Culture shock

Have you ever stood there, staring at a sign in a totally different language, not understanding a word of it, and just felt like weeping? Or found yourself shouting uncharacteristically at a stranger in shop because, well, they just aren’t doings the way you are used to?

If yes, then you could be experiencing culture shock – a term that describes those feelings of frustration, exasperation, annoyance, confusion, disorientation and all-round crapness that almost always accompanies a move to a new environment.

DSC_0136

Even the differences in things like clothing can be difficult for newcomers

Do you know much about culture shock? Did you read up on it before you moved abroad? It’s something that I started researching in detail as I was writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide – and went back to recently as I was interviewed for an excellent new podcast series called Tandem Nomads.

Culture shock is something that generally hits most of us at some point in our overseas lives. It isn’t necessarily a negative thing – sometimes it is just a “thing”. But when it can become a problem is when you don’t understand that what you are going through is normal, part of the “roller coaster” ride of moving to another country, and something that will generally pass once you have adjusted to your new life.

When I was researching for my culture shock chapter in the book, I looked at various definitions of the term, and amalgamated a few to come up with my own definition – which is:

Culture shock could be defined as disorientation on moving somewhere unfamiliar, a roller coasters of emotions. It is said to have four phases and each phase is described differently by different people but generally speaking they are: wonder/honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and acceptance. You can move between the four phases in order or back and forth between them; you might skip some of the phases or not experience any of them.

Not everyone experiences culture shock in the same way – for some it will come and go fleetingly, for others it will last throughout their stay in their new country, and possibly even turn to depression. But for everyone, it is worth finding out a bit more about what you are likely to encounter when you first go abroad. Knowing the stages, recognising which stage you are at and realising that it will  almost certainly get easier is one of  the best pieces of advice I can give a new expat – they say forewarned is forearmed and in this case that is certainly true.

To find out more about culture shock please listen to the podcast, or buy a copy of my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. In the meantime, I would be interested to hear your views – have you suffered, or are you suffering, from culture shock? If so, how did it affect you? And do you think you can get culture shock even moving within your own country? Please comment below 🙂

An interview on Two Fat Expats – holidays in Florida

I was interviewed the other day by blogger extraordinaire Kirsty Rice for her series Two Fat Expats. The interview was about the best holidays we have had with our children. We have done quite a few of those (and just returned from five fabulous days in Cape Town – a report and pictures to follow), but the ones that we always enjoy the most just through sheer ease and range of things to do is Florida.

Beautiful Clearwater beach, Florida.

Beautiful Clearwater beach, Florida.

I think if you can find a holiday where you DO things as a family then generally you all enjoy it more. I am not one to lounge on a beach while the children are in a kids club – alhough I totally appreciate for some people this is the way to go.

Anyway have a listen and let me know what you think – and tell me what your favourite holiday is/has been with your kids!

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN

How to overcome culture shock – an interview on Tandem Nomads

I was interviewed about culture shock the other day by the lovely Amel who runs a website called Tandem Nomads. The site is aimed at “empowering expat partners” and I was incredibly honoured to be amongst the first to take part in one of her podcast interviews. The podcast broadcasts (is that the right term?) haven’t started yet but you can sign up to the site to make sure you don’t miss out when they do – the link is here. In the meantime you can read Amel’s blog about my interview here.

Tandem_nomads_RVB_fndBlanc_442x179

And  if YOU are an inspiring expat partner and would like to be interviewed too then do get in touch with Amel. If you want to know more about the show, this is what she says:

Tandem Nomads is a podcast show (online radio) and an online platform providing you with great inspiration and free resources to help you turn the challenges of relocation into great opportunities for you and for your career!

I will host for you 2 podcast episodes per week:

  • Mondays are “story days”!

I will interview for you inspiring and empowering expat partners from around the world that will share with you how they managed to build their career, their projects or their business while following their partners’ career and moving from a country to another.

  • Thursdays are “topic days”!

