Being an expat is an overwhelming experience. Nearly everything about your daily life will change. This starts with the big things like language and housing and goes all the way down to having to find a different brand of butter. The expat move usually means that most of your stuff is not coming with you and you will have to build up a new circle of friends. So dealing with all of this newness stripped of your normal armor. This is one of the first challenges, so here are some of my ideas on how to deal with being so overwhelmed.
Find a sanctuary
Especially for introverts like me, it is important to have a place where you feel comfortable and don’t have to think too much and can just be quiet. This sanctuary will be a port in the storm in dealing with all the newness. This may be a hurdle in itself. How when everything is new and different, do you find a place that is comfortable? Look for something similar to what you had at home if possible.
My first few weeks in Germany, I spent a lot of time in a few specific cafes. In the US, I used to spend evenings reading at the local bookstore. That doesn’t really exist here, so I sat at a table for hours reading with a drink. It’s nice to be able to do that here.
Having a place to let your mind relax is important. When things get overwhelming go and be in the “happy place”.
Get enough sleep
Really, the brain takes a lot of energy to run. It is also processing a ton more stuff than it is used to. You definitely need to give it enough down time to do that processing. Part of this is that sanctuary but the other part is definitely getting enough rest. Sometimes this is not easy given the differences in bedding (yup even beds can be different, like I said, everything is different.), but being rested means you can deal with things easier. There will be things like work schedules and evenings out with new friends that you can’t avoid, but be aware to not overdo it.
I came to Germany in the winter so it was dark in the evenings a lot. I definitely slept more then 8 hours for a while.
Do something you enjoy
Pick a hobby, either something you used to do at home or something new. This gives you something to concentrate on and put your mind to doing instead of freaking out about all the other changes. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it seems to. By giving the mind something specific to work on, it seems able to deal with the chaos better.
When I first got to Germany, I sought out the pottery studio for a few weeks. I was into doing pottery at home and enjoyed it, so it seem natural to work on it here as well. The times unfortunately were not work-friendly so I haven’t done it in a while.
Seek out people to spend time around
One of the problems about being an expat, especially a new one, is the feeling of isolation. When friends are far away, it is easier to get overwhelmed. They used to provide an outlet for all these frustrations and without them you have to deal with everything yourself. This is even true if you become an expat with your family. Yes, they are there to provide support, but are also dealing with the expat move at the same time.
Joining a club is one way of meeting people. Having contacts that are already in the local community gives you a chance to hang out with people that already know what is going on. Combine it with a hobby to do two steps at once. This step is not about making deep friendships, although that is great. It is about having human contact.
Definitely don’t shy away from other expats. Yes local contacts are great, but other expats will understand what you are going through. You already have something in common as well. One of the best things about my expat experience was joining the Freiburg English Club. They provided me with a sanctuary from being overwhelmed by 24/7 German as well as most of my best friends that I have met.
Sometimes it is worth just getting away from it all for a bit. Take a Saturday or the whole weekend and just get out of town. Go explore somewhere nearby. You don’t have to go very far, just enough to feel like a traveler on vacation instead of an overwhelmed expat. Being able to do trips like this is one of the benefits of living abroad, take advantage of it.
This past summer Ali was getting overwhelmed with moving to Germany. So we took a weekend and went to Liechtenstein. Just two days away helped. It was still foreign and in German, but it felt more like a vacation. In the past I have taken trips up into the forest for the same effect.
All of these tips are about slowly building a sense of normalcy in your head again. Giving yourself enough space and rest to deal with things is the first step. After that getting involved builds a bubble of “ok-ness” around you. You expand this bubble until most of what you do on a daily basis is ok. This doesn’t mean it is not foreign or not chaotic, just that it is ok. From ok, things will not overwhelm as much.
Last Word: Patience
Becoming an expat was a great experience for me. But I didn’t feel ok overnight, this sense took time. Patience is one of the greatest virtues for expats to learn. You will be fine, but it will take time.