Everything you need to know about the expat blues

Published 2019-07-31 13:18

Records of expat blues date as far back as the 8th century BC, in Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem of Odyssey. Throughout his 20-year-long perilous journey, Odysseus was finding comfort in the hope that one day, he would kiss the soil of his homeland and see his family. Nowadays, expatriation is taking lighter forms — partly due to technology and ease of travelling. However, symptoms of perturbation and low spirits are characteristic among those suffering from homesickness.

Maria Iotova

I'm a freelance journalist and editor for the travel, non-profit, and news sectors. Among others, I have written for the Huffington Post, the Culture Trip, and the Financial Times. After intensively exploring my home country of Greece and the UK as a journalism graduate, I have lived in Ghana, South Korea, Mauritius, and currently in Rwanda doing what I love the most: getting out of my comfort zone.

What is expat blues

First, the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BC) described how topographical changes could influence one’s well-being. In 1688, Johannes Hofer introduced the term “nostalgia,” which derives from the Greek words nostos (return) and algos (pain), to explain a disease due to geographical displacement. During WWI and WWII, diagnosis of homesickness among American soldiers was common and treatment preposterous. 

Today, expatriation is a central part of our identity as curious and ambitious beings, and adaptability is celebrated as cultural sensitivity. Mobility — unless it’s imposed due to ferocious circumstances such as war and natural disasters — is much less associated with pain, and more related to success, prosperity, and self-growth. “Nostalgia” defines a sentimental longing for the past and “homesickness” describes the feeling of longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it. 

What forms can expat blues take 

Depending on the individual and their context (e.g. previous expat experience, age, social skills, culture of host country, etc.), expat blues can affect someone at emotional, cognitive, and somatic level. Also, often, expat blues interfere with one’s social and professional life. 

Precisely, a person that is going through expat blues may feel apathy, which is usually expressed as lack of interest and joy. The same person may be obsessed with thoughts about home and the illusion that everything about their home country is perfect, whereas the host country is terrible. Physical symptoms of expat blues include, among others, fatigue, insomnia or hypersomnia, crying, loss of appetite or overeating. 

Why do expats get the blues

Homesickness is the distress and functional impairment due to poor adjustment to the new social or/and physical environment. An unpredictable or disruptive event in the host country (e.g. robbery) may trigger expat blues. Similarly, the call to learn new routines (e.g. instead of taking the subway to work, you must now drive in traffic) can lead to homesickness. Besides, negative first impressions of the host country may result in early expat blues, disappointment, and low expectations for life in the new environment.

Expat blues are the result of missing the familiar, which can be anything from family, friends, and the landscape to food, brands, and even smells and sounds. It’s worth noting that expat blues fluctuate over days, and even within the same day. For example, it’s more likely to experience expat blues after a bad day at work, or after a friend has left the country.

How to control expat blues

The best way to minimise the frequency and intensity of expat blues during your expat life is to obtain as much information as possible about your destination in advance. Being well-prepared about what to expect is the key to reduce disappointment and set your mind to adaptability mode. Also, try not to exaggerate the fear of homesickness beforehand because preconceptions and cognitive biases will have a negative impact on decisions and judgements. 

Here are several practical tips that will help you cope with expat blues. 

  • Be curious about your host country and try to spark the explorer inside you as often as possible by organising weekend getaways, dining in new restaurants, and attending social events. 
  • Make your new space feel like home. We don’t recommend you duplicate your previous home in your host country, but we suggest that you create a comfortable and pleasant environment that makes you feel safe and relaxed. We promise the money you spent on those picture frames and flower pots is money well-spent.
  • Instead of beating yourself up for not being able to adapt one hundred percent, allow yourself to keep up with old habits such as an activity you love (e.g. yoga, hiking, painting, etc.). 
  • Invite friends or family from back home to your host country. Planning a trip with familiar people will give you something to look forward to and the opportunity to see more of your host country.  
  • Connect with the expat community and express your feelings of expat blues, as it’s very likely you will find people who go through the same process to support you. Remember, that there’s no shame in feeling down due to homesickness, and expat blues are just a small part of an overall life-changing and rewarding expat experience. 

What expats say about homesickness

Anne, a German expat in Mauritius, has established a coping mechanism to help her beat the expat blues. “I connect with others and enjoy the things I like here. This brings back positivity in life and reminds me of the pleasures rather than the negative aspects of living in a different country,” she said.

Raheema from Canada has been an expat in Rwanda for the past three years. When we asked her how well does she feel she has adapted to life in Rwanda, she replied: “It took me a year to adjust to being away from my family, and being a new mother with an eight-month-old was a struggle at first. I now have learned to love Rwanda. It’s a beautiful place, and I do enjoy my life here. I think you can ultimately be happy in any place if you are happy with yourself.” 

When feeling down, Raheema turns to the things she loves: “I cope with stress or expat blues through meditation and yoga. It helps me physically to release endorphins and mentally to release any negativity, or unnecessary thoughts. I journal a lot as well and love to paint. I find it all three ways of dealing with the blues very therapeutic.”

We asked Lynn, an American expat in Greece for over seven years what does she miss the most from her home country. She replied: “My friends. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent 15 years living in the city of San Francisco. I have a wide circle of friends, many of whom I grew up with. The first two years in Greece, I missed having people with whom I had a shared past. It took time and energy to reestablish who I was in a new place with new people. These days it is easier. I have friends in Athens I’ve known almost my whole time here, so we’re starting to build up our own shared past.”

Iva is from Bulgaria, and since 2010, Germany has been her host country. “All these years, I travel to Bulgaria twice a year because I miss my parents and friends. Sometimes I wish that I do wish I could go and discover some other places, but in that case, I would not not see my parents. It is a tough choice to make,” she admits.