I will focus every week on one particular issue that you might be facing with as an expat partner. Those topics will be related to your professional success, your financial independence, but also on all the other issues that are important for you to solve as you will need to create the right environment to build your success. Issues like dealing with change, adjusting to new cultural environments and coping with all your other important responsibilities related to being an expat partner or an expat parent.

You can contact Amel via her website here

A Survival Guide for Expat Partner’s

Months and months ago I was interviewed by Robert from My International Adventure, an “Adventurers Guide to Moving, Living and Working Abroad”. I had almost forgotten about the interview until last week when suddenly I was told I would be their lead item on the website the following week! And there I am! Apparently I told him a bit about why I wrote the book:

While living in Saint Lucia, Wiggins came up with the idea to write a book about her experiences as an expat partner and mother of two girls. The book – “Expat Partner’s Survival Guide” – was written to help prepare expat partners for their life abroad.

“I didn’t want to write it just from my own point of view, so I made sure I interviewed as many people as possible, which ended up being over 70 expat partners,”

You can read the full story here and also don’t forget if you still haven’t purchased your copy of the survival guide it’s on sale on Amazon and Smashwords – links are on my Buy the Book page.

Finally a small, regular plea – if you HAVE read the book and enjoyed it please consider leaving a review on Amazon. Only when I have enough reviews will it start becoming more visible for people seeking a book just like this. Thank you 🙂

dfw-cw-tepsg-cover-3d

Expats and depression: Interview with an expert

The post on my site which gets the most hits is one I wrote about depression back in February. It wasn’t a long post or a particularly informative one – but what it did say was that depression in expats is common, it’s not something to be ashamed of and it’s something that we should all acknowledge as a very real part of expat life. What the reaction to the post – both the immediate reaction at the time of writing, and the amount of hits that post has had since – told me is that this is a subject that needs a lot more attention.

So I extremely grateful when an expert in this area agreed to be interviewed for this blog, and not only to discuss some of the reasons why expats are so vulnerable to depression but also to help with some advice for those who think they may be affected. Anita Colombara is a mental health specialist with a particular interest in the International Community. Her own background and experience, as well as her training, has helped her set up her on-line counselling service and to be in a great position to offer advice to the globally mobile. I hope many people will read her advice – please share this post if you can because I know, from how many people find my blog by typing in the words expat and depression, that this is a topic more people need to be aware of.

8178012239_68d6c9c2a2_k

Anita, thank you for agreeing to this interview. First of all could you tell me a bit about yourself, your background.
I grew up in Washington D.C. with Asian parents. I enjoyed both the American and immigrant experience as I felt part of both and neither worlds at the same time. I also had friends who hailed from every corner of the globe. As an adult, I married an Italian/Ecuadorian who spent summers with family on two different continents. You could say that, since childhood, I’ve been embracing the world, determined to be a global nomad when I grow up.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting and living in over a dozen countries. For four years I lived in Cambodia, gave birth to my second child in Malaysia, and later, enrolled my children in public school in Beijing. Throughout these adventures, I’ve experienced both the joys and challenges of being an expat. I love acquiring new languages, assimilating to new cultures, and feasting on new cuisine. However, I have also struggled with adjustment issues – cultural shock, loneliness, and confusion; with mental health issues – post-partum depression, anxiety, and vicarious trauma; and with relational issues – misunderstandings with locals and colleagues, marital strain, and difficulties parenting my two young children. I’m guessing many of your readers can relate.

How did you come to be working in mental health and why do you think it’s important for the ex-pat community?
I started out as a social worker in the States about 20 years ago. I worked in a variety of settings focusing on issues related to domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and refugee resettlement which I then implemented with my work in Cambodia.

However, during my years in Cambodia, and later in other settings, I saw that ex-pat and humanitarian worker’s needs were being severely neglected. As I mentioned, I’ve struggled living overseas. And I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard numerous accounts from those experiencing trauma, disillusionment, confusion, compassion fatigue, depression, anxiety, loneliness, etc. I’ve also seen too many marriages broken and families strained due to ignoring conflicts rather than addressing them in a healthy way. I saw the vital need for my peers, who live and work internationally, to have access to quality, professional counseling.

