Why Culture Shock Is Different Than Depression For Expats

I sometimes fear that I am becoming one of those people, who are always the victim. Those who complain all day and then never change anything. Those who say and know that they are overweight or drink too much but then cannot stop eating or drinking when they are stressed. Sometimes I am worried about not looking after myself enough or that I look really old now. And when I feel like that I know it’s time for a “safety stop”, because for me this is usually a sign that I am exhausted. I don’t let myself burn out anymore. I have become wiser but I know that a lot of you suffer from the obligation of working like a slave. You think you have to work 50 to 60 hours to be a good expat. You think you have to see your families during home leave to be a good daughter or son and you think that you have to shoulder all the responsibilities and burdens of the breadwinner.

There might be mornings where you get out of bed feeling like a zombie rather than the energetic superheroine you identified with a few years ago. You also don’t fit into those power outfits any longer that made you feel invisible.

If you can partially or entirely relate to this, or if you know an expat fellow who might do, you will find it worth it to stop and read the following lines.

1 – Why are expats more vulnerable than home country professionals?

You don’t need me to remind you that your life took a totally different turn when you decided to pursue your expat life. And that your responsibilities and worries would be very different if you had decided to remain in your home country.

You’re probably now dealing with more workload than you’ve ever done before, you’re still trying to get adjusted to the ways of doing in your host country and you might need to learn the local language. You’re also trying to expand your circle of friends and don’t want to give up on your social life. You might be feeling overwhelmed but in order to keep up with everything, you might be neglecting your sleep.

You also might have noticed the same things you used to get done very easily in your home country might have become a real burden in the host country and getting that medicine for which you didn’t even need a prescription has proved like a mission impossible.

You need to remember that you’re human. You’re a human who relocated to a place with a different climate, language and cultural code. Accept that this “new you” may be more vulnerable than the “old you.” Allow your mind and body to adapt to the new environment and ways of doing. This transition will require time and you’ll probably start reaping the rewards for your patience after the first year on assignment.

2 – Why do expats burn out more often?

I bet it didn’t take you long to realize that your stress levels increased the moment you decided to embark on this expat adventure. Even before making the actual move, for the first time you found yourself stressing out about issues you had never encountered before: handing over all your work, emptying your office, shipping your house goods to another continent, supporting your spouse, looking for a new school for your children, and whatnot.

Now that you find yourself in the new country things that stress you out are even more numerous: you work crazy hours, you struggle getting things done in a language different than yours, and you don’t have the same social support network you used to and you feel it’s too soon to ask your new friends for personal support. Like many other expats, you probably strongly identify yourself with your work where you want to perform at your best, and this often brings you to set aside your hobbies and interests.

You have obligations towards your spouse and children, no matter whether they relocated with you or remained in your home country, and your parents might be in an age group where they need support. You want to care for all of them and you perhaps forget that you need to take care of yourself too if you don’t want to suffer from a serious burn out with a potentially profoundly negative impact on your personal and professional life.

3 – How can expats overcome feelings of light depression?

If you’re still in your first year of assignment, the likelihood is high that you’ll suffer from culture shock and adjustment issues. Culture adjustment symptoms can be very similar to those of light depression: feeling isolated or helpless, sleeping longer or getting tired more easily, getting irritated over delays and other minor frustrations, suffering from body pains and aches, longing to be back home, etc. On top of that, the considerable amount of stress you are dealing with, will just make things harder to handle.

In order to relax, many expats choose the wrong shortcut and start overusing substances such as medications, alcohol and drugs. This is particularly frequent among single expats and those who live in a compound.

If you are over-stressed, I advise you to try out for yourself the following:

  • Exercise regularly. This doesn’t mean that you have to train for the next marathon, but it’s important you are consistent. Take a 20 minute walk every day, possibly without your smartphone.
  • Take a whole weekend off and go offline. It might not be easy to achieve but you will come back with a better focus. If you’re on assignment with your children and partner you could even start an offline challenge together.
  • Try out a relaxation method. You can try listening to classical music or bird music while working, or practicing Feldenkreis breathing exercises by @ryannagy. You could also try working through Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
  • Practice active meditation. I have created a short video to show how to start, and there are many more on YouTube.

It might also help you if you analyse your current situation and lay out concretely the next steps you want to take. Try answering the following questions.

When was I in a difficult situation already? How did I overcome it? Where am I at now? Where do I wanna go? What resources do I have to get there?

How can I adapt my strategies to the new cultural context so I can still be effective and culturally appropriate?

Just because it feels harder than usual doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

4 – What are signs of clinical depression and when is seeking help the best thing to do?

However, those self-help tools don’t necessarily work for everybody, especially if you realise too late that you should have acted before.

If you think you might have developed clinical depression, it’s important to seek the right kind of professional help.

The symptoms of depression can be complex and vary widely, however, some of them are very common among the majority of people who suffer from this condition. If you’re always in a bad mood, feel tearful, anxious, or irritated, if you have sudden change in appetite and weight or develop disturbed sleep patterns, reach out to a trusted professional without waiting any longer.

5 – What’s the reverse culture shock and why do expats suffer from it?

You might not have yet heard about it, or at least not as much as culture adjustment, but reverse culture shock is a real thing too. Others prefer calling it “re-entry shock” but in substance, we are dealing with the same thing.

If you haven’t gone through it (yet) you may be downplaying its consequences. After all, why should you worry about having to adapt to your home country? You lived there for many years and know well how things work.

Well, you might be wrong. Imagine what it is like to end your assignment and come back, after five years – let’s say – without a proper network of friends, a different management thinking at work, and a partner who can’t find an equally good job in what you called “home” before going on assignment.

If you’re interested in finding out more about reverse culture shock and its stages, I invite you to go through Vanessa Paisley “5-V Repatriation Model”. It will enlighten you on why this topic deserves more attention than it is currently given.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to admit that things aren’t going great. Not even to ourselves. But it’s important to be honest and identify WHAT makes you feel unwell. Without this first step, you won’t be able to work on the issues that bring you down.

If you can relate to any of this, at least you now know that you’re not alone. The challenges you have are the same that many other expats face in their extra busy lives.

At Global People Transitions we are experts in Cultural Transitions. If you’d like to receive advice and support on the topic, feel free to contact angela@globalpeopletransitions.com for a brief chat.

Resources and further reading
Link to Video by Johann Hari

Link to Expat Health Podcasts by Angie Weinberger

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_0tvWF7nrY

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6kKIqoTCG4

Link to Expat Health post on NIZ: https://newinzurich.com/2020/06/expats-and-covid-19-five-steps-to-avoid-burn-out/ 

 -> Zurich International Therapists


Expats and COVID 19 – Five Steps To Avoid Burn Out

-> Zurich International Therapists



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