Skip to main content

Dealing with adversity: the reality of expat angst

By December 5, 2016October 3rd,

Dealing with adversity: the reality of expat angst

December 5, 2016

It’s hard enough facing adverse circumstances when you’re in a familiar environment, but facing adversity when you’re out of your depth or in a strange new place can be incredibly stressful. Whether you’re finding the change in culture or climate depressing, struggling to assimilate into the work culture or not really coping with the language barriers there are things you can do to keep your head above water.

Indeed, you needn’t just keep your head above water, you can excel. But if you want to make a success of things, you need to be cognisant of the problems you could face, how these will manifest and how you can nip them in the bud.

Facing the troubles of expat life

Cultural and religious adversity

There’s no two ways about this – you will feel out of sorts in your new home. Irrespective of the similarities between your old and new home, some of the differences will be glaringly obvious. Not only that, but some of the new customs or cultural norms may even seem intimidating, threatening or make you uncomfortable.

The only way to really get a grip of this strange new world you find yourself in is to educate yourself. The more you learn about the new culture and the reasons people do the things they do, the more digestible their way of life will become for you. This doesn’t necessarily mean you will immerse yourself in this new culture, but it does make it easier to co-exist and understand your fellow humans.

You can learn about the culture in the following ways

  • Do online reading and research – make sure to use unbiased news sources, as some news desks may be biased towards certain religions or cultures and you may not get the full story.
  • Take some time to visit the monuments, cultural hubs, libraries and religious areas of your new city.
  • Be sure to enquire as to the customs, code of conduct and respectable behaviour in the areas you’re visiting or around the people you’ll meet. This will prevent awkward situations and will keep you out of trouble.
  • Make friends with locals and get the story on the streets from them. Quite often the people who have lived in these areas have a different view of the culture than the one painted by the rest of the world.
  • If you have any specific fears or biases about a certain culture or religion, do a reverse-check about those “facts” you base your fears and biases on to determine their validity. If you believe something to be true, for instance, use a search engine to search for the fact that it has been proven NOT to be true. If you weigh up the different information, you may be surprised at what you find.
  • Sometimes it’s best to just bite the bullet and give someone you find unrelatable an olive branch. Treating someone to treats, greetings or courtesies which they extend to people within their own culture or faith may open many doors up and will probably make them more tolerant of your culture or beliefs. This does not mean you need to condone their practices or beliefs, but simply that you understand it is not your place to change them and that your respect that each person is different.

Interpersonal adversity

The toughest knock you will probably take during the immigration process is that of cracks in your relationships. Of course, should you weather these storms you may find these relationships have fortified to an unbreakable point, but first you need to get through it.

No matter who you are, you will be affected by the stress, grief and anxiety of moving. Each person responds to these changes in a different way, and it’s easy for us to miss the subtle changes in those people living right next to us. If, however, you have the foresight to anticipate changes in your relationships, you can make a conscious effort to put mechanisms, tools and checks in place to cushion the blow.

So here are our pointers for dealing with interpersonal adversity:

  • Discuss your fears, anxieties and regrets even before leaving. You don’t want some little resentment about an unsaid or unshared emotion exploding years later in a fit of rage.
  • Talk to your spouse, children, partner, friends or parents about things they can do to make life easier for you, and ways they react which make life more stressful. If we’re aware of each other’s triggers and soothers, we can assist each other throughout it all.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself or each other. Allow each other a little room for fuming, fitting and being a little irrational – the judgment and shame of misbehaviour can actually fuel the loop of misbehaviour on as it makes us feel inadequate and uncomfortable.
  • Let bygones be bygones. Fighting over the same thing for years, or digging up the same old dirt will really get you nowhere. Sometimes we need to look past our own egos and let go of our need to be right. This need often hampers our ability to be happy.
  • Balance your time. It’s important your life and the lives of those relocating with you includes a good balance of different activities. You need to set time aside for each of you to be alone, time for physical activities, hobbies, socialising and for being together as a family. This will ensure you each keep a healthy grasp of yourselves and also keep you from focusing on the negative things.

In addition to the general guidelines above, you will also need to have particular safeguards in place based on relationship types.


Don’t let the romance die, even if you feel tired, overwhelmed, angry or upset – sometimes we need to fool our bodies into carrying on. The habit of nurturing each other will become easier the more you do it, as it becomes instinctual – and people do tend to reciprocate what we give them.

Despite this habitual love and care, you should also understand that things will invariably change between you. It is necessary for some of us to adapt our personalities or emotional responses to cope with change, and oftentimes these behavioural changes are seen as red flags by spouses. What you get is a situation where people become suspicious of each other’s behaviour, inadvertently obstinate and critical of each other, and unfortunately this sometimes leads us to create the circumstances we fear. If we are understanding, trusting and empathetic towards each other, we will give leeway for change, try to understand why it’s happening and be open in communicating our fears and perceptions.

