Anxiety and The Ex-pat

What is anxiety? The word has become so common in today’s lexicon, and more people than ever before suffer from and seek treatment for anxiety, making it one of the most prevalent mental health issues of our time. For example, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in the United States, affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.  But, what is anxiety, and what can we do when we feel like it’s taking over our ability to manage our daily lives?

Anxiety is an emotion, loosely defined as apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill (Merriam-Webster).  Anxiety can serve to warn us to prepare for a future challenge or threat, and all of us experience feelings of anxiousness at one point or another.  In moderation, anxiety is not always a bad thing, as it can help you focus, solve problems and motivate you to take action.  However, when life feels too challenging for an extended period of time, it can lead to feelings of overwhelm, and this prolonged period of intense stress can cause a state of anxiety, which begins to interfere with activities and relationships.

As an ex-pat, there is no shortage of challenges and stresses to manage and overcome.  The logistical considerations of moving abroad – often with children in tow – automatically equal a dramatic increase in the amount of stress a family experiences.  Add to that the emotional toll of leaving behind everything familiar and settling into a completely foreign land.  Now top it all off with a possible language and communication barrier, countless bureaucratic headaches and feelings of isolation, and you’ve got a very fertile breeding ground for anxiety to grow.

Anxiety can look and feel different from person to person, but some of the common emotional symptoms include feelings of apprehension or dread, anticipating the worst, trouble concentrating, feeling tense and jumpy, irritability, watching for signs of danger and feeling like your mind’s gone blank.  Some common physical symptoms of anxiety include insomnia and other sleep disturbances, frequent headaches, dizziness, upset stomach, pounding heart, sweating and shortness of breath.

So what can you do if you are an ex-pat struggling with any of the above symptoms of anxiety and you want to feel more in control and less overwhelmed?  Keep in mind that anxiety is often something that builds, growing in intensity until it’s just too big and loud to be ignored.  And just as it didn’t develop overnight, it will be a process to lessen its grip.  

  • Keep up your relationships.  Talk with the important people in your life about what you are experiencing and feeling.  When feelings of isolation and loneliness creep in, take the time to connect with family and friends back home.  Set up regular phone dates and keep them.  Having a support system is a key component to combatting anxiety, and it can take time to create one in your new country.
  • Lower the bar.  You’re simply not going to get as much done in a day as you used to back home, so don’t expect to be the same hyper-efficient multi-tasker you were.  You’re learning to do so many things from scratch, so be patient with yourself.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises can help reduce anxiety symptoms and increase feelings of relaxation.
  • Ask for help.  If going to appointments – such as the doctor or the Comune – is especially stressful because of a language barrier, ask a friend – or a friend of a friend – to accompany you.  Knowing you’re able to both understand and be understood can allow you to focus on the business at hand, rather than the fear of communication.
  • Listen to your symptoms and look at your routine.  Are there things you can change to reduce stress and increase calm?  For example, if sleeping has become an issue, think about your evening routine and ways to help you better unplug and wind down before bed, such as no screens one hour before bedtime.
  • Don’t let go of your exercise routines and hobbies.  I so often find that my ex-pat clients who suffer from anxiety are no longer engaging in the workouts and leisure activities they loved doing back home.  Letting go of these physical, emotional and creative outlets has a direct effect on your overall health.  So, while engaging in these activities may not look exactly like it did before, remember that some is much better than none.

Seek counseling.  If your symptoms persist and you feel you need additional support, professional counseling can help.


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