Last night I was asked on Twitter by fellow global citizen Longing to Travel, for my tips on keeping a positive attitude abroad. What a great question and one I’ve got a lot of answers to that I’ll be writing about more in detail here in the future. But in the meantime, I’ve come up with a summarized version of my top ten tips to keep a “glass half full” mentality when you find yourself in a slump abroad. Of course, the whole intentional aspect of living abroad involves being proactive, so I’d recommend trying out these tips even before the situation calls for you to turn your frown upside down.
1) Remember that homesickness is inevitable. At some point, almost all travelers or expats are going to feel homesick. It might strike immediately after you arrive and start to think “what have I gotten myself into?,” or when you experience your first holiday away from family and friends. Homesickness is like a hurdle, but jumping over it gets easier as time goes on. However, while you’re experiencing it, you’re more likely to see things through a negative lens. Knowing that this is completely normal and not permanent can be incredibly helpful. Check out the W curve to see where you might be in the process of transitioning to your new home. Note: Those of us who have been traveling or living abroad for an extended period of time also know the reality that after awhile “home” doesn’t exactly refer to a specific place, but more of a sense of nostalgia for places we’ve been and people we’ve known. This is also inevitable and I think best dealt with by connecting with others who have felt the same way.
2) Work to make it your home. Finding ways to make our new place of residence feel like “home” can help speed up the transition. This can be done by bringing things that remind you of home: photos, a favorite food, your most beloved clothing items. But it’s also about transferring aspects of your life back at home to your new home, such as your hobbies. If you love dancing, find a place to take classes in the city you’re living in. Love to cook? Make sure your new home has a kitchen that will allow you to do so. Even if you’re on the road you can find ways to bring this sense of home with you. My favorite way to do this is by writing and practicing yoga and meditation.
3) Develop flexibility and a sense of humor. You’re bound to come across moments of cultural misunderstandings, things getting lost in translation, and situations where culture shock makes you feel like you want to bang your head up against the wall. To deal with just this sort of situation, I keep one word in mind: “blogworthy.” When I accidentally ordered a certain part of male genitalia instead of the chicken dish I was craving on the menu at a restaurant in Spain (there is only a one vowel difference between the two words)…blogworthy. When I spend hours upon hours running around town dealing with Spanish bureaucracy…it’s got to be blogworthy. When I got stuck on the side of the road in 100+ degree weather, not once, but two times one weekend and our out of town travel plans were put on hold…I made it blogworthy. Blogging has helped me to cultivate flexibility by realizing that at least I´m going to be able to get a good story out of whatever mishaps and inconveniences cross my path. Find a way to create this frame of mind yourself. If you don´t like writing then remember that these hiccups are also great stories to share over drinks with friends.
4) Create a support system. One thing people don´t always realize when going abroad is just how difficult even routine things can suddenly seem when you´re in a different culture, possibly dealing with a different language, and all in the absence of the support system you´re used to. While staying at a hostel your first few days can ensure that friends appear almost magically, you´ll also want to consider taking steps to invest in building a support system. While being open to anyone who crosses your path is a great way to broaden your horizons, many expats find that after a few months abroad they´ve surrounded themselves with people whom they have nothing in common with except for the fact that they both live outside of their home country. Depending on where you´re living, you may not have the luxury of being picky with friends. But if you do, I´d recommend that instead of settling on being friends with the first smiling expat that crosses your path, you try to meet as many people as possible to help you build your support system abroad. Look for facebook groups aimed at expats and study abroad students, check out meetup.com, and English bookstores in your new town. Also Couchsurfers and Internations regularly organize expat meetups, and in bigger cities you can find language exchange parties every night of the week. One final mention–while making friends with the locals is key to getting to really know the culture of your new home, also be sure to make friends from your own country who can empathize with exactly what you´re going through and who will be able to commiserate with you over the things that annoy you about your new home, what you miss from back home and will be willing to celebrate holidays with you that all the locals would roll their eyes at.
