Healthcare Services

The struggle: tackling addiction as an expat

Living the expat life often involves booze-filled socializing with friends and colleagues, which can be especially challenging for anyone who struggles with addiction. Learn why some expats are tempted by alcohol and how cultural differences can make it difficult to find help.


By Expatica

Updated 9-1-2024

Living abroad can be an incredibly rewarding experience. From exploring new cultures to meeting people from around the world, every day can feel like its own adventure. But the expat life also brings its own unique challenges. The combination of culture shock, the emotional upheaval of relocating, and the need to grow a new social circle can often see alcohol and drugs play a greater role in the lives of expats. For some people, this can quickly develop into a full-blown addiction. And without an established support network of friends and family in your new home, dealing with this addiction can bring about its own difficulties. To help out, here’s our guide on how to deal with addiction as an expat.

Admit you have an addiction problem

The first step in overcoming an addiction is admitting you have a problem in the first place. This is often the most difficult step. For starters, it might not be obvious that you even have a problem at first. In some cultures, heavy drinking might be more culturally acceptable than you’re used to. For example, in Japan and South Korea, it’s common for colleagues to go out drinking after work. In cities like Hong Kong and Bangkok, the expat community has established a “work hard, play hard” approach to life. This can mean going out drinking five or six times a week is simply seen as the norm, and nothing out of the ordinary.

Expat friends drinking

But that doesn’t mean you should simply brush off any concerns as a product of the expat lifestyle. And just because your new friends or colleagues don’t seem to have a problem drinking every night doesn’t mean they don’t have a problem — or that you should follow suit. Addiction is a personal issue; it’s important to assess your own relationship to drink to see whether you have a problem. Does alcohol make you miss work or other life commitments? Are you using drink as a way to relieve stress? Does the idea of going without alcohol make you anxious? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might have a problem.

Find new ways of socializing

Moving abroad means leaving your friends and loved ones behind and building a whole new network of friends and acquaintances. If you research how to meet other expats in your new home, you’ll likely be told to pay a visit to the local expat bar. A surprising number of cities have these foreigner-friendly bars; they can be an excellent way to socialize with other expats. You’ll be able to build friendships in a welcoming environment over a game of pool, a plate of wings, or a bottle of beer. But as great as these bars are, they’re not the best option if you’re looking to lay off the booze.

Struggling alcoholic

If you’re used to heading to the bar every evening, it might seem alien to do anything else to make new friends. But changing the way you socialize can help tackle your dependency on drinks — and you’d be surprised at the other options available. From expat-friendly sports clubs to dance class meet-ups, there are plenty of ways to meet other foreigners without getting drunk first. Taking up a sport to keep fit can also be a great way to distract yourself from alcohol. This gives you another outlet for your time and attention. Check social networking sites online and discover a whole world of alcohol-free activities in your new home.

Speak to friends and family

When moving abroad, it can seem like you’ve simply packed your old life away in a box when you leave your home country. It’s often this sense of emotional upheaval and detachment that can lead to a dependence on alcohol. But these days, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with your loved ones back home. With instant messenger apps like WhatsApp and iMessage, friends and family are available at your fingertips 24/7. There are also plenty of video chat options — such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and WhatsApp — if you prefer talking face to face. When coming to terms with addiction, it’s essential you take advantage of this technology to access emotional support from home.

For some, the idea of opening up to friends and family about something as sensitive as addiction is off-putting. For starters, you might find that people back home simply don’t understand the unique pressures of life as an expat. Perhaps they don’t understand the ‘work hard, play hard’ approach to life in your new home or your workplace’s drinking culture. If this is the case, you may prefer to reach out to new friends and colleagues instead. You might not have known them for as long, but these friendships are often strengthened by the shared expat experience. They will usually understand the pressures you’re facing and may even have been living with similar issues.

Seek help for your addiction

Addiction is a complex mental disease, and it’s essential you treat it as such. Although it’s important to identify your problem and make changes to your lifestyle, at some point you may wish to seek professional help. Finding help for addiction can be challenging in your home country, but knowing how to deal with addiction as an expat can be downright daunting. Don’t let that put you off. Finding professional help can significantly boost your chances of beating your addiction; don’t allow language barriers or lack of local knowledge stop you from finding the help you need.

Addiction support group

Thankfully, when looking for help as an expat you have plenty of options. Many healthcare providers (both private and public) offer help for those suffering from addictions. For example, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) provides free group counseling for those people suffering from alcohol addiction. Many countries also have expat-friendly helplines you can call. These can provide you with information on where you can access help to tackle your addiction. This could include details on local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or listings of rehab centers.

Consider moving cities

Tackling an addiction is challenging at the best of times. However, an expat lifestyle can make that challenge even harder. For example, in expat-friendly locations like Hong Kong and Bangkok you may find it difficult to change your habits. In these cities, the ‘work hard, play hard’ culture established within the expat community can make it hard to avoid going to the bar after work, or sinking another beer outside the neighborhood convenience store. In other cities, it might be difficult to find the right professional help, due to the language barrier or lack of provision. If this is the case, why not consider relocating?

Moving to a quieter city could help remove a lot of the temptation from your everyday life, allowing you to focus on other pursuits. But be aware that simply moving cities or countries is not the answer in itself. It could be that you quickly fall into the same damaging habits due to the lack of a social circle. So, think carefully before deciding to relocate. And if you do move, make a promise to yourself to seek the professional help you need and address the necessary lifestyle changes to make it a success. But if you’re wary of further upheaval, stay put; look to make changes in your life that can help you tackle your addiction.