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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Loneliness in expats

In recent years, much has been written about loneliness, in particular amongst the younger and the elder generations: loneliness is on the increase.

In modern day life, many people struggle with loneliness; and for many expats, loneliness is an unwanted, but faithful companion. The recent pandemic hasn't exactly helped alleviate feelings of loneliness, isolation and homesickness for expats - even today, I speak with many expats who still feel the aftermaths of the lockdowns as well as the restrictions in travel, meeting people, going to work etc. If, at the time of the pandemic, you didn't have a solid network around you or had just embarked on expat life, covid restrictions may have made settling in much more difficult.

Loneliness can have profound impacts on our mental and physical health. Loneliness activates the pain-processing areas of our brains and heightens our fight-or flight response. Not only can loneliness compromise our immunity and through an increase in stress hormones mess with our sleeping patterns adding to the risk of developing a series of lifestyle diseases affecting longevity; it can also leave us hostile towards others creating a vicious cycle of isolation and disconnection. To me, loneliness stems from the lack of meaningful connections with people who understand and value you. Obviously, this means everyone can feel lonely everywhere and around everyone; but as an expat, you are navigating an environment foreign to your home culture, there might be an issue with the local lingo, and you are far away from your usual support network. As such, you are more susceptible to feeling lonely than had you been at home.

In my practice, I see many expats who experience profound loneliness. For some, this leads to depression and/or anxiety; for most, it leads to a lower quality of life. Working your way through can be emotionally challenging and may require support from a professional; however, in my experience, there are also things that you can do on your own to support yourself:

  • Try to embrace the situation for what it is. You may feel lonely right now, but as with most other emotions, it can be transitory. Accepting your vulnerability to loneliness and your need for social interaction can help lessen the challenge.

  • Be compassionate and continue to do things for yourself that you enjoy. Even if you do them alone for some time.

  • During challenging times, self-care is key: exercising, eating well, and looking after your mental health are important factors in supporting yourself.

  • Self-compassion is also important: acknowledge your struggles and be gentle with yourself.

  • Keep a routine.

  • Try to refrain from going into victim-mode and feel too sorry for yourself for too long. Periodically, it’s okay to do so, but if you can’t pull yourself out of this state again, it’s important to seek help in dealing with such emotions.

  • The obvious thing to do is to join clubs, events, activities to meet people. Look to share the enjoyment of your interests with other people – check what's on offer in your local area; there may even be an expat/international community or a language class where you can meet like-minded people. On my blog, you will find several posts on how to make friends and maintain relationships whilst living abroad – click here for these.

  • Just as you braved it when moving abroad, try to be brave in suggesting meeting for a coffee, walks and some natter with people you meet and feel drawn to. Put a time and a date in the diary rather than leave it in the air. For many, the prospect of being turned down keeps them from reaching out; remember, you may not be the only one feeling lonely and hesitant to ask others for company. Unless you ask, you may never know if the other might have been interested in further contact; but, like you, may be reluctant to making the first move.

  • Creating close and meaningful friendships requires for you to give some of yourself to receive some from others. This too can instigate feelings of anxiety, but remember, you don’t have to be deeply personal in the beginning of building friendships; however, shielding yourself completely may cause others to perceive you as inapproachable. Take care of yourself whilst you muster up the courage to be bold and brave – sometimes, a difficult balance to strike.

  • Take support from friends and family in your home country. Modern day convenience of the internet allows us to keep in touch despite being countries or continents apart – and your network at home will love to hear from you.

You are welcome to reach out for a 25 minutes free consultation to hear how I can help you deal with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Click here to make contact.

Man looking at the rain through window

First posted during covid-19; revised January 2024


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