Why Culture Shock Is Different Than Depression For Expats

With the pandemic looming over us we sometimes tend to forget that there are natural psychological processes that affect our mood and “culture shock” is one of them. The term is a bit outdated and often misunderstood, so we thought we’d give you a bit more background and a few tips how you can help yourself in times when you feel low.

Expats face a unique set of challenges

Acclimatizing to a new locale, new cultural norms and social practices, and more. These challenges bring with them additional levels of stress and worry and dealing with them every day inevitably results in mental exhaustion.

However, one finds that expats often downplay their own burnouts or worse, ignore them altogether. That’s because as new members of the workplace or community, they don’t want to be seen as the “constant victims” and end up overworking and taking on too many responsibilities to show their “worth” and consequently not looking after themselves enough.

This can result in weight fluctuations, feeling drained or listless and being unable to get out of bed – If any or all of those descriptions apply to you or to an expat you know, then this discussion would help you understand better what is going on.

Expats are more vulnerable than native professionals

The expat life involves working longer hours, adjusting to the rules and culture of the home country, trying to build a new circle of friends and retaining some semblance of a social life. Frankly, that is overwhelming enough and is barely scratching the surface of the expat experience.

You notice that things which were commonplace in your home country, perhaps easier access to medication or specific types of food, are way harder in the new country and add to the stress that is already near peak levels due to the recent move.

In circumstances like these, it does well to remember that you are a human being, and one that has moved somewhere with different weather, culture, food, everything. The transition takes time, there is no rushing it, so the best thing to do for expats is to acknowledge that they are currently vulnerable and simply give themselves time.

Expats burn out more often

Stress is something we all have to manage but for expats, the kind and frequency of those stresses is far more commonplace. It starts with the “small” things – handing over work, clearing your office space out for the move.

For the expat, it only gets more complicated from there. There is a new language and an entire culture built around it that needs to be understood, people to interact with, transport networks to figure out and more. Remember, all this is happening in conjunction with everyday obligations like cooking and cleaning, spending time with family, calling your relatives or parents in your home country – You can see why the statistics skew in favour of expats facing more burnouts, and the negative impact to personal and professional life that they bring.

Expats have to manage and feelings similar to depression

Early on during an assignment, a large portion of expats suffer from culture shock and adjustment issues. The impact of these often manifests as symptoms similar to mild depression – feelings of isolation and helplessness, oversleeping and lethargy (or even the opposite: insomnia and lethargy), mood swings and unexplained body aches. Homesickness adds to the symptoms, which combined with the stressors of a new job makes things ever tougher.

In this high stress, emotional scenario, expats often turn to the wrong things for management: substance abuse in the form of drugs or alcohol. Single expats are more likely to resort to this, though family people aren’t immune to it either.

A healthy management solution is to attempt exercises and relaxation techniques:

  1. Exercise lightly every day. The focus here is not on high impact training, but rather on consistency. Go for a walk and make it a staple of your daily routine.
  2. Plan a digital detox. This one is not easy, as you end up losing contact with your family and friends back home, but it is well established that overuse of social media and technology has a high impact on stress levels. A weekend of digital detox will help you regain focus and have some time to think and reflect.
  3. Practice one relaxation method. You could try working through Progressive Muscle Relaxation that you can find on YouTube or buy from Medical Doctors.
  4. Start Meditating 5 Minutes a Day. Practicing active meditation is also a good idea. I created this video to get you started. There are many more detailed videos on how to do this out there. I’m teaching active meditation at the RockMeRetreat.
  5. Combine your first coffee with a morning meditation. You can also start your day with a short morning meditation such as this one. I try to combine my first coffee with a short meditation.
  6. Start a Journal. Journalling is a great method to deal with your mind and emotions. If it feels like a lot of work, try a bullet journal first.

Expats need to identify the signs of clinical depression and seek help

Self-help is not always the solution, especially if symptoms have been persisting for a long time or were previously undiagnosed, perhaps even in the home country.

In that scenario, it is imperative for the expat to seek out professional help at earliest. The symptoms of depression are complex and vary, but have devastating long-term impacts on a person. If you are experiencing changes in sleep patterns, appetite, weight and mood swings or any combination of symptoms listed on the link, please reach out to a professional immediately.

Expats also suffer from “reverse culture shock”

The hope that expats would only experience culture shock once when they start an assignment is dashed by the revelation that by the end of that assignment, particularly if it was several years long, the same people experience a similar shock on returning home.

Also dubbed “re-entry shock”, the scenario is pretty similar to the original culture shock. After 5 or more years, the friends group, support networks and even the workplace have all evolved and changed, while the expat’s memories and knowledge stopped at the point where they moved away – they find themselves in a similar boat as when they arrived in their assignment country all those years ago.

Reverse culture shock has not received the attention it deserves until now, but Vanessa Paisley’s “5-V Repatriation Model” is a great starting point to learn more about it.

You should consider joining the RockMeRetreat to get over cultural adjustment and clean up your entire life and other baggage that you have been carrying with you in your 70 boxes.

Have an inspired Sunday.

Kind regards


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