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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Anxiety in expats

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions. From time to time, we all feel anxious and fearful; but for some, anxiety becomes debilitating and can seriously reduce one's quality of life.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety and fear are natural reactions to something that feels dangerous. They are protective mechanisms, part of our fight/flight response, to ensure our survival.

Like anger, fear is an experience that powers action. Where anger fuels us to fight, fear fuels us to flee. The urgency of our flight/fight response is quite powerful. However, unlike fear where a specific threat is present, anxiety is irrational and often presents in situations which, desite our interpretations, aren't dangerous. When fear and anxiety pop up and there's no threatening bear over the next hill, it indicates a traumatic response, a stored, sympathic charge from our nervous system that we have frozen in, become stuck in. As such, anxiety is a stuckness in our flight/fight reponse.

Just like joy, anger, and disgust, anxiety is a natural, internal experience to help us orient and respond to our environment and the people around us. Anxiety varies in its severity: some experience occassional mild symptoms; whilst for others, this hypervigilant state develops into a general way of being in the world meaning their nervous system is on constant alert. Some even experience panic attacks so severe that suffers think that they are about to die. When anxiety reaches these levels, it's terribly uncomfortable, debilitating, and exhausting to live with - and requires professional help.

Anxiety in expats

Many have rosy pictures of expat life: exotic travels; in-house help with cleaning, cooking, and children; high salaries; lunching ladies; good career and educational opportunities etc. etc. For some, this might be true; for most, it isn't necessarily part of their expat package. And even if it is, it doesn't keep experiences of isolation, loneliness, homesickness, the constant/relentless learning about and adjusting to new cultures/rules/languages etc, depression, stress, and anxiety away.

It's well-known that expats are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, and research shows that up to 50% of all expats are more likely to suffer from anxiety. And it makes sense, that when we have unresolved stored stress and/or trauma, when in unfamiliar and often challenging (expat) circumstances, we become triggered on old stuff which, without us necessarily recognising it, shows its face during expat life and interferes with the quality of our current life.

Whether, you are expating on your own, bringing your family, are a trailing spouse or a third culture kid, you have moved for love or have brought your loved one to your home country, it's no secret that expat life is one of the steepest learning curves, you can ever take on. And more often than not, we are doing it all on our own in the sense that we are far away from our usual support network of friends and family as well as familiar communities, regulations, social and cultural norms, offers for help etc. etc.

For expats, it may be that living under foreign/different circumstances doesn't correspondent with our values, dreams, and visions for our lives which can lead us to feeling unsettled, stressed, and anxious. Often, and as mentioned above, old - forgotten and/or unhealed - experiences may be triggered, and if we are not conscious of these and don't know how to care for ourselves in such situations or due to our expat life can't act as we wish on these, anxiety can arise leading to difficulties adjusting to the new life, a work or study situation, or making and maintaining meaningful relationships.

When we are under pressure - which, given the above and more, it's fair to say that we often are when living abroad - our mental health can easily come to suffer instigating for old, untreated anxiety to reoccur or for new experiences of anxiety to present. Untreated trauma will continue to show up when we feel unsafe, under pressure, or undergo major life transitions and changes.

Many suffers isolate themselves, find it energy consuming to deal with work or studies, draining to be with other people, hide their symptoms, and stop reaching out - even to partners and close friends. As such, the condition begins to take a toll on one's self-esteem and self-confidence, and a vicious circle has been created.

What are the signs of anxiety?

Anxiety presents with physiological as well as psychological symptoms. Often, the former in terms of elevated heart rate, breathlessness, nausea, restlessness, and tingling sensations in fingers are more prevalent than the latter such as worrying, catastrophising, and fear of losing your mind or even dying. Check this link for a more comprehensive list of possible symptoms.

Often, symptoms, thoughts, and behaviours will amplify each other and create a vicious cycle. It's not at all uncommon to become fearful of anxiety, just as well as many suffers avoid putting themselves in anxiety inducing situations - unfortunately, both these behaviours often exacerbates the condition.

What can you do?

If you suffer from anxiety, it's important to reach out for help. This can be talking to your GP about medication and/or working with a psychologist or psychotherapist.

  • Educate yourself on anxiety: learn how your anxiety behaves so that you can learn how to embrace it and live with it. Fighting it will only make it worse.

  • Do deep healing work on your traumas and anxiety triggers - this involves working with the nervous system.

  • Build self-compassion and be gentle with yourself.

  • Learn how to mobilise the physiological sensations and to listen to your impulses to release pent up trauma and stress manifesting as anxiety

  • Breathing and grounding techniques can help you in the here and now, but can't replace doing the deep, long-term sustainable healing.

  • Allocate a set time a day for worrying; for the rest of the day, refrain from worrying and "keep" your catastrophising thoughts to the scheduled time.

  • Talk about it - whatever you do, don't do it alone: taking support is vital.

If you are interesting in hearing how I can help you with anxiety, contact me today for a 25 minutes free consultation.

Woman with anxiety




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