With a relocation, you will also be entering new social circles. Remember how long it took you to find that couple to bond with back home, or how many of your friends actually knew you since preschool, school or varsity days? Well, that’s no longer the case. You’ll find yourself having to meet loads of new people, interact with new people and undoubtedly you won’t like all of them. But allow each other the chance to “experiment” with different friends before judging each other’s motives or indecisiveness. It could take a while before you find your new tribe abroad, and that’s okay.


If you’re one of the lucky people who are able to take your parents with you from the get-go, you’ll also be privy to the reality of change at an older age. This reality is that it is so much harder to cope with drastic changes. Older generations feel more vulnerable in new environments. The difference between the two worlds will seem more stark to them, cognitive decline will make it harder for them to learn new things, assimilate, make sense of their surroundings and adapt to their environment.

Additionally, they will not have the outlets and coping mechanisms of younger immigrants or those they had “back home” – this may make them fearful of going out, obstinate, withdrawn or even physically ill. Find out about places and activities close to your new home which your elders will enjoy – public gardens, bingo clubs, libraries, tea rooms, bakeries, churches – whatever will appeal to them.

You may have to resort to a bit of tomfoolery, as they may not want to participate if you make a fuss. Also be sure to teach them the basics of new technologies and concepts in a subtle and easy way which will not overwhelm them. Give them some responsibilities and tasks – we often think it best not to overburden older people, but this may rob them of their sense of purpose. So ask for favours in such a way that it seems they are the only people capable of assisting you.


Don’t overthink things. Your children will have a hard time adapting, but contrary to what many parents believe, children are far more resilient and adaptive than most grownups. Show them that they can talk to you, but also teach them to develop skills for resolving issues on their own. Don’t constantly focus on bad or sad behaviour in an effort to get them to talk about it as you may actually be amplifying the problem. Encourage your children to make new friends, and set an example by being proactive and positive.

Remember that the reality of terrible twos is, in fact, an actual reality. Scientists dub the developmental stages of childhood as phases of equilibrium and disequilibrium. This means that over a span of their first 11 years, your child will have an average of eight phases of disequilibrium. That’s right, you can look forward to months of strange and inexplicable mood changes until the age of 11. This is normal due to cognitive and emotional development and the fact that these rarely form at the same tempo. Of course, we also know what happens after the childhood phase… which is the stage parents dread most – adolescence. And our perception of our children’s purported immigration stress may have us wrongly label their behaviour as overly anxious, depressed or rebellious when they are, in fact, just being human.

Personal/internal adversity

Moving abroad takes a toll on your psychological and physiological well being. On a personal level, you’ll have to find ways to deal with your stress, grief, loss and the exhaustion related to the actual move.

During times of personal turmoil, psychologists advise that we “partition” our thoughts, tasks and goals in order to make them more tolerable and easier to tackle. If you’re struggling to cope, the first thing you need to do is list your long term, medium and short term goals. Ask yourself which ones are realistic and achievable and then determine which ones are most important. Break those goals up in little tasks you can do systematically. Check off the tasks you have done and reward yourself along the way. Make sure to diarise time for meditation, TLC, exercise and eating. It may sound silly, but we tend to neglect our bodies when we’re in a state of stress, and we often form bad eating habits, sleeping habits or other unhealthy lifestyle habits which could become a big problem in the long run.

Also remember to find your quiet place – your sanctuary for recovering. It’s different things for each of us. Some of us literally need to escape to the bush to find a cave and get away from humanity, others escape into books, others do crafts or physical labour, while others still attend social events or listen to music. You alone will know which coping mechanisms work best. And, with a new life now in full swing, you may even need to develop new coping mechanisms. In fact, it’s better to pre-empt your emotional upsets by willfully developing healthy coping mechanisms or your mind and body may force you to reach for not-so-healthy alternatives. The best time to plan for depression and stress, is while you’re happy and calm.

Workplace adversity

No matter how dynamic or resilient you are, fitting into your new job from day one is not a given. In fact, it tends to be one of the most stressful things for expats. Of course, very few of us find positions where we every truly fit in 100%, but you should not be miserable. The best advice, of course, is to not be in this situation in the first place – according to Boston, Forbes, Interview Success Formula and Inner Med Formula, there are some warning signs to look out for to identify a toxic workplace, including:

