For those who moved abroad - strategies for coping with anxiety?
August 11, 2019 1:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm getting ready to move to another country where I do not speak the language and have no friends/family. I'm excited for the move from a professional perspective, as it's a good opportunity at the university I'll be attending, but as the move approaches, I'm becoming more and more anxious (more details in extended explanation). Does anyone who has made a big move alone have any useful coping strategies? I'd also be interested in any books that come to mind as being relevant or helpful (fiction or non-fiction) in such a situation.

I suffer generally from anxiety, and saw a therapist for a while (with mixed results). I plan on trying to find a new therapist in my new country, but it will likely take a month or two, since my health insurance in the new country doesn't kick in right away. I was really excited to accept this opportunity initially, and all my life I've wanted to live somewhere else for a while to experience a new place and culture, but as the move approaches, I've had entire days where I just feel incredibly anxious and scared in a way I haven't before. My anxiety typically includes pretty bad digestive issues, and I'm having trouble eating a full days worth of food (not in a concerning way, I just have a particularly high metabolism so usually I eat a lot). Further, I'm more and more anxious in social situations with friends - I feel always on edge. I suspect it's mostly due to having never lived more than a 4-5 hour drive from my family and friends, and knowing all of the things I need to figure out in my new country.

I've looked into online therapy options but they seem to all fall into one of two categories - either too expensive for me to justify right now ($110+/hr) or affordable, but having security concerns (e.g., TalkSpace). I'm currently working through e-couch which I discovered while searching on here, and I'm trying to restart my meditation practice which I haven't been good about keeping up lately.

Any tips would be greatly appreciated.
posted by unid41 to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A couple of thoughts. Get some anti anxiety meds to tie you over until you can get your medical care sorted in your new location. Reach out to people involved in the program you’ll be attending. That way you will have people you know when you get there and have people you can grab a coffee with who will hopefully point you or introduce you to other people.

Not sure if you are a student or faculty but reach out to the local international students office and find local expat groups (online). These are your resources for learning how things work in your new location and will help you with any potential pitfalls.

For my first international move I did sit in my room in the largely empty halls of residence the first night, alone, playing on my laptop and I was wondering what on earth I’d been thinking and felt somewhat sorry for myself. Then I went to sleep and the next morning we had an orientation and I met some people and I never looked back.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:56 PM on August 11 [3 favorites]

We have come to believe that the most important thing is to never be miserable. It isn't. Misery is a transient state, and one that can change at any moment. You don't need to fear it. You can have an amazing time even if you don't enjoy it, even if you're miserable. You'll remember the amazing bits, not the misery -- as time passes, you tend to look back on what you saw, what you did, who you met, not how you felt.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:19 PM on August 11 [18 favorites]

Two practical strategies that I'd recommend to anyone learning a new language and culture, independent of anxiety:

1) If you have potentially social hobbies that don't demand a lot of linguistic proficiency, this is a great way to make connections. Play an instrument? Play a sport? Look for a club when you get to your new home. If not, seek out a class for beginners -- that way you can all be awkward novices together.

2) If you like young kids, and can find non-creepy social situations to do so, engage them in conversation -- they're non-judgmental about grammar goofs and can be great language teachers. I learned a ton of Haitian Creole vocabulary from an 8-year-old who was bemused and entertained to spend afternoons teaching this goofy old white dude who didn't even know what the hell a mango tree was called.
posted by dr. boludo at 3:16 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]

I've done this! I don't have stomach-anxiety issues, but the week before I left I could barely eat and threw up a bit from nerves, which was surprising to me, as I'd studied abroad previously and didn't feel particularly nervous, though the time in question was a much longer trip. Once I got there, the nerves went away. Even so, it was definitely a very psychologically intense period of my life (but not in a pathological way, I don't think - it was very lonely, but vivid and engaging, if that makes sense). If I have any advice, I guess it would be to be aggressive about finding people early - it's really easy to make friends with other foreigners! Best of luck - I'm so glad I took advantage of going abroad when I did.
posted by catcafe at 3:19 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]

Congratulations on your upcoming adventure! I just moved my chronically anxious self from the US to Chile and my Spanish is, well, limited.

