How to Be Mindful of Your Mental Health as an Expat

It’s no secret that I love to travel. On my own, with friends and partners: I have lived, worked, holidayed and adventured in countless locations around Australia and around the globe.

It was the challenge of relocating to another country that I found much more difficult.

In 2005 I moved to Bristol after traveling in Southeast Asia for five months, fresh working holiday visa in the passport, dirty flip-flops and faded vests chucked away, winter coat purchased. I had a partner who’d lived there before and I thought it would be like an extended backpacking trip.

A mix of multicoloured houses in Bristol, on the banks of the floating harbour

We found a very British downstairs flat in a colorful part of the city, close to pubs with live music and a Banksy mural. I remember being in awe of these old, old buildings, and delighting at all the little things, like the red double-deckers and the dry sense of humor. We jumped on the bus and visited Bath to find architecture and history and Jane Austen. It was fun … but it was still felt like going on vacation.

The group of friends that we had when we arrived fell apart for a number of reasons that still sting a little to remember. We went from belonging to a big group of people to just being ‘us’.

mindfulness

It got a bit lonely.

I couldn’t get a job. I thought I’d find work as a social worker really easily, but it turned out my qualifications weren’t quite right. I leapt into a pub job — so cliché — and that job was really helpful in making British friends and feeling closer to local life, but the money was terrible and I was always worrying about my finances.

I ended up having maybe ten different jobs by the time my visa was up. All of them were interesting in their own way, and I had fun and made new friends, but it was disjointed. Strange. Unsettling.

I remember feeling invisible to the outside world.

And on top of that the weather was so dreary. I was prepared for the cold — I wasn’t prepared for the fifth straight month of gray.

Nicole Hind Pond_smallI look back with so much fondness on that time of my life now, and I absolutely do not regret a single moment, but when I dig into my memories, I also find these little pockets of despair. Flailing around disconnected, feeling homesick, wanting something familiar.

If you are also dealing with more serious concerns, such as various mental health issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, grief, and a nameless bunch of other things, those pockets of despair can be magnified by 1,000.

So what do you do?

If you’re too stuck at home (i.e. the past one in your memory), then you’ll be failing to see what your new home has to offer. But if you disregard your old home completely, you’ll be equally missing out on a huge part of what makes you YOU.

Good mental health involves being able to create and recreate new visions of the future in different circumstances. When you are stuck in a mental loop, you can’t do that. You are living in the ‘reptile brain’ that just experiences the world. You are not using your ‘thinking brain’ that helps you link experiences with an ongoing narrative fitting with your identity.

But you can move back into thinking, connecting and feeling joy with some simple practices.

mindful neighborhood

Here are three ways to settle into your adopted home as well as take care of your mental health:

1) Incorporate a “mindful neighborhood” journey into your routine.

Walk around your street and simply describe what you see in your head without value or judgment. Just shapes and colours and visions and people. Try and connect to what is in front of you without ‘thinking’ about it. This is a way to practice mindfulness, which is great for speaking to your ‘reptile brain’ without diving into a pit of anxiety or depression, but it also connects you with your current environment.

If it’s not too much of a stretch, you might imbue this little walk with a purposeful positive spin: looking for things that make you smile and then connect them with your own smile and the positive feelings in your body that automatically come with a bit of exercise and fresh air. You can also do it together with kids — they’re better at seeing and finding fascinating things than we adults are.

2) Write an actual letter.

Post someone from home a letter: get the snail mail going. Pouring your heart out in the written word can be cathartic in itself, so don’t shy away from expressing your pain, but for this purpose you could also use the letter format to tell more stories.

mindful letter

Glue in some quirky bits and bobs from a local magazine, or print some photos of the little things you saw on your walk that made you smile. Make a collage. Reinforce the idea that this is your home now, but that you want to share it in a genuine way with a special person back home.

3) Contact a counselor from your homeland

You could consider connecting with a counselor from your home country. So many services, individuals and therapists now offer online counseling, and you might be able to have sessions (even just the occasional one) via video, email, instant messenger or phone with a professional from ‘home’ who might have an easier time understanding you culturally. Even their voice or written lingo can be soothing.

You might even do the same if you WERE an expat and you’re now struggling back in your homeland: find a professional from your old adopted home to talk to and help you work through these issues.

These are just a few ideas, but I’m sure when you really get thinking and mindfully writing or taking snapshots or drawing, then you’ll find many more that are unique to you.

Nicole Hind_smallNicole is a professional online counselor with a passion for helping people discover their untold stories. She has particular interest in supporting women to increase self-esteem, heal from trauma and find their own power. Like many Aussies, Nicole loves travel and enjoys getting creative with mindfulness ideas that can be adapted to any environment.

Image credit: 1) iStockphoto, 2) Pexels, 3) Nicole Hind, 4+5) Barn Images, 6) Nicole Hind

2 Responses to “How to Be Mindful of Your Mental Health as an Expat”

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