How to deal with expat depression

May 2023
As part of our ‘Know Before You Go’ series we take a closer look at how expats can be prepared for mental health issues.

Studies conducted recently have shown expatriates may be at greater risk of mental health problems. This most often manifests in the form of expat depression however cases of stress, anxiety and isolation amongst the expatriate community are also on the rise. 

Pre-2020 this was most often linked to the stress of international moving and the culture shock of living in a new country, coupled with a high pressure expat role. 

Over the last few years, expats have had to deal with a lot of added uncertainty. From facing the global pandemic with long periods of social isolation away from home, to now having to navigate life abroad during a cost-of-living crisis, all of these factors add to the daily stressors faced by expats .  

Expat depression is a period of feeling despondent or in low spirits for long periods of time and is typically experienced by people who move overseas to complete an assignment for their company.
If you are planning an overseas move for work once conditions allow, there are things you can do to protect your mental health, before you leave and when you first get to your new location:

Sleep is essential for good mental health. Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours sleep a night. If you are getting less than this on a regular basis it can impact your energy levels, attitude to life and emotions.

It is worth noting that the relationship between depression and sleep is complicated. Oversleeping is also a symptom of depression, so if you are getting plenty of sleep but still struggling with how you are feeling for a few weeks, it is worth seeking professional help.

Are you having difficulty sleeping? Unfortunately, this is not uncommon with expat depression. You may struggle to get to sleep or stay asleep at night as you are overwhelmed by the negative thoughts or feelings commonly associated with depression. 

Improving your routine around sleep (known as sleep hygiene) and getting some exercise early in the day may assist with this component of expat depression. For most people good sleep hygiene means:

  • Avoiding screens an hour or more before bed
  • Avoiding exercise too close to bedtime
  • Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon
  • Dimming lights
  • Doing something to unwind like reading, working on a jigsaw or meditating
  • Keeping a regular bedtime

Moving abroad is exciting. There’s so much happening; there’s a whole new city to explore, people to meet, a new role to get to grips with and exciting activities to take part in. 

Sometimes it can all be a little too much and feelings of anxiety or stress can soon follow. Try to avoid saying yes to everything and do as much as you can to look after yourself as you settle in. Build ‘me time’ into your week to relax and unwind.

Although it is important to find the balance, having a support network can help prevent and aid recovery from depression. If you have a good network of friends, you are at lower risk of developing depression in the first place.

However, building and maintaining existing relationships can be difficult when you are moving to a new country and, possibly, time zone. There are things you can do to stay connected when living as an expatriate:

  • Join an expatriate social group in your new location
  • Join a team or activity in your new city
  • Attend social activities with new colleagues
  • Search for volunteering opportunities
  • Make calling friends and family at home a priority

Finding an outlet for your thoughts and emotions can help you cope with the daily challenges of expat life. Taking the time to introduce constructive and healthy habits into your day will help you clear your mind and relax your mood. 

Journaling is proven to help reduce stress and boost psychological well-being. It is a simple and effective habit you could easily introduce into your daily routine. All you really need is some paper and a pen. It doesn’t have to be anything complex - there are a number of simple journaling techniques you can try to find the best one for you. 

Stress is a natural reaction to pressure. As an expat you are likely to feel pressure from several sources. 

You may feel pressure from your partner or family as they struggle to settle into your new home. You may feel pressure at work, your company may want to see results quickly. This may be compounded with the difficulty of living in another country where you may need to behave differently. 

Some stress can be good, it motivates us to do a good job. Too much expat stress can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing so it is important to monitor and manage feelings of stress particularly at the beginning of a new assignment. 

Multiple studies have shown the positive impact exercise has on all forms of depression, including expat depression. Get your heart pumping through cardiovascular exercise like walking, jogging or exercise class. If all this sounds too much stretching, Pilates or yoga are lower impact options that can help alleviate some of the symptoms of depression.

As an expat, you have to get used to throwing yourself into new scenarios. No matter how daunting it might seem in the moment, making time for fun activities will help to boost your mood and take your mind off your responsibilities and daily stressors. 

Try planning a weekend trip with a friend, head to a live concert or join a dance class. Making time to have a laugh and connect with others can go a long way in easing symptoms of expat depression

Although having a few alcoholic drinks can boost your mood initially, within hours it can leave you feeling worse. Alcohol affects the chemistry of the brain and may make you feel more depressed the next day. It is not uncommon to feel anxious, jittery and guilty the day after drinking. It is best to limit or avoid alcohol if you are feeling down.
Most people don’t have a problem going to a doctor for an issue with their physical health. With depression it is just a different part of your body that is hurting, however many people suffering from depression don’t seek the support they need to successfully manage how they are feeling. 
The good news is expat depression is highly treatable, so there is no need to struggle alone. See if your international health insurance offers an Expat Assistance Programme where you can access talk therapy and other support services. Also, be sure to make an appointment to see your doctor, there is so much that can be done to help you feel better.