The Psychological Stresses of Living the Expat Lifestyle

March 21 , 2021 by: Emily Stevens

The idea of being an expatriate or a nomad sounds exciting, fun, and like the adventure of a lifetime. Who wouldn’t want to explore a new country filled with new landmarks, an exotic culture, and delicious foods that one has only dreamt about? Living abroad is a fantasy most find themselves daydreaming about. They picture the type of romances you read about in books, constant adventures, and the feeling of being a brand-new person.

The expat life has a lot to offer and could be an amazing experience for many people. Oftentimes, though, we imagine this kind of lifestyle to be all rainbows and sunshine. When you go on Instagram and see that friend of yours living the ultimate expat life, you forget that you are only watching what they want you to see. That expat on your Instagram feed may be presenting their life as being fun filled and drama free, but that is only because people tend to post the highlight reels of their life to social media. People don’t typically tend to post when they are experiencing difficulties in their travels or when they are having a bad mental health day.

Photo by Paola Cchaaya on Unsplash

What the Research Says: Study One

A subject that is not as commonly talked about when one does their research about living an expat lifestyle is mental health. Expats have actually been found to be at a higher risk of mental health issues than those who are not living the expat lifestyle. This study has found that expatriates tend to be more at risk for mental health and substance abuse disorders than their U.S. counterparts. Meanwhile, this study found that expatriates are also at a high risk of suffering from acculturation and occupational stress issues.

This study observed the mental health of two different groups working for employers based in the United States who employed both expatriates and domestic employees. The expatriate employees who were included in the study had been employed in the United States for at least six months. It is important to note that, in this study, the researchers were faced with a limitations in regards to answers they can seek in their survey, not being able to collect information regarding the participants age, gender, education levels, job roles, or geographic locations.

The researchers used a survey titled Global Appraisal of Individual Needs- Short Screener (GAIN-SS) to obtain the information about their subjects for the research. This specific survey asks about symptoms from the DSM-IV-TR, a handbook used to set a criterion for diagnosing mental illnesses. This survey is intended to quickly and accurately identify clients who are suffering from a mental health disorder.

This study found that expatriates were at a significantly higher risk for mental health problems such as internalizing their problems, externalizing their problems, and substance use disorders. The study also found that three times more expatriates than U.S. based participants reported feeling trapped and/or depressed and twice as many reported experiencing feelings of anxiousness and/ or nervousness.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

What the Research Says: Study Two

This study was conducted using different databases to obtain articles written about expatriates, immigrants, people who were working abroad, and those who travel for business. The researchers searched specifically for articles that concentrated on the stress and disorders related to the stress they were experiencing, such as depression, fatigue, anxiety, and burn out.

This study found that language barriers were associated with stress, depression, anxiety, and social isolation. When expats attempted to learn the language of their new home, they found themselves feeling stressed when attempting to communicate in it.

Cultural differences were found to be another stressor expats were faced with. When expats are thrown into a new culture, they are faced with the challenge of performing well under their new culture’s standards, which creates a stressful situation. Many also found the fear of losing their culture and language to contribute even more to their stress.

Another stressor that many expats based in the United States have faced was discrimination. Some expats have found themselves experiencing social isolation, bullying, and alienation. This may contribute to depression and anxiety in expats.

A morning yoga session peering into the jungle in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Ways You Can Take Care of Your Mental Health Help as an Expat



Emily Stevens


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