Many of us dream of making a new life abroad, for the sunshine, for the work opportunities or simply for the ability to spend more time with the family. However, suddenly finding yourself in a new country where you are unfamiliar with culture and customs and may not even speak the language can be extremely stressful. It can feel at times as though your dream is a nightmare, and if things do not go well, your health can suffer and it can feel as though returning home is the best idea you ever had.
Extreme stress can cause significant physical and psychological symptoms that will cause damage in the long term if they are not dealt with. Headaches, insomnia, diarrhoea and a lack of concentration are all symptoms of stress and are reported by many expats during the initial months after their relocation.
So what can you do to minimise culture shock and ensure that your new life is as stress free as possible?
Some people will find it easier to adjust to a new life abroad than others. Extroverts who enjoy meeting new people in new situations will usually settle more easily than others, so if this is your personality type, be sure to embrace it. And while you cannot change who you are, if your instincts are to keep yourself to yourself, you will need to push yourself to embrace your new situation head on in order to give yourself a chance to settle in.
Missing your friends and family is one of the biggest downsides of moving to a new country. You may be used to having them just a phone call away or right on your doorstep. Luckily, modern technology means staying in touch with friends and loved ones is much easier than ever before, though you may still need a little adjustment to get used to your new ways of communicating. Making sure you have ready access to a computer with a good webcam and a decent broadband connection will facilitate video calls and VOIP phone technology will keep costs low. Email and social media platforms are also excellent ways of swapping information and news in real time, reducing the feeling that you are worlds apart.
It is also important to integrate as quickly as you can into your new community. You may not make new friends for life in your first few weeks abroad, but it is important to take advantage of any opportunity to meet new people. It will give you a sense of having some kind of network around you, and through the people you meet you will be introduced to others – some of whom will no doubt develop into real friendships along the way. Be open with the people you meet, be receptive to their advances and be prepared to make an effort yourself – as the newcomer you will be needing new friendships more than those who are already established.
How quickly you settle will depend to some extent on where you travel. If you are going to an area where there is an established expat community this can make the transition easier. Other expats will understand how you are feeling and will also be in a place where they may have no family on their doorstep, welcoming new additions to their overseas “family” with open arms.
If on the other hand you are in an area where foreigners are few and far between, integration may be more difficult and take longer, providing added stress and feelings of isolation. Many countries are very family orientated, with friendships usually consisting of cousins and other family members, with perhaps a small cluster of long-term school friends to complete the circle. In this situation you will need to make a concerted effort to integrate yourself so you do not feel completely cut off from the world.
Successful ways of doing this include becoming involved in a sport or cultural activity that is popular locally and which appeals to you, or perhaps becoming involved at your children’s school if you are travelling with school-age children. The importance of integrating in this way cannot be understated. Participating in things that interest you are important not just from the point of view of meeting new people, but also in order to avoid depression caused by lack of activity or focus. Depression rates are particularly high among spouses who move abroad with their partner as part of a job relocation package. While their partner is out every day at work, with something to focus on, people around them and little time to think about the realities of suddenly being thrust into a new country and culture, they are often left to their own devices and unsure where to start with making friends and building a new life.
Stress can also be reduced if you plan your trip carefully. Empower yourself by becoming informed about your new area before you arrive – try to plan how you will live, what you will be doing and the steps you will take to settle in. If you are travelling with children, involve all the family.
Comfort is key. Moving abroad can be costly and you may be tempted to cut corners, but doing so can be detrimental to your health. Budget well and include plenty of contingency in order to take advantage of opportunities as they arrive and to ensure your day-to-day comfort. Research has shown that the more comfortable an expat’s living environment, the more successful their relocation. Decide what you will need from your home, vehicle, school etc and make sure those needs are met.
If you are moving to a country where English is not the first language, this can cause immense stress. Learning to communicate at a basic level is essential in order to reduce the sense of frustration of not being able to carry out basic tasks without assistance (and that is assuming assistance is even readily available). The better your language skills and the quicker you acquire them, the lower your stress levels will be as things slot into place in your new life.