When I returned to the US in 2008, I enrolled in the University of Washington School of Social Work, focusing on trauma intervention and therapy.Since graduation, I’ve have been serving as a mental health therapist at a community based agency in Seattle, WA. However, my heart is still with the international community. That is why I founded Remote Access Mental Health. My vision is to see globally mobile people thrive no matter where they are. My mission is to provide on-line professional mental health counselling for this unique population.

Why remote counselling? How would the globally mobile benefit from it?
When I lived in Cambodia, there were few counselling services for ex-pats. The few professional therapists in town were often booked. Moreover, with the ex-pat community being so tight, there was a high probability that the potential client and therapist already knew one another. This made professional boundaries difficult and therapeutic relationships awkward. This is an issue in many locations, not just Cambodia.

Services offered by host or sending agencies have their own set of potential complications. A typical scenario is that of a field staff person being assigned an agency affiliated counselor when supervisors become concerned regarding mental health or other issues in that individual. Many times, since the counselor is employed by the agency, they give their assessment to the supervisor. This is not always a bad thing. However, more often than not, I’ve heard from field staff who have been hurt by their agencies when they felt that client-therapist confidentiality was violated. In some cases, this resulted in the sudden expulsion from the international arena in order to receive “treatment” for unresolved mental health issues, family conflict, moral failure, etc. Individuals and families are left feeling like they’ve failed, betrayed by their employer, further isolated, and sink deeper into disillusionment, depression, or resentment.

With that said, I know a lot of ex-pat individuals and families who would benefit from an unbiased professional who could provide support where they are. With high speed internet service becoming increasingly available, even in the most remote places, this is becoming a possibility. Although in-person counselling may be preferable, video conferencing is a viable alternative given the hectic travel schedules and lack of local services that many expats experience. Professional counselling is now within reach!

327967078_14f8e77d7b_o

What kind of mental health services do you provide specifically for the globally mobile?
First off, I realize the term “mental health” often turns people away. They automatically assume I’m talking about crazy people with paranoia or are detached from reality. On the contrary, most of the people I work with are completely normal.
In short, I apply the same evidence-based therapeutic approaches that I use with my clients in my in-person practice. I first perform a thorough assessment to determine what the client’s needs, goals, strengths and natural resources, and desired treatment modality are. I then work together with the client to flesh out a treatment plan accordingly. I provide tools to address struggles as well as help create a plan for long term self-care.

The difference with my remote access clients is that I tailor to the unique needs of those who travel or live internationally. I am particularly interested in supporting the globally mobile population, including TCKs and ATCKs, that want to address trauma, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and stress due to unresolved issues or culture shock and re-entry (reverse culture-shock) adjustment.

What are the signs that expats need to look out for if they think they might be suffering from depression, PTSD or other mental health issues?
Depression is different than sadness and normal life’s lows. It involves intense feelings of despair with little or no relief. It interrupts one’s life, work, relationships, eating, sleeping, and ability to engage in once enjoyable activities. Typical signs of depression are:

  • Loss of interest in relationships or activities you once enjoyed
  • Loss of energy, feeling tired all the time
  • Sleeping more than normal or inability to sleep
  • Change of appetite, overeating or lack of eating
  • Difficultly concentrating or finishing tasks
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Ruminating on negative thoughts
  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, emptiness, apathy, failure
  • Feeling more irritable, short-tempered, angry, aggressive
  • Loathing – overly critical or self and/or others
  • Consuming more alcohol than normal or increased drinking alone
  • Engaging in reckless or unhealthy behavior

PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a condition following a traumatic event that leaves one with intense feelings of fear, anxiety, or loss of control. One may feel trapped in a constant state of danger or in a painful memory. Others may feel unable to “snap out of it” and feel disconnected from others and present reality.