1) Start a daily dose of a probiotic now. I've heard kimchi is a good one, and it's cheap.
2) Find the subReddit for your country and ask questions there. The Chile subReddit has helped me bail out of a couple problem situations. I can't vouch for other countries' subs but I'm glad I joined mine.
3) Try InterNations or Meetup as a way to find fellow expats. I hate to mention it but Facebook is a good source too; if you already have an account, look for groups. Once your classes start there may be student groups to connect with too.
4) Put a couple of favorite books and movies on your phone and keep them there.
5) Have a couple of phone numbers for supportive family and friends at the ready. Mention to them that you'll be calling at times just to hear their voices.
6) Keep a couple of text chats going frequently. Don't worry about bothering people.
7) Keep up your Netflix subscription (or whatever streaming channel you prefer). Related: If you don't have a VPN service, get one. I recommend NordVPN from my own use and there are plenty of other good options. Netflix seems to tolerate my Chilean IP quite well without the VPN, FYI.
8) Try to find a roommate situation instead of living by yourself, at least for a while. Yes, that could backfire, but if it works out, you won't feel quite as isolated. There are likely to be local single/divorced women or families who rent out rooms, and some of them may offer meal deals too. Homecooked meals may go a long way toward keeping your gut issues in line.
9) Find the local cat café or dog park if you like animals.
10) Find parks or other green public spaces for walks and people-watching.
11) If bikeshare services are available, take advantage of them if you can.

I had a very bad day of anxiety here a couple of weeks ago; I couldn't understand the conversation around me, had just gotten over a mild gut attack, and was feeling incredibly isolated. As I was sitting at lunch, though, I realized that having someone familiar there with me would not help. I can suffer from anxiety ANYWHERE, in the States just as in Chile, and the anxious thoughts aren't the truth.

After that light dawned, it's been easier for me to put the stinking thinking to one side more quickly. And I've found a lot to do as well, which is helpful.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 6:06 PM on August 11 [4 favorites]

I have done this! I did a fellowship after college in a country seven time zones from my family and then-boyfriend. It was definitely psychologically challenging, and also it was totally worth it. It changed how I understood myself and my country and our role in the world. I even went back a few years later.

I second the roommate recommendation, if you don't already have firm arrangements. I had many flatmates, both times I moved there, and it made it easy to have low-key interactions with people without having to plan.

I'd recommend allowing yourself a week or so to adjust to the new place before having to report for work/class, if that's feasible. You will probably have some bureaucracy to deal with. If said bureaucracy forces you to get out into the city and learn stuff about the geography of where you are, so much the better.

Goal for the first day: learn the local logo and word for restrooms. :) If you're arriving by plane or train I'm guessing this will be easy to figure out!

Don't be surprised if little things like grocery shopping are surprisingly tiring at first; there's sort of a lot to take in at grocery stores.

My favorite book about culture and dislocation (actually... my favorite novel, period) is The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.
posted by eirias at 6:22 PM on August 11

Some useful things I’ve learned while moving into a new culture alone:
  1. Everyone likes to be of help. Assisting a hapless foreigner is an easy win for most people and in effect you will be providing a public service by being clueless.
  2. You will be clueless at first. Not all the time of course, but often enough. Don’t hesitate to ask random strangers for hints. A broad smile and lots of pleases and thank yous go a very long way.
  3. If you can find a way to start with a therapist now and keep them through the transition you should do so. Between leaving your support system behind and dealing up close and personal with a new culture you are in for a tremendous period of personal growth. Continuity will help.
  4. When it comes time to touch base with home, video-conferencing is the way to go. FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, whatever works for you. Get it working before you leave.
It sounds like you’ll have a pre-made community waiting for you so I wouldn’t sweat the social aspects. It takes a certain type of person to do what you’re doing and I think you will be surprised how much in common you have with the people you meet.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:47 PM on August 11

I've spent the past ten years moving to new places every so often. Granted, most places I spoke the language, but you're right, it can be a very scary prospect. Here are some things that helped me:

a) Accept that you will never know everything about a place/culture and that's okay - in fact, imagine living the rest of your life with nothing new to discover! I recently moved back to the city I grew up in, and I'm still coming across new things about it - the book club that started after I left, the explosion of new restaurants, the Metro (!!!!) - it's delightful.

b) Will learning the basics of the language spoken there ease your anxiety? You don't need to be fluent, even knowing a few simple phrases can make moving around easier - and as a bonus, the people I've met in the countries I've visited have always been so happy to hear a foreigner speak their language rather versus expecting them to speak English. Hell, most big cities, it's not too hard to find someone who speaks a bit of English.

c) You're going as part of a university thing? Fantastic, you have a bunch of resources right there. Get in touch with Student Services - at my university, they had information for international students, and could put you in touch with either host families, or student volunteers who could answer your questions and help you get oriented, a little.

d) You will have good days and bad days, re: homesickness. Schedule regular calls/Skype sessions with your friends/family back home, and also self-care. In addition, I found that taking a few small reminders of home (a spice kit so I could make the food of my people, a small stuffed Tigger and a couple of figurines that have lived on my desk since high school) was really helpful in making the new place feel more like home.

e) That said. Don't make the mistake I've seen many other Indians abroad do, which is stick so closely to your kinfolk, or other expats, that you completely miss out on the experience of being in a foreign country. Even your mishaps will be fodder for funny stories later, like the time I got stuck in one of those supermarket turnstiles in Italy because I'd never seen one before.

f) I have anxiety too, and one of the things that helped was pulling a Steve Rogers and keeping a notebook of anything I wanted to find out/did find out. Then later if I didn't remember, say, how to get from Gare du Nord to my hostel, or which street the Indian store was on, it was right there in my little notebook!

