How to Deal With Being Overwhelmed as an Expat

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Being an expat is an overwhelming experience. Nearly everything about your daily life will change. This starts with the big things like language and housing and goes all the way down to having to find a different brand of butter. The expat move usually means that most of your stuff is not coming with you and you will have to build up a new circle of friends. So dealing with all of this newness stripped of your normal armor. This is one of the first challenges, so here are some of my ideas on how to deal with being so overwhelmed.

Find a sanctuary

Especially for introverts like me, it is important to have a place where you feel comfortable and don’t have to think too much and can just be quiet. This sanctuary will be a port in the storm in dealing with all the newness.  This may be a hurdle in itself. How when everything is new and different, do you find a place that is comfortable? Look for something similar to what you had at home if possible.

My first few weeks in Germany, I spent a lot of time in a few specific cafes. In the US, I used to spend evenings reading at the local bookstore. That doesn’t really exist here, so I sat at a table for hours reading with a drink. It’s nice to be able to do that here.

Having a place to let your mind relax is important. When things get overwhelming go and be in the “happy place”.

Get enough sleep

Really, the brain takes a lot of energy to run. It is also processing a ton more stuff than it is used to. You definitely need to give it enough down time to do that processing. Part of this is that sanctuary but the other part is definitely getting enough rest. Sometimes this is not easy given the differences in bedding (yup even beds can be different, like I said, everything is different.), but being rested means you can deal with things easier. There will be things like work schedules and evenings out with new friends that you can’t avoid, but be aware to not overdo it.

I came to Germany in the winter so it was dark in the evenings a lot. I definitely slept more then 8 hours for a while.

Do something you enjoy

One of my own creations

Pick a hobby, either something you used to do at home or something new. This gives you something to concentrate on and put your mind to doing instead of freaking out about all the other changes. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it seems to. By giving the mind something specific to work on, it seems able to deal with the chaos better.

When I first got to Germany, I sought out the pottery studio for a few weeks. I was into doing pottery at home and enjoyed it, so it seem natural to work on it here as well. The times unfortunately were not work-friendly so I haven’t done it in a while.

Seek out people to spend time around

One of the problems about being an expat, especially a new one, is the feeling of isolation. When friends are far away, it is easier to get overwhelmed. They used to provide an outlet for all these frustrations and without them you have to deal with everything yourself. This is even true if you become an expat with your family. Yes, they are there to provide support, but are also dealing with the expat move at the same time.

Joining a club is one way of meeting people.  Having contacts that are already in the local community gives you a chance to hang out with people that already know what is going on. Combine it with a hobby to do two steps at once. This step is not about making deep friendships, although that is great. It is about having human contact.

Definitely don’t shy away from other expats. Yes local contacts are great, but other expats will understand what you are going through. You already have something in common as well. One of the best things about my expat experience was joining the Freiburg English Club. They provided me with a sanctuary from being overwhelmed by 24/7 German as well as most of my best friends that I have met.

Get away

Sometimes it is worth just getting away from it all for a bit. Take a Saturday or the whole weekend and just get out of town. Go explore somewhere nearby. You don’t have to go very far, just enough to feel like a traveler on vacation instead of an overwhelmed expat. Being able to do trips like this is one of the benefits of living abroad, take advantage of it.

This past summer Ali was getting overwhelmed with moving to Germany. So we took a weekend and went to Liechtenstein. Just two days away helped. It was still foreign and in German, but it felt more like a vacation. In the past I have taken trips up into the forest for the same effect.

Source of the Danube River in Donaueschingen; one of my Saturday getaways

Build normalcy

All of these tips are about slowly building a sense of normalcy in your head again. Giving yourself enough space and rest to deal with things is the first step. After that getting involved builds a bubble of “ok-ness” around you. You expand this bubble until most of what you do on a daily basis is ok. This doesn’t mean it is not foreign or not chaotic, just that it is ok. From ok, things will not overwhelm as much.

Last Word: Patience

Becoming an expat was a great experience for me. But I didn’t feel ok overnight, this sense took time. Patience is one of the greatest virtues for expats to learn. You will be fine, but it will take time.