Many of my colleagues engaged in aid and development work experience what is called vicarious or Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD). Through repeated or long-term exposure to stories or observations of those suffering from traumatic events, one may develop symptoms similar to PTSD. These symptoms come in three main categories and can arise suddenly, gradually, or re-occur over time:

  1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event:
  • Intrusive, upsetting memories
  • Flashbacks (feeling like the event is happening again)
  • Nightmares
  • Feelings of intense distress
  • Intense physical reactions when reminded of the event (pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, vomiting, muscle tension, sweating)

2. Avoidance and numbing:

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Feeling detached from others
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Lack of motivation
  • Sense of a hopelessness or assuming premature death

3. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled

Before reaching the point of needing to seek help from a counsellor like yourself, what can we do to help ourselves if we do find we are in this situation?
Self-care, self-care, self-care! I know too many good hearted people who are constantly looking out for others but neglecting to take care of themselves. Development workers, missionaries, and those on the front end of disaster relief for sure! The most important thing is to develop healthy habits and a personal Wellness Action Plan (I call these WAP for short). The second most important thing is follow through with your plan.

Your WAP should be comprehensive, including all aspects of your wellbeing – physical, emotional, recreational, relational, financial, spiritual, etc.

Your WAP should also be specific. It’s not enough to say, “I will exercise regularly.” What kind of exercise? How often? What time of the day? Where? This is especially important for the globally mobile since settings change and new locations may not accommodate to previous routines.

Lastly, your WAP should be realistic. For example, there is no point making a plan to exercise everyday if you know you’ll be on a plane two days out of the week. Make your plan attainable. Otherwise, you will find yourself giving up in frustration for not sticking to it.

Oh, and be kind to yourself. I tend to work with a lot of driven folks who are hard on themselves. Give yourself a break once in a while.

At what point would you recommend we need to seek further help from a professional such as yourself?
Negative feelings such as sadness, frustration, or stress are normal. But when they become overwhelming and interrupt daily function or lead to relational problems, it is important to seek professional help.

With that said, many people wait too long. It doesn’t hurt to seek professional help sooner than later. After all, even the healthiest among us receive physical check-ups. That is why I love assisting people in their personal WAPs to promote long-term wellbeing.

How can we support others if we start to recognize some of the symptoms of depression in them? In particular, how can we help our partners?
Often times, when a loved one is struggling, we may feel distraught or frustrated ourselves. It’s easy to go into advice giving mode or to withdraw due to feeling at a loss regarding how to help. However, the most important thing is your presence – being with them even if it just means holding them, crying with them, or sitting beside them in silence. Validate feelings instead of try to reason with them. Watch out for minimizing their pain, blaming and shaming. Educate yourself on the disorder so that you can better understand your partner, but be careful not to lecture them.

If your partner is reluctant to seek professional help, that does not mean you cannot seek help for yourself. A good therapist will be able to guide you through the process of assisting a loved one struggling with mental health.

Do you have any particular advice for children who might be showing signs of depression? How would this manifest in them differently than in adults?
The answer to this important question deserves an article itself. In short, children often act out what they cannot put into words. Often times, symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD in children are misdiagnosed as ADHD. Children often manifest troubling behavior such as difficulty focusing, defiance, difficultly regulating their emotions, hyperactivity, inability to calm down when aroused, lack of boundaries or risky behavior. They may engage in violent or self-harming behavior such as cutting themselves or hitting their head against a wall. Other children, may retreat, fall silent, even becoming mute. This is often the case for someone with PTSD. Again, disturbing behavior is a sign of a more significant, underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Anita Colombara MSW, LSWAIC
Anita is a licensed Mental Health Professional by the State of Washington. After spending many years in Asia, she currently resides in Seattle, WA where she lives with her husband and two children and enjoys the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. She is the founder of Remote Access Mental Health LCC, providing on-line counseling for the globally mobile. www.remoteaccessmentalhealth.com

If you are or think you may be suffering from depression, or are vulnerable to depression, then please do talk to someone close to you and/or consider seeking help. As well as counsellors like Anita, charities like MIND can also offer online support and advice. I list other forms of support in my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide.