  • an emphasis on progressive discipline, conduct and other restrictive policies
  • a clear lack of trust, micromanagement, invasive behaviour, suspicious interrogation, monitoring and surveillance
  • a defined sense of hierarchy and authority
  • low salaries, increases and bonuses
  • an unhealthy, unattractive or hazardous office environment
  • a history of disgruntled employees and a high turnover rate
  • an non-existent turnover rate
  • nepotism, cronyism or intentional divisiveness or grouping of people
  • incompatible work, organisational or communication styles
  • frequent reshuffling, restructuring and/or inexplicable changes within the upper management levels
  • poor or no communication and feedback and/or avoidance or tardy responses
  • a lack of resources, tools or training
  • a lack of vacation time, casual days or leave
  • inexplicable payroll deductions or employment perks deducted from employee salaries
  • unclear, inconsistent or confusing guidelines and methodologies
  • frequent fault-finding, criticism or rejection
  • a hushed, anxious and sterile work atmosphere
  • no individual dress sense, style, work ethic, office space and methodologies
  • lack of autonomy, responsibility and decision-making
  • promises which aren’t kept or projects and goals which carry on indefinitely without resolution

Okay, so that’s a long list of things you’ll encounter at many companies. It’s not always possible just to pack up your box of stationery and leave – so you should teach yourself some skills to deal with the adversity instead. The tips below will help you cope with workplace stress:

  • Remain confident: if you begin to doubt yourself or are systematically made to believe your work or worth is of low quality, you’ll probably start perpetuating the behaviours you’re accused of. Take a realistic look at the criticism you receive and work on the things within your power.
  • Don’t stoop: Michelle Obama said it best during the run-up to the election – “when they go low, we go high”. If people are mistreating you, manipulating you or diminishing you, the problem certainly doesn’t lie with you. And although we like to revel in our self-pity and enact revenge, this will not make your life less stressful. Take the high road and don’t mirror bad behaviour.
  • Focus on your thought process: we each have certain ways in which we respond to events or circumstances. If you are anxious, angry or distraught, however, it means your body is already responding physiologically to your thoughts. Bad things do happen. You will find yourself in uncomfortable situations. But before you overanalyze, overthink and overburden yourself – return to your original thoughts before you felt these emotions and gauge whether those thoughts are truly realistic. Ask yourself how much of the situation is really in your control, how much of the future you can really foresee and tone down the ideas which fuel your emotional responses.
  • Try harder from your side: this may not always work, and it is also something we often don’t want to do, but sometimes it just may solve the problem if you give a little more effort from your side. Of course, this may not always work, but unless you give your best effort, you will always feel complicit in the creation of a toxic work environment.
  • Find alternatives: if you’re resilient, you may have the staying power to persist through a tough job or cope with stressful work environments, but this will not continue indefinitely. You need to respect yourself enough to move on when the situation becomes beyond bearable. It may not be easy finding a new job in a new country, but if you focus on that confidence, you can probably do anything you put your mind to.
  • Remain open and honest: it may be really difficult to be open and vulnerable while you feel out of sorts or don’t trust people, but it’s essential if you want to play a good game. This doesn’t mean you need to overshare. Being open and transparent will simply make it harder to keep your side clean and show others that you are willing to take some risk for the sake of honest communication.

Spatial adversity

Truly, what we’re referring to here is the phenomena of geographical displacement. Not many people realise what a big shock it is to find yourself in a place where everything is unfamiliar. You can no longer just take to the streets and find your way. The climate is different. The weather is different. The air pressure, seasons, oxygen supply, endemic species, types of architecture, geology and botany is simply alien.

In fact, some of the sensations or manifestations we may perceive as emotional responses to relocation can actually be somatic acclimatisation to the new atmosphere.

The new environment could affect your sleeping patterns based on the altitude, noise levels and also the angle and hours of daylight and sunlight. The environment can affect your hormones. The quality of water, food sources and climate can affect your skin and overall health. The ecosystems and endemic species of the region could affect your immune system. In fact, there are so many ways the change in location can affect you it would almost be impossible to pinpoint a single culprit responsible for a symptom or sensation.

Simply be aware of the differences between your old and new environment and try to compensate by making a slow transition. If the sun sets muchs later or earlier, simply try to move your normal bedtime little by little so your body becomes used to it and fool it through the use of darkness or light. If there are changes in the quality or types of food, research which local equivalents will give your body the same types and quantities of nutrients. Take extra care to safeguard your skin against the new environment. Also, be aware that you won’t necessarily be able to dress the same as locals, have as much energy as locals or experience the weather and climatic events the same as others. Don’t push yourself too hard to try and be “normal” and understand the physiological changes and somatic sensations will dissipate over time.

Good luck with your transition!

“Things get bad for all of us, almost continually, and what we do under the constant stress reveals who/what we are.”
― Charles Bukowski, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire

We hope your transition into your new life will be swift, rewarding and as relatively hassle-free. Trust that you’ll make it through the hard times and that your immigration dream is one filled with magic, growth and success.

If you need someone to manage your finances while you take care of the rest, just give us a call and we’ll get back to you. We have years’ experience in helping South African expats move their financial assets across borders.
[contact-form-7 id=”6581″ title=”Blog post (call me)”]

Leave a Reply