.
Last year I interviewed Bachata dancer Aurelie Chapelain who told me how she feels like she has a community worldwide thanks to Bachata. In the interview she talks about how every time she moved to a new country (and she has moved a few times), the first thing she would do was find the local Bachata class. She would make friends instantly because she felt a strong sense of belonging to the Bachata community.
This works regardless of the type of hobby by the way. If like me, you are a writer, join a writers’ group!
If I Had To Do It All Over Again
If I knew back then what I know now, this is how I would handle my move to Denmark:
I Would Insist On Getting A Flat Straight Away
When I moved to Denmark, I lived in a hotel for the first six months. This was highly disruptive as I was travelling a lot and had to vacate the room every time.
Also, the hotel did not have a restaurant, so I had to eat out every day, which is where the dinner and drinks 5 times a week came from. My options were: restaurants, take-outs or easy supermarket food such as ready-made salad and sandwiches…
Proper accommodation means stability straight away and better control of eating habits.
I Would Make Danish Classes A Priority
I started learning Danish when I arrived. I enjoyed it and had fun saying a few words in Danish to my colleagues who clearly appreciated the gesture. The Danes are so good at English that most expats don’t even try to learn Danish. I met some interesting people at the language school and could have built friendships.
But I got so absorbed in my job that I kept not showing up at the classes and ended up stopping altogether. This was a real shame, especially as the classes were free. Yes, free! The Danish government offers free Danish classes to all expats to help them integrate.
Quitting Danish classes remains to this day one of my biggest regrets about my time in Denmark.
I Would Attend the English Speaking Yoga Class
Before moving to Denmark, I used to go to a yoga class that I absolutely loved. It was every Monday evening and it really helped centre me for the week. Monday evening became sacred. It would take a lot for me to not show up at my yoga class.
When I moved to Denmark, I told myself that I would join a local class, but they were all in Danish. This is the type of class where you need to know what the teacher is saying. So I tried a few times and gave up.
A friend of mine told me that she knew a yoga teacher who was teaching in English but by that time I had gotten used to no yoga, I lived on the opposite side of town and I had settled in my bad habits. So I didn’t even try.
Signing up for that class would be one of the first things I would do now.
I Would Go to The Gym
I wasn’t into fitness back then, but I am now. I am a member of a great small gym where people are friendly. Back in Denmark, I found a gym 5 minutes’ walk away from my flat (once I got one) and I joined. I think I went twice in one year…
Now I would ensure that visiting the gym would be part of my daily routine like it is now.
I Would Find A Writers' Group
I am part of a writers’ group now and I love it. We encourage each other and share ideas and tips. They are lovely people to hang out with. I would search for a group locally.
I Would Keep An Eye On My Work-Life Balance
The number one mistake I made back then was to throw myself into work like a mad person. My contracted hours were 37 hours, but I worked 80 hours a week. As a result, I was too tired to do anything at all on the weekend.
If I was to go now, I would replicate my current routine. I work 40 hours a week, give or take depending on what is going on at work. I have a lovely morning routine that set me up to win the day: meditation, gratitude practice, exercise, healthy breakfast. I protect the quantity and quality of my sleep. I eat healthily and keep alcohol in check.
How To Prevent Expat Depression: key take-aways
Do you have other tips on how to prevent expat depression? What works well for you? I’d love to hear your stories. Let me know in the comments.
What a great and interesting article! Moving from Sydney, Australia to London, England was one of the toughest times in my life. But after a year, when it was time to move to Paris, London had become a home and quite reluctantly wanted to leave! We have a great capacity to adapt, but it is true that it is easier when we are surrounded by friends (which was my case).
Thank you Pierre for your comment.
This is a difficult subject but it is so important to shed some light on it, and even more at the moment. And you are totally right, having a good support network is essential to overcome depression.
London is very tough at first… I lived there for 3 years and it took me a while to get used to it once the honeymoon period of the first few weeks had passed… All the best to you!
I relocated a lot. What really helped me was to really be part of the local life – local friends, leisure… What I found harder was to leave friends again when leaving again…