So you packed up your home, said good bye to your old life, and now find yourself living in a new part of the world. You plan to shift gears, discover a new angle on life. Have a few adventures. Maybe make a transition in your career. No more boring days in the world you’ve known since childhood, performing mind-numbing tasks day in and day out. Bliss at last, right?
What if you finally get to your dreamed of destination, your new life in paradise, only to find that your insecurities, your addictions, your fundamental discontent have followed you here? You can’t make friends. Tropical wildlife sends you screaming and scrambling onto the nearest piece of furniture, which breaks upon contact. You can’t figure out how to find the utility department to hook up the electricity because the streets don’t have names and no one answers the phone (not that anyone there speaks English even if they did.) When you finally find the “office” (term used loosely), the computers are down, or they are out to lunch. For the week.
Welcome to life as an expat. One of the quickest ways I know to gauge the strength of your mental health.
How do you make the most of your time overseas when you are just not feeling it? How do you manage your mind when it is conspiring to bring you down just when you take the plunge into living your dreams?
Travel is one of the best forms of therapy I know; life as an expat magnifies that process. It forces you to come to terms with things that come up when your environment is unknown, unexpected, changing and often challenging. Or, to put it more directly, frustrating as hell. Maintaining mental health for expats is a daily practice.
When you are pushed to your limits, unable to tolerate another second of the Cambodian wedding music blaring next door (for the fourth day in a row), or the twenty-ninth Parisian protest this week, remember to breathe, and follow these guidelines:
Look at your resistance.
What are you unwilling to accept? When confronted with things that challenge our outlook of the world, we often struggle to maintain our sense of identity. Look at preconceived ideas that keep you stuck in one point of view. Try writing practice–scribble it down in no particular format and get it all out. Look for humour. Sure, it’s easy to complain about inefficient systems and poorly functioning organizations. But if you had wanted the known, you would have stayed home, right? You asked for adventure. Here it is.
Let go of the need to know.
Or control outcomes. Everything is impermanent. Well-being is about adapting to new situations, learning to ride each moment lightly. Instead of criticizing new customs, become curious about them. Part of the education of living abroad is seeing how people from different cultures approach and manage life. Apart from seeing differences, you also start to see how utterly similar humans are, regardless of cultural affiliation. We all smile and laugh and experience emotions. We may do different things with these emotions, but the emotions themselves are universal. This one understanding can change the way you approach life and make you more sensitive to those around you. It can open the door to compassion. The Buddhists call this the seed of enlightenment.
Relax and enjoy.
When you appreciate the similarities and differences humans share, then being a foreigner becomes a joyful practice of observation. You start to see other ways of doing things. How to eat. How to relate to death, family and intimacy. Each culture treats these in their own way. You start to question if the way you learned to do things works for you. You can make changes in your own life if you choose to. When I spent a year in India, I realized I could live a great life without much money, something I had not learned in my American culture. This radically changed how I approach my life. It was the first time I’d ever fully relaxed.
Learning to adapt is the best way to boost mental health. A supple mind is a relaxed mind. Seasoned expats learn that accepting things as they are increases confidence and well-being. You gain strength from knowing you can handle whatever challenge comes your way with grace. This is a skill anyone – expat or not – can benefit from.