Photo credits: woman with key: Mary Lock at https://www.flickr.com/photos/wijen/; woman at table: Adi Sujiwo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/wijen/

Interesting expat: relationship specialist Vivian Chiona

I first came across Vivian when she contacted me via LinkedIn. We had a chat on Skype – her in the Netherlands, me at my kitchen office desk – and I found her to be an incredibly warm and supportive person. An experienced expat herself, Vivian has founded her own counselling service – Expat Nest – to help others transitioning into expat life, with a special emphasis on relationships and a specialism in children and teenagers. The Expat Nest website introduces the service as a “warm, safe and confidential” counselling service and, having spoken in person to Vivian, I am quite sure this is what it would be. I thought it would be interesting to hear a bit more about Vivian, her own background and about the service she provides to help expats with parenting teens, expat life and relationships generally.

Vivian final square

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, how long you have been an expat, where you are from and where you have lived?

I am a bicultural, multilingual expat with family all over the world. I was born and grew up in Greece and have been living and working in the Netherlands for the past eight years. I love travelling, exploring new cultures, trying different food and collecting folktales from all over the world.

I’m also a qualified psychologist and the founder of http://www.ExpatNest.com. Expat Nest provides emotional support to expats and their families by offering telephonic and online counselling services (via Skype and Facetime).

What brought you down the expat road to start with? Was it planned or accidental?
Because of my multicultural background, I’m not really surprised to have expatriated! I feel it’s a big part of who I am. My relocation to the Netherlands to study was planned; however the length of my stay was not. The initial plan of staying for one year in Holland has since become almost a decade!

What has been the most positive thing for you about being an expat?

Celebrating diversity and getting to know people from all over the world… trying their food, listening to their music and just enjoying the blessing of being in a multicultural setting. I simply love it! I also feel at home when I’m around internationals.

And what about the least positive? If you could change one thing about your way of life, what would it be?

The most challenging part of being an expat is that the goodbyes accumulate as friends come and go. Saying goodbye to my family after a visit to Greece is also difficult. No matter how many years I’m away, I still feel the sadness of farewells.

As for what I would change… the weather in the Netherlands! I know it seems trivial, but as someone from a country with 10 months of sunshine a year, I have really struggled to adjust to the climate here.

Tell me about Expat Nest, the online-counselling service you started for expats. Why did you start it, why do you think it’s something that is needed? Who is it aimed at and how do you help them?

It all started with my vision to inspire love and joy in expats everywhere! Founding Expat Nest has therefore been a dream come true for me. I’ve always been really passionate about supporting expatriates and it didn’t take long for me to notice a significant need for counselling services devoted to them.

I know from both my personal and professional experience that expat life can be daunting and lonely at times. This spurred me on to create a comforting, empathetic environment (hence the name ‘Expat Nest’) in which expats could feel heard and understood and deal with the unique challenges they face (like saying all those goodbyes!).

In a mobile life, technology is often the only constant, so it made sense to offer online counselling so that I could truly serve expats. As a result, Expat Nest’s services are accessible, convenient and flexible for all expats, across all borders and all time zones – this is truly counselling without borders. What also makes us different is that we are expats/internationals and highly qualified – so expats are guaranteed a professional supportive service.

expat_nest_skype

In my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I talk about how hard the expat life can be on relationships. What can people do to try and protect their relationship? Would you recommend counselling even before they move?

I think it helps to understand that relationships exist within an emotional eco-system. When the external variables change – whether a new friend group, job or neighbourhood – the relationship often has to adapt. And of course, it’s also challenging when one partner follows their heart to a new country. Moving for love is one of today’s classic dilemmas and it’s important to recognize that the person moving is not weaker or less-than.

Fortunately there are a number of ways expats can protect and nurture their relationship, including:

• Keeping communication open and honest so that you avoid letting negative feelings build up
• Rediscovering your identity in the new place so that you feel empowered and whole in the relationship
• Setting realistic expectations of your partner so that you don’t expect all your happiness to come from one person
• Meeting other expats (both individually and as a couple) so that you have the space to discuss your unique challenges as an expat. For more pointers, check out this article I recently wrote on moving for love.

