Although living abroad can be full of life-changing experiences and wonderful memories, it’s not without its difficult moments. Through my own experience living abroad, as well as providing therapy and coaching for people living abroad around the world, I’ve created a list of my top ten tips for practicing self-care abroad to help you deal with the ups and downs of living internationally. I’d recommend taking a look at these tips even before you go abroad so that you’ll already have some self-care strategies in mind way before you find yourself faced with a difficult moment abroad.
1) Remember that homesickness is inevitable
At some point, almost anyone living abroad is 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 diagram below to identify where you’re at in the transition process. Knowing that homesickness is normal and part of a temporary stage on the journey towards thriving in your new home will help you to stay resilient on the most challenging days.
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 (or in the midst of a pandemic) and your options are limited, you can find small ways to bring this sense of home with you. My favorite way to do this is by writing and practicing yoga and mindful self-compassion 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
Even routine things can suddenly seem difficult when you´re in a different culture, such as dealing with a different language in the absence of a support system. While being open to anyone who crosses your path is a great way to broaden your horizons, many find that after a few months abroad they´ve surrounded themselves with people with whom they have nothing in common except for the fact that they both live outside of their home country. Instead of settling on being friends with the first fellow foreigners that cross your path, try to meet others with common interests or hobbies so that the connections you make are meaningful.
Making friends with the locals is key to getting to really know the culture of your new home, but it’s also helpful to make friends with other foreigners since they can empathize with exactly what you´re going through. These are the friends 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 when you’re both far from home.
Also, don’t doubt the power of building an online support system. Look for Facebook groups that cater to expats, English teachers, au pairs, and study abroad students in the city you’re in. These can be a great way to meet people you can later meet offline. Also, if you’re not able to meet in person then these online communities can help to remind you that you’re not alone in some of the struggles you’re facing abroad.
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 you are in the world. 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. 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 my life abroad!¨ However, if you’re 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 all essential for my mental health. So I find a way to make them both happy. Also, 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.
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.’ However, I think 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 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’m happy to visit a Starbucks abroad when I´m in need of a little comfort.
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!! 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. My personal favorite is to write emails of encouragement to my future self at FutureMe. It may sound corny, but I love receiving emails from myself from even just a month ago!
I also recommend learning more about “Mindful Self-Compassion.” It’s one of the most powerful tools I’ve found to help my clients (and myself!) shift their inner dialogue from that of their inner critic to their inner cheerleader.
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. The other important aspect of 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. Some ideas to get you started are to write down one thing you´re grateful for a day, or create a happiness jar. You can also tune into all five senses while you´re walking down the street, or try this short 5-minute mindfulness meditation.
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 professional, such as a therapist or expat coach, 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 someone who speaks your native language in your new home, or seek out a therapist offering online sessions. I provide online coaching to expats and global nomads living around the globe. I also co-facilitate the Location Independent Therapists Community, a space for mental health professionals working online. We offer an online directory where you’ll find a list of mental health professionals. who understand firsthand the challenges that come with living abroad.
I hope these tips will help you to practice self-care abroad. Please leave a comment below if you have any tips that you’d add to this list.
About the author: Dr. Melissa Parks has a master’s and PhD in Clinical and Health Psychology. For the past 6 years she’s been focusing her professional energy on providing therapy and coaching to the international community. She currently provides online coaching to international clients living around the world. Melissa also co-facilitates the Location Independent Therapists Community, a space for mental health professionals working online who offer a directory of therapists and coaches who understand firsthand the challenges that come with living abroad.