Before you jump ship from SA, here’s how to prep for living in a foreign country

Here are seven tips to help you adjust to a new environment

22 May 2024 - 13:30 By THANGO NTWASA (COMPILED)
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Experts warn that trying to quickly adjust to a new environment might make things more difficult.
Experts warn that trying to quickly adjust to a new environment might make things more difficult.
Image: 123RF/Instinia

While it may be fun to imagine a great escape to a new country while unsavoury issues intensify Mzansi-side, many expats planning or already exploring greener pastures underestimate the stress linked with living abroad, specially when they have to adapt to new circumstances that can put their mental health under severe stress.

According to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, the total stress score of a typical international move, considering factors such as a change in living conditions, social activities and habits, is a staggering 249 (for context, divorce is 76). A score this high indicates an expat has a 50% chance of a stress-related disorder within two years of moving if not managed correctly.

Sia Marinich, certified cognitive behavioural therapy specialist and co-founder of CenterMe, a US-based women’s mental health start-up, and Kate Protsenko, head of tutors at Promova and Celta/Delta trainer, share their thoughts.

1. DON'T FORGET YOUR HOME LANGUAGE

Many people believe the easiest and fastest way to learn a new language in a new country necessitates abandoning their native tongue. Eliminating your native language from daily life while living abroad can result in anxiety and uncertainty about your personality.

Humans are deeply connected to their first language. It gives us a sense of security and calmness. That’s why immigrants and expats shouldn’t drop their native language entirely. Reasonable use of your native tongue won’t interfere with your progress when learning a foreign language. When you’re living in a new country, you should stay in touch with your friends and family. Your native language is the most valuable tool for doing so.

2. LEARN A LOCAL LANGUAGE GRADUALLY

People who move to a country that speaks a language they don’t know often feel like they need to immediately know every word in the new language to be able to communicate. That sense of urgency makes it feel like there isn’t time to work out a learning plan and determine what constitutes absolutely necessary vocabulary and grammar.

The trick to expressing yourself in a new language without becoming overwhelmed is to start with what you need. These are the words and phrases required for daily situations such as grocery shopping, using public transportation and asking for help. It’s better to learn the language out of necessity by first memorising and using vital words and phrasing and then gradually move on from there.

3. RESPECT YOUR OWN PACE

As an expat, you probably know many people in different stages of emigration, but it is important to remember everyone adapts to a new environment at a different pace. If this is something you struggle with, try not to put too much pressure on yourself and avoid comparing yourself with others.

Remind yourself that you have your own pace and make the best of what you can do. If you can’t kick the comparison habit, focus more on your achievements and successes than on what you need to improve.

3. STAY CONNECTED

It’s important to continue socialising with people, relatives and friends in your home country as long as they’re not toxic. Regular communication can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are detrimental to mental health. Take time to make new friends and acquaintances to enrich your life. 

4. POSITIVE MINDSET

According to a study by the American Psychological Association, immigrants often report significant personal growth and an increased appreciation for their adopted country over time. It has also been found immigrants are often more resilient and adaptable than non-immigrants. These qualities can help overcome the challenges of residing in a new country and improve mental health.

Cognitive behavioural therapists recommend keeping a diary of thoughts and emotions. This helps you identify the thoughts that negatively affect your mood so you can learn to notice them and replace them with more positive and helpful thoughts. Writing in a gratitude journal can also help you feel happier and more resilient in the face of adversity.

5. ADOPT HEALTHY HABITS

Choose fun habits that you can stick with as they will help you handle stress and maintain a happy mood. Try to exercise for 30 minutes on most days. Eat a balanced diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins to help your brain work its best. Also make sure to get enough sleep.

6. PRACTISE MINDFULNESS

Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment without judgment. It’s crucial to let your mind rest in an observational mode free from criticism or evaluation for a respite from the stress and pressure many immigrants experience. If you find it challenging to work, focus on or remember things and feel anxious nearly every day, it might help to learn mindfulness exercises:

  • Mindful breathing: Take a few minutes to focus on your breath. Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling your abdomen rise, and exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat this several times, paying attention to the sensations of each breath.
  • Body scan meditation: Lie down or sit comfortably and bring awareness to different parts of your body, starting from your toes and moving up to your head. Notice any sensations without judgment or the need to change anything.
  • Mindful walking: Take a slow walk outdoors, paying attention to each step. Feel the ground beneath your feet, notice the movement of your body and observe the sights and sounds around you.

7. PROFESSIONAL HELP

Remember, you don’t have to face all of these challenges alone. If you find yourself struggling with persistent feelings of stress, anxiety or depression, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a common and helpful method for dealing with negative thoughts and learning how to handle them. A psychotherapist can provide personalised guidance and support based on your specific concerns and help you deal with the emotional difficulties of emigration.


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