And yes, I would highly recommend counselling before moving abroad as it can make a significant difference to the whole relocation experience. (This could be a one-off session or a limited number of sessions – it needn’t be a lengthy process.) Pre-relocation counselling allows you to prepare emotionally and mentally for the move, but it also facilitates a safe space in which to talk about any thoughts and feelings that are not easy to discuss with our partner or children, or those we are leaving behind. That said, if you’re about to move and weren’t aware of the benefits of pre-relocation counselling, or just don’t feel ready for it, that’s okay too. Trust in your wisdom and do what feels right for you.

As well as adults, you also work with children – particularly teens – and in fact one of your specialisations is as a child and adolescent psychologist. I feel this is a hugely important subject and one that perhaps isn’t considered enough before families make the decision to move abroad. What sort of issues do you particularly find yourself dealing with in this area?

There are a number of common challenges faced by expat teens, including:

• Grief at having said many goodbyes
• Feeling disempowered due to lack of preparation or discussion by the parents before the move
• Being reluctant to invest in friendships/relationships as they know they will move again or have already experienced the pain of leaving people behind
• Shutting off emotions to avoid feeling the same pain again
• Feeling confused about their identity or uncertain where “home” is
• Feeling angry without knowing why
• Loneliness as they miss old friends and attempt to make new friends
• Struggles in adjusting to the new culture and way of being

If you’d like more info on helping expat teens and TCKs to thrive in their new country, feel free to read our blog articles, including “10 things you might not have known about TCKs”; “10 ways to improve communication with your child (teens too!)” and “How expat kids can use their difference to make a difference”.

What advice would you give to parents contemplating an overseas move with their children?

It’s essential that parents have in-depth discussions with their teens before moving, so that teens feel empowered (and even excited!) about the move.

After the move:
• Ask your teen to describe his expat experience in three words – this is a great way to lead into an honest discussion about his feelings/thoughts. Above all, listen to your teen… even if what he says is difficult to hear!
• Brainstorm ways to help reduce any painful feelings that have come up. Do this together – the idea is to avoid giving instant solutions and rather help your child to build up his own coping tools. Be sure also to convey the comforting message that any hurtful feelings will lessen in time.
• Focus on the positives of expat life, such as a fresh start, the chance to learn about another culture or learn a new language, and the opportunity to develop an expanded worldview.
• Remind your teen that friendship and love are not gone; all the important people in the previous country/school are still there. Encourage your teen to communicate with those left behind using online technology.
• Put up photos of your previous life to give a sense of stability and continuity (assuming that your teen is ok with this).
• If the painful feelings persist and are affecting your teen’s ability to function (e.g. disturbed sleep, poor academic performance, isolation, high levels of anxiety), seek out professional help.

Thank you Vivian for telling us about yourself and your counselling service. You might want to know that you can get free resources by signing up to Vivian’s website; but in the meantime I would be interested to hear what any expats think of specific counselling aimed at them – do you think it’s necessary? Do you wish you had known about services such as Expat Nest? Would you consider using a service such as this?

My Expat Life Story

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to be interviewed for a podcast series for expats – Expat Life Stories – by the amazingly friendly and energetic Mariza of Mariza ABroad (where these youngsters get all their energy from I don’t know!), It wa a fun experience and you can listen to the outcome via her website Abroad Podcast. In the interview, I talk about my experiences as a trailing spouse expat partner in Pakistan and St Lucia as well as discussing why I wrote the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide.

static1.squarespace.com

Whilst you’re there, have a look at (listen to) some of the other stories on the website. The podcasts are quite long, but the one I listened to (about another woman who had lived in Pakistan and now lives in Botswana) was fascinating! There’s another on there about a woman who lives in Antartica and was kidnapped as a child which I am waiting to have the time to listen to! Makes my life sound very boring…..

I would thoroughly recommend this experience to all other expats – she is looking for more victims volunteers, so give her a shout via her website if you are interested!

In the meantime, I’m gearing up for another interview tomorrow night. This one will be via Skype and will actually be a video so no pyjamas! Yikes!