28 thoughts on “How to Deal With Being Overwhelmed as an Expat

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  5. I can relate to this for when I lived in Melbourne for a while, but I was so lucky that I ended up with so great friends and I think it was luck and the odd contact I had. I hope I can replicate this now I have just moved to Newcastle in the UK, not that it’s foreign, but it kinda is for me!

  6. Great suggestions. My sanctuary is Hubendugel, a large bookstore with seating. I’ve always loved bookstores and finding one with English books gives me a sense of normalcy. I also love getaways, you don’t have to go far to feel refreshed.

    • Awesome. That is great that you found a bookstore, and such a cool name as well. There are one or two in Freiburg, but they aren’t open late enough to be helpful for sanctuary purposes. BnN was open to midnight at home.

  7. Great suggestions. I’m into my 12th year as an expat and things can still get overwhelming at times. Having a hobby certainly helps gain some normalcy in an often far from normal life style.

      • Andrew…Combining photography and travel is what I love. I’m lucky enough to have long vacations, so I get see a lot. It’s easy to get anywhere from Korea. Food is another hobby. I’ve learned to cook Korean, and everywhere I travel I try to do a cooking lesson. Traveling in Korea on the weekends is also high on my list. The city I live in has a great symphony orchestra and tickets are very affordable, so I go whenever I can. I was there last night, and the performance was wonderful.

        • It sound like you have a pretty good setup there. Food and cooking is a good hobby. Everyone seems to like to eat and it is usually something that can transcend any language barrier in a way that a book club cannot.

  8. Great post! These issues have been on my mind lately, too. I especially like your suggestion of finding a place to hang out a lot. We had a cafe down the street, and although it was intimidating at first, I started going there several times a week, and it felt SO good to be a familiar face there. There is something really comforting about someone just knowing your order without having to ask! I still miss that place, because it represented so much of my experience in Germany– we started meeting people there, it was a good place for all three of us to hang out on the weekends, and of course I felt comfortable there on my own.

    • Thanks.
      I am definitely an introvert and need my engaged isolation sometimes. Cafe’s are great because you can feel as involved or detached as you need. Have you looked for a local cafe in England yet?

  9. We’ve discovered that if we stay anywhere long enough, it starts to feel like “home”. We develop routines and rituals, we do our favorite things and work, and we get to know our neighborhoods. Granted, we’ve become expats in “easy” places like Europe and Thailand, but we’ve been surprised by how (relatively) painless it becomes after a few weeks. We haven’t done anything long-term, like a year, but I’d be interested to see if I’d feel differently.

    • Yeah, the first year is definitely different than after that. After a point, it becomes less exotic and more routine. The little annoyances come out. I still like living here, but it is far more “just like life” than I had expected at the outset. Would be interested if you guys ever plan to stay for longer in a place.

  10. Very true! Being an expat is fun and exciting, but it’s also stressfull and tiring at times. I have found that the first few months I am more in a vacation state and find it fun, then reality sets in and I realize how everything is soooo different, and thenI have to kick myself in the behind and get our, meet people, and start making it home. I haven’t had to do that in a while, but I do remember… great tips!

  11. I think finding a hobby really helps a lot. I got into photography and skating when living in Switzerland… and now into running and climbing in London. Not only does it distract your mind… but it often helps you to meet new people too!!

    • Thanks for commenting. The hobby thing can be hard, especially if there is a language barrier. But in the end if you pick something that you enjoy, it gives more incentive to learn language around it.

      I love that you pick such active things. I am more the sedate person, but I know the physical exercise helps too.

  12. Spot on…even though a move is going to be exciting, there are all of the transitional issues to content with too, and you have to be kind to yourself! Gonna share this with someone who needs to read it 🙂

  13. Thanks for sharing this! Finding a hobby was a really important part to feeling settled in (yoga!)… a great way to meet people with similar interests.

    • You are welcome. Thanks for commenting. I did yoga briefly too. I guess I didn’t get into it enough to meet people, but it was nice to have some physical activity.

  14. Great tips, Andrew! Passing this along to a friend who is moving out of the country for 3 years.

    Also, I think PATIENCE is a great idea for any traveler 🙂

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