5) Develop emotional intelligence. Just because you´re following your dreams of living abroad and/or traveling the world, doesn´t mean that your days are going to always be full of smiles. By going abroad you´re going to deal with tough emotions that you might be able to avoid at home like fear, anxiety, loneliness and homesickness. Not to mention that life is full of sad moments, wherever in the world you are. The important thing to keep in mind is the paradoxical fact that by ignoring and avoiding our emotions they actually get stronger, and by acknowledging and addressing them they can be short lived. So work on identifying your emotions, become acquainted with them and you´ll find that by saying ¨Hey there sadness,¨ it´ll stick around a lot shorter than if you respond with ¨NOOO! Sadness!!! Ahh!¨ (notice that I said ¨become acquainted¨ and not ¨become BFFs¨)
6) Strike up a balance. A lot of people make the mistake of going abroad with too much of a ¨Carpe Diem¨ attitude. You might have told yourself, ¨I´m only going to be there six months, I have to make the very most of it!!¨ While I definitely agree that part of traveling, and living abroad (really going through life wherever we are in the world), is all about remembering that we only have one life and asking ourselves how do we want to live it, we also run the danger of burning ourselves out if we approach every single moment of our experience abroad with this attitude. If you are seizing the day left and right you´ll have lots of good memories, but you also risk negative effects on your physical and mental health in the long term. This is where balance comes into play. I like to think about it as striking up a balance between my ¨long-term¨ and ¨short-term¨ selves. My short term self has carpe diem tattooed on her sleeve and my long term self knows that getting restful sleep, eating healthy, drinking in moderation, working towards my professional goals and being physically active is going to keep me sane! So I find a way to make them both happy. Balance is not about perfection. It might look like overindulging on pintxos in Northern Spain for an entire weekend and spending the next one being a homebody. Some people might gasp at the idea of spending a whole weekend at home while abroad, but for me, respecting my long term self is key to being an intentional, and positive, expat.
7) Know your comfort zone. Going abroad gives you the chance to get to know yourself really well. In fact, many people leave their home country with the goal of ¨finding themselves.¨ I think however, it´s important to know where your comfort zone is before you go. This is helpful for two reasons. First, it can help you to challenge yourself to move outside of your comfort zone, which is where all of the great growing experiences and chances to find yourself will happen. Second, knowing what things make you feel comfortable can also help you to know how to get back into that comfort zone when you´re feeling especially vulnerable (recently arrived, sad, sick, homesick, etc.). Again, this is all about finding balance. Don´t spend all your time in your comfort zone, but don´t be afraid to step back in there when necessary. I´m not ashamed to admit that while I know drinking a yummy, strong cafe con leche in a typical Spanish bar is certain to be a more blogworthy experience, I frequent Madrid’s many Starbucks whenever I´m in need of a little comfort from my comfort zone.
8) Become your own cheerleader. You´ll probably have friends and family at home encouraging you, new friends in your new home who offer support and you may even have a fan following on social media that´s behind you in your quest to see the world and live life outside of your home country. But the most important person to have cheering you on is YOU!! So find ways to continue inspiring and motivating yourself. Write motivational quotes in your journal, post inspirational sayings on your bedroom wall, create a mantra to repeat when you´re feeling discouraged. And my personal favorite, write emails of encouragement to your future self at FutureMe. It may sound corny, but I love receiving emails from myself from even just a month ago!
9) Practice Mindfulness & Gratitude. A great deal of research is being done in the field of psychology these days on the benefits of mindfulness and gratitude for improving our well-being. If you´ve gone abroad you´ve got half of the equation down by doing what you love. But the other important aspect to well-being and happiness is loving what you do. This is where practicing mindfulness and gratitude can come in. We can´t always control how things turn out, but by being aware of the present moment and tuning into the positive, we can increase our levels of satisfaction. Try writing down one thing you´re grateful for a day. Tune into all five senses while you´re walking down the street.
10) Consider professional help. Now, if you´ve tried some of these tips and don´t feel like they´re helping, or if you´re feeling especially down, you might need to reach out to a professional. Don´t be afraid to tell someone close to you that you´re not having the time of your life. Going abroad is a stressful transition that can exacerbate already existing mental health issues or trigger the appearance of new problems. By working with a mental health professional you can explore all of your options for solving the problems you´re facing, and you might find that there are many more solutions than just returning home. If language is an obstacle, look for English speaking therapists or see if there are therapists in your home country willing to do online sessions. I myself work as a licensed clinical psychologist in Madrid, offering in-person sessions to both individuals and couples as well as online sessions for anyone living outside of Madrid but looking for an English speaking therapist. Learn more about what services I have to offer here.
This is just a sample of ways to stay positive while abroad. What tips and tricks have you found to be helpful for keeping a positive attitude abroad? Share them here!