Whether you've been offered a job abroad, have chosen to settle down in a new country, or are following a partner's job, the expat life can be pretty stressful. Adventure and discovery can go hand-in-hand with culture shock and loneliness, and with all that change and transition stress is inevitable. While many would not choose to give up on living in another country, dealing with the pressure of setting up somewhere new is incredibly important in order to make the venture a success.
What is stress?
The situations that cause the most stress are the ones where we experience huge change. Having a baby, divorce, moving home - these are the moments in life where people have been documented as feeling the most stressed out, and having to create a new life in another country is surely a comparable change. But what exactly is stress, and where does it come from?
Stress is a physiological response which is part of your inbuilt survival mechanism. In strained circumstances, your body reacts as if it is under threat, triggering the "flight or fight" response - increasing your heart rate, releasing stress hormones and slowing down non-essential functioning, such as digestion.
In small doses, stress won't do you much harm, but when you are constantly in red-alert mode it will make you feel terrible. If your body is working overtime battling dangers that never appear, you're in danger of becoming chronically tired, unwell and obsessing over whatever is upsetting you. So what can you do to feel better?
Find a stress-busting habit
If you're feeling stressed, finding half an hour every day to commit to a stress-busting habit is hugely important. It may feel like you don't have the time - especially as expat life can require a huge amount of organisation - but left unchecked stress will result in complete exhaustion and burnout.
Meditation is a great way to reduce stress. Studies have shown that just eight weeks of meditation lessens the size of the "stress centre" in the brain (known as the amygdala) and it reduces levels of stress hormones in our systems by a third. Also, there are many different forms of meditation (for example, mindfulness meditation and yoga are extremely popular) so you'll be able to find something that suits you, whether you want something quite spiritual or completely secular.
Connect with a support network
Making friends as an adult is rarely easy. This is especially true if you've gone to another country with the intention of finding a job once you're there (for example if you are supporting a partner in their international career), as you aren't thrown into the social working world. Isolation and loneliness will exacerbate any negative feelings you may have, so forming your support network as soon as possible is a must.
Joining clubs, connecting with the expat community, using resources like meetup.com - they can all help when you're looking to reach out to new people. However, in the short term, keeping in touch with friends and family back home on Skype or even occasional visits will buoy you up and provide a sympathetic ear - just remember to keep building your new life as well as yearning after your old one.
Take care of yourself
Moving to a new country is a lot of work, from finding a house to getting used to a new working environment. If you've got kids, it becomes even more complicated. In the maelstrom, you need to find ways to look after yourself, and how you go about this will be down to your own individual preferences.
Exercise can help you feel better, especially if you join a class and widen your social circle. Sports like climbing, biking or strength training will give you some time in the day where you get to focus and forget your worries, while also making you healthier and building your confidence. You should also make a point of disconnecting from work and responsibilities whenever you can, and doing the things you enjoy rather than ticking off a to-do list.
If you're stressed out, get as much rest as possible. Not sleeping enough makes stress worse and leaves you unable to cope with the day, so make sure to put your smartphone down and get to bed an hour earlier every evening.
Ask instead of trying to muddle through
It can be quite intimidating navigating a new workplace in a different culture, and even just navigating in general (I'm sure every expat has managed to find themselves wandering around a neighbourhood with no clue how they got there). Cultural nuances, social niceties, rules and regulations - all these things may be a little different than where you are from, even if you've moved somewhere which speaks your native language.
Instead of trying to work things out for yourself and feeling flustered and embarrassed when you inevitably slip up, just ask people for their help and advice. There's bound to be people who are more than happy to take you under their wing and guide you through, and any mistakes you make will be laughed off when it's clear you are really trying.
While there's no need to be positive one hundred percent of the time (and trying to be so will do more harm than good) putting the effort into cultivating a more positive attitude could help you see things in a better light. Embrace the change and think of this time as a adventure, consciously coming up with plus-sides for every situation - for example, you may be filling out a boring form, but check out the view you have from your window!
Anything that's ultimately rewarding is going to have it's challenging moments, and by learning how to cope with expat stress, you'll be able to truly enjoy a brilliant life abroad.