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5 Common Expat Challenges Mindfulness Can Improve

by Marta Saldaña Martin

Expatriate life is a journey full of excitement, enlightenment, and joy.

Living abroad is also often romanticised: financial opportunities, unexpected adventures, and long-lasting friendships. However, being an expat does not exempt you from challenges. In fact, it often brings a specific type to your doorstep. Life as an expat isn’t easy, and it isn’t all sightseeing and taste-testing.

There are tremendous highs and some painful lows that world travellers must face in order to go the distance. Even through all the joys and beautiful memories, there will undoubtedly be some problems. Let’s take a look at how mindfulness can improve expat challenges, both at home and abroad.

Expat Challenge #1: Homesickness

Homesickness is one of the most obvious problems expats will face. The constant newness of a different country can be exciting while also taxing. Living and working in a new country is like a marriage—for every wonderful element, there could be another that irritates you. These lifestyle differences may cause you to miss home.

Whether it be at the beginning of the move or 12 months into it, homesickness will unavoidably hit most of us. We will miss our friends, family, and even food from back home. When we miss the past, we become pulled away from the present. Difficult emotions can diminish our ability to be present, but mindfulness can help manage them. So, instead of pushing away your feelings, sit with them and process them. Here are a few steps you can take to manage your emotions:

1- Sit with your thoughts and take inventory of your feelings. For example: What emotions am I experiencing? (homesickness) How does my body feel? (rapid pulse, tense shoulders) What thoughts am I having? (I hate this place, it will never be like home.)

2- Give yourself compassion. It might sound a bit odd, but tell yourself good things. Not sure what to say? Try this: “It’s okay that you feel homesick. Most people experience that. It’s going to be okay. You’ve got this!”

3- Find a feel-good moment. Hug a friend, walk, or paint. Do something just because it feels good. If you can, set up a video call with your family or friends, or whip up a dish from your home country to experience a taste of home.

Remember, homesickness is like any other emotion—temporary and manageable.

Expat Challenge #2: Language Barriers

Language barriers can be a huge problem for expats. They can also bring up unpleasant situations and emotions. Since learning a language takes time, mindfulness can be a huge help to manage in-between experiences. Part of being mindful is to fully immerse yourself in the present. And what better way to learn a language!? Language is merely a means of communication, and communication is something that you do not need a large vocabulary to do. Focusing on your five senses allows you to gather much more information and make more connections than with language alone.

When you are out and about, put down your mobile phone and tap into your senses. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? Not only is this a great way to connect yourself to the present moment, but it will also help you establish connections with the words, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings around you. It will help you communicate, learn, and connect with other people.

Expat Challenge #3: A Healthy Routine

Establishing a healthy routine away from home can be difficult. Gyms may be scarce or prohibitively expensive. Your apartment might even be too small to exercise or cook the way you are used to. Perhaps your work schedule is intense, or your sleep interrupted by the noise coming from street traffic. Self-care is part of mindfulness—good nutrition, movement, rest, and lowering stress are all a part of becoming mindful because mindfulness helps you tune into your needs. Here are some things to do to make sure you establish a healthy routine abroad:

1- Self-care audit: Make a list of all of the things you do to take care of yourself—nutrition, movement, sleep, etc. Think about where you currently are in terms of that list, and what you would like to improve.

2- Do what you can: It’s impossible to perfectly replicate the lifestyle you’re used to in every country. You need to find your new “normal” based on your location and the resources available to you.

3- Experiment: Eat local ingredients, try new foods and movement, and rotate different bedtime routines. In other words, mix it up until you get it right.

4- Meditate: In addition to lowering stress, meditation will help you focus on where you are in the world.

Expat Problem #4: Stress Triggers

Living in a country that isn’t your own can expose you to a lot of stress. Learning to deal with that stress is an important part of any mindfulness practice. When you’re feeling overwhelmed emotionally, just STOP:

  • Slow down and find a place where you can be on your own, as much as possible.
  • Take a deep breath (or several!) and try closing your eyes as you do it.
  • Observe What are you feeling in your body? What are you thinking? Is there any other reality I can acknowledge? For instance, a friend snapped at you during lunch, and now you think it’s because they must hate you, but could there be another reason?
  • Proceed, keeping an open mind, and enlist the help of something that will make you feel better (hot shower, nap, talking to a friend, a cup of tea, etc.). Accept your thoughts and feelings as they are without judgement. Bring curiosity, kindness, and the thrill of possibility to all new experiences. Whether the moment is small or large, things most likely aren’t as dire as they seem at the present moment. Taking a step back to reflect is an important part of staying connected.

Expat Problem #5: Trying to Be in Two Places at Once

Many expats attempt to live two lives, one at home and one abroad. They have two sets of everything: houses, friends, cars, families, maybe even jobs and personalities. Juggling might be a temporary solution to the fear of missing out, but it isn’t sustainable. You will eventually burn out. Practising acceptance is an element of mindfulness that allows us to make room in our lives for the things we truly want.

To thrive in your expat life, you must accept:

1- You cannot return home unchanged. Living abroad will change you, and there is no going back.

2- You will lose people, places, and things. Boxes can get lost in transit, and friends may lose touch. The home you leave will also not be the one you return to.

3- Nothing is perfect (or, it’s perfectly imperfect!). Every country has its problems. No matter where you are in the world, there is plenty to get upset about. But, there is even more joy if you are open to it.

4- You cannot clone life back home. To survive—and actually savour the experience—you will need to embrace new things. It’s the only way.

5- Mistakes are part of the process. You’re going to use the wrong words, take jobs you hate, or eat things and meet people you would rather forget, but it’s all part of the fun.

A Rewarding Life

Whether you’re travelling during a gap year, studying abroad, or settling with your family in another country, these are all problems that you may face during your journey, perhaps more than once. But don’t be discouraged, as the rewards of being an expatriate far outweigh the struggles. Just remember to embrace the journey and stay mindful.

Marta Saldaña Martín is a counsellor, a mindfulness teacher and the founder of Waynama, an online holistic wellness space with the mission of supporting expats and world travellers in their journeys toward stress management, self-empowerment, and happier, more fulfilling lives. You can learn more about Marta’s work on Instagram @waynama.wellness.