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The Expat Slump: 12 things to do when feeling overwhelmed by living in a new place

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

I've now lived in another country other than my home country for almost four years. It's natural to feel unsure or even stuck when moving and living in a new country and culture. So today I'm sharing 12 strategies that help me overcome such feelings.

Thankfully most of my time and feelings around moving and living in Ndola, Zambia have been positive, but every few months I feel myself getting into a slump. I'm grateful that my slump has never really been a serious one, usually just lasting a day.

Of course moving from the states to Zambia has been a huge adjustment. It can often feel so overwhelming. David used to really go over the top to make me feel comfortable and loved when I would feel bummed about where we live. But over time, I've learned some ways of helping myself out when these times come and preparing myself for the inevitable.

I also remember feeling similarly, on a smaller scale, when moving from Seattle to Chicago. I'm sure in many ways these same tips are relevant when moving between states or regions. All of these tips could be used when feeling stuck for a variety of reasons.

This week I got in a mood about our little town Ndola and began focusing on some of the disadvantages for us living here. It was a downward spiral. As I worked myself out of the overdramatic sob stories, I recorded and thought about everything I did. I also reflected on past slumps and added some more ideas from those times.

Zed. We pay high taxes to drive on bad roads. Some of which will literally make sure you get stuck.

12 things to do when feeling overwhelmed or stuck by living in a new place

1. Identify patterns.

It's taken me some time, but I've begun to identify patterns and triggers when the slump or a bad day might hit. If I can consciously predict it, sometimes I can derail the train. But this week I wasn't fast enough!

Here are just a few patterns and triggers that I've noticed:

1) After 6 months of staying in Zambia without leaving the country.

2) Often when first adjusting back into a routine after a trip (especially with family/friends from the USA).

3) Sometimes when in new situations where I don't feel as comfortable.

4) When I focus on the disadvantages enough that it becomes all consuming.

5) If I haven't been fuelling my body well and/or something else has me in a bad mood.

6) When I too heavily compare Zambia directly to the USA which really isn't a fair comparison.

I have also come to consider this - a bad day could happen anywhere but is it being amplified and blamed on not living where I'm more comfortable?

2. Allow myself to feel all the feels.

Even if it’s ridiculous or overdramatized, and even when I know I’m not being rational, it’s still what I feel in that moment so I let it be felt. I try to sit with my feelings here and not jump to the solution. Sometimes that means laying in bed and feeling sorry for myself, other times that means watching a show and not thinking, or starting on some of the other methods while using metacognition.

3. Write it out.

I like to think about what is it that’s really bothering me...write and see what comes out. Make a pro/con list. Make a thankful list. Make a list of things or feelings I can control about the situation and things that are not up to me. This week my list had 9 pro and 19 con but many of my pros are big enough to outweigh the numerous cons. I got to this conclusion through writing it out as well as going through these other steps.

4. Talk it out/reach out.

I'm a verbal processor so I like to talk about it and I make sure to speak to someone who I trust, of course, but also someone who can truly empathize with me. For me it’s mainly my husband (since we met and dated in the states) or a few friends who have also moved their whole life abroad. I also found a few new people to follow on instagram and blogs who talk candidly about expat/non home country life.

5. Get moving.

When feeling down, it’s science, move your body, but we all know it's not that easy. I went to sleep feeling unsure but I woke up a bit early and worked out to get my endorphins going. This was a decision I made because I knew I would feel better and it would get me into a routine which I think is important in such situation. If it doesn't feel like it worked, I try to commit to a week or some form of exercise routine and I find that helps me.

6. When not in the thick of it, rationalize.

I think this goes for any situation. Our brains are so powerful and I find that if I don’t reflect after, I won’t process properly and it will then bring me down even more. So once my mood is lighter and I can rationalize better, I walk myself mentally through my feelings. What I felt, what maybe led to it, triggers, boundaries, how to continue, how to be prepared next time...really talk it out with myself. Good time to add to those patterns! Insert step #1 here.

7. Clear some space.

Whether this is space in the brain, somewhere in the house, unsubscribing to emails....

Do something that just clears up something. I like to keep this simple so that it doesn't feel like a task. For me today, it was consolidating leftovers and organizing our fridge. It may sound silly, but it brightened my mood and gave me hope that things will be fine. It's probably not the fridge for most people.

8. Take a break.

Kind of similar to finding space but a bigger step that takes more follow through. I think about anything that is bringing more stress or unhappiness and try to cut it out for a bit. Social media can often be a trigger when feeling down so try taking the day off or at least a couple hours. Or maybe it’s someone you live or work with, set some space and boundaries. Take a personal day from work if that’s an option. I stayed signed off socials for the most part and chose not to share anything during this short slump.

9. Eat well.

Create something if you enjoy cooking or if not, order something that is good fuel for your body. Not only will it bring the initial joy and happy mood but it will sustain the body and mind. This week I chose to create a new recipe and find a couple new recipes that I'm interested in trying out soon.

10. Drink well.

I swear water fixes all problems. Here are a few ways I keep my water intake high.

11. Get productive.

Make a checklist and check one thing off. Think of something you’ve been putting off and just get to it. This productivity brings up my mood every time. Even if it’s something simple and small!

12. Do something for yourself. 

What do you love or how do you treat yourself? I try to do something here that is longer lasting than a (spa) face mask or glass of wine, but really this can be anything.

I had been interested in reading Where the Crawdads Sing for over a year at this point, so I went on audible and bought the book. 

Bonus: Plan something.

This one depends on the situation and personality type. Normally for me, planning something such as a trip or girls night would brighten up my mood. But currently in the year 2020, planning seems to bring on more stress or more let down. For some people, planning something may feel like a burden or bring anxiety. So if you know planning something is healing for you and it's doable in this season — go for it! Otherwise — skip.

I skipped it this week because it felt like it would have more let down than concrete plans with the current situation in Zambia. But I'll keep it on my radar!

But then enjoying this untouched beauty with the one I love clears up the muddy roads.

Have you ever made a big move that made you feel overwhelmed or stuck? What are some of your strategies for living in a place away from home? Tell me in the comments!

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1 Comment

Bill Quinton
Bill Quinton
Nov 14, 2022

Thanks for this list. I am currently entering into a culture shock phase. I've been getting overwhelmed with the difference in manners in this country vs my home country. Like.. Dang! I have made some big mistakes >.< I know that means mor eexperiences to learn from, but at this moment... I think learning can take a short break. As per #7, I think I have a fridge to clean. Thanks again, this was a helpful post!

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