Nina Hobson is a freelance writer, blogger, communications consultant and mentor. Having lived in ten countries, she writes about the highs and lows of life overseas on her lifestyle blog for women, The Expater. Today, she talks to Allianz Care about her experience as an expat and shares her advice on the practical steps we can take to manage and improve our mental health while abroad.
1. It’s common for expats to experience mental health issues at some point on their journey. How has expat life affected your mental health?
In the short term, expat life had a significant effect on my mental health. I’ve felt lonely, unfulfilled, and extremely anxious at many stages of my life abroad. I struggled when returning to my home country of the UK. As a repat, I found it hard to slot back into my previous life. The practical side of managing everything with children alone while my husband worked abroad was tough. Without the practical and emotional support I so desperately needed, I suffered parental burnout in 2016. However, my life overseas has also enabled me to reach a deeper sense of self awareness, and through this I feel much stronger today. I have gone through some very challenging experiences and come out all the better for them. In the long term, I feel expat life has had a very positive impact on my mental health.
2. What aspects of expat life have affected your mental health most?
On the practical side, as an accompanying spouse and expat mum I’ve had to sacrifice my time – especially at the beginning and end of assignments – to make sure everything is in place. Not only has this made me feel tired in a physical sense, it has also made me feel resentful on an emotional level, too. As a parent and a spouse, I am willing to devote time to the people I love, but when this balance tips over, I feel frustrated. As a career-driven woman, it was very hard for me to be listed as a ‘dependent’ on a visa when I am so fiercely independent! Self-fulfillment is an issue which has affected me deeply, and still concerns me today. However, I have carved out a remote-based career for myself which brings me immense satisfaction.
3. How do you manage your own mental health as an expat?
One of the most beneficial things for me has been journaling before bed. Sometimes I record my gratitudes, other times I log my emotions through what mindfulness experts might refer to as ‘wild writing’. Writing out my thoughts helps me clear negative energy so I can sleep better. I can see how I coped in the past and realise how far I’ve come in terms of managing my emotions. I also like writing letters. As a working mum, it is often hard for me to speak with friends, many of whom are based in different time zones. I have recently taken to writing a letter at least once per week. It helps me process my thoughts, and hopefully it is a nice surprise for the recipient, too. I know that exercise in the open air helps me too. In Chile, during the pandemic I bought a spin bike, opened up all the windows and made a commitment to cycle just 20 minutes per day. Now in the UK, my routine is constantly switching but I am doing my best to get a walk or run outside every other day. Most importantly for me, I need to know that I have time for myself. Right now, due to COVID-related travel restrictions I am parenting alone, so I have had to schedule in time for me to work quietly on my own. Like everything parenting-related, it does not always go to plan, but it is a start.
4. Would you recommend these same steps to another expat who is trying to manage their mental health?
Self-awareness is key. It is important for every individual to seek out what works for them. While writing works for me, other people might prefer art, speaking to a therapist, exercise, or another approach entirely. It is also important to manage your mental wellbeing actively, on a routine basis. It’s not about getting help when something is broken. It’s about putting mechanisms in place within your daily routine, and taking care of yourself in the long term, through a holistic approach!
5. While expat life can be difficult, there are plenty of good reasons to pursue a life abroad. Has expat life had a positive effect on your mental health, too?
Yes! Through my adventures abroad I have become much more self-aware. I now realise that I am naturally an anxious person and I need to be mindful when caring for a person or it tips over into self-destruction. Through my experiences abroad, I feel better equipped to deal with the stresses of everyday life. I am more resilient and more empathetic. As life abroad has afforded me such a broad education, I feel I can get a glimpse of what others might be feeling. I cannot possibly begin to understand what other people are going through, but I do stop to question. I would like to think I’m more mindful of others’ unique, personal mental health challenges. I have also noticed that my openness has allowed others to share their stories, and that makes us all feel less alone. Sharing stories with my peers has allowed me to validate my feelings, and in turn we feel more confident.
6. What tips would you give to an expat to ensure they stay on top of their mental health?
- Mental health care is not just about repair, but daily maintenance. Prioritise mental wellbeing within your daily schedule, for example a morning walk, daily meditation, or a monthly therapy session.
- Be open to what works for you. Mental wellbeing does not just come in the shape of therapy. Consider dancing, creative hobbies or volunteering, for example.
- Stop the comparisons. The only person you should compare yourself to is you. We all have different backgrounds and perspectives. Comparing ourselves to others can create a toxic environment of shame and competition.
- Take social media breaks. Social media can be very useful for expats on a practical and emotional level. However, it can be helpful to take time out on a routine basis, and especially if you are feeling vulnerable. Call a friend, meet in person, but try to avoid social media until you truly feel strong inside.
- Connect with your Other Significant Others. Ensure you have a strong support network in place. Whether it is a trusted group of friends, a therapist you can rely on, a work mentor you can trust or a professional coach, make sure you have a support network of Other Significant Others for your different personal needs.
Our Expat Assistance Programme is designed to help you adjust to a new environment and navigate the difficult aspects of life abroad. Whether you need financial advice, or confidential emotional support, the EAP is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. Find out more.