If you're okay with sharing the country you're going to, I'm sure MeFi will have more concrete into specific to it. But good luck - you'll be fine, I promise!
posted by Tamanna at 11:26 PM on August 11 [4 favorites]

Decide that for the first couple of months you will 'say yes to everything'. By which I mean go to any and all social events that are offered. Especially in a university context this will be the quickest way to build your network. The first few months are the magic time when you will be most open to other people and they will be most open to you.

I've moved to several different countries and in my experience people love helping new people to settle in and sharing their local knowledge.
posted by roolya_boolya at 11:54 PM on August 11

Take it, as much as you can, as a healthy sign. I am very anxious. When I moved to a new country two decades ago, I wasn't nervous. I wasn't worried. I wasn't thinking ... I didn't plan, organize, I just went. If I'd been a bit anxious I would have been more prepared.

I'm still glad I did it though!
posted by bwonder2 at 3:39 AM on August 12

Look for a community of students from English speaking countries - British, Australian, American - any of those can help you by sharing their experiences of where and what. They will be ideal for going with you to show you how to shop, and telling you what the cultural expectations are that you need to know, and will probably be glad to help you. It may not be easy to find the Western necessities you are used to, but there are stores that carry these and the other English speaking students will know which ones, and can advise you of what isn't available and what substitutions will work.

I am told that usually the first twenty four hours are hard until you can find a safe place to sleep, know where to pee and where to get food. Then it's pretty much okay unless you get exhausted until, but a good night's sleep puts you back on track again, until often one day a few months in you suddenly get desperate for an entirely same-as-at-home environment. At that point it is good to have an entirely Western environment to hang out with for a few days. That's where the English speaking student society will be invaluable. I am told that watching and re-watching your favourite movie is helpful for recovering from too much immersion in the stranger culture.

There are often students who want to learn English so they can go to University in English speaking countries who can trade English language conversation practice with you for local-language practice. This is a great way to make social connections.

I was told that the two things that tip you over into being overloaded by the foreign culture is too much time hearing their language, and too much time not eating the food you grew up on. So making sure that you have some time where you are not parsing the sounds of their language, and have access to your own comfort foods will help. If you need sounds in the background you can probably find generic music that isn't definitely only from your own culture or definitely only from their culture and that will give your sound parsing brain a rest without you having to be the kind of person who only listens to Western Music and only speaks to people who speak English.

Some version of your comfort food is almost always easily available. You may not be able to get mac'n'cheese easily in Japan because they don't eat a lot of cheese, but ramen noodles and rice are both common western comfort food. Unless you are somewhere without any of the grains or vegetables you know it should be easy to obtain the security of familiar food. Once you have it you'll have a foundation for trying all the interesting stuff they have because you can always just have your ordinary chicken with rice, or you can interesting new stuff. Knowing that boring chicken-with-rice is there means that you can look at the unfamiliar stuff as an opportunity rather than as a the food you have to eat while in exile. Look for pleasures that are unique to that location and yet are the same as you have at home, such as walking in a park with maple trees. That way your experience will be reassuringly familiar, while being enriching.

Keep in mind that you will only get to stay in the country a few years, so you are not trapped, and it is worth taking advantage of your opportunity. The background though "I will be going home in May, so this is temporary," means that you are more likely to enjoy yourself.

If you are on the spectrum foreign countries sometimes are easier than at home - any social glitches from being on the spectrum may be put down to your being foreign, and they will be happy to explain what adults do here instead of wondering suspiciously why, at twenty-three, you haven't already figured out how to use the subway and where to stand when.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:02 PM on August 12

Your inevitable screw-ups will make it easier to make local friends, 'cause everyone likes a self-deprecating person who can tell a silly story about how they absolutely could not sort out the right way to mop a floor (and was afraid the giant squeegee in their apartment meant there was gonna be a flood) or how they have favorite words to practice to get the sounds right. My story about how many different ways a person can get wrong a head gesture that just means "no" kills at the right dinner party. Screwing up while being kind is painful in the moment and leads to good stuff later. And it for sure will happen, so no need to worry about it.
posted by lauranesson at 1:17 PM on August 12

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