Moving abroad

Grounded Traveler: How to deal with being overwhelmed as an expat

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Adjusting to all the 'newness' abroad can leave any expat feeling overwhelmed. American expat Andrew Couch offers advice for coping with the expat sensory overload.

Being an expat can be an overwhelming experience. Nearly everything about your daily life changes. 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. Dealing with all of this newness stripped of your normal armor can leave an expat feeling somewhat overwhelmed. This is one of the first challenges to overcome, and from experience, here are some ideas on how to jump this hurdle. Once you do, expat life will start to look pretty grand.

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 abroad, I spent a lot of time in a few specific cafes. In the US, I used to spend evenings reading at the local bookstore, but as that doesn’t really exist in Europe so much, I sat at my selected cafes 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 can be achieved in your '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 have the energy to 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 Europe in the winter so it was dark in the evenings a lot. I definitely slept more then eight 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, instead of freaking out about all the other changes. By giving the mind something specific to work on – as well as giving yourself some kind of routine – it seems able to deal with the chaos better.

When I first moved abroad, I sought out a 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.

One of my own creations.

Avoid isolation: Seek out people to spend time around

One of the problems with 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 true even 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, and you can do two steps at once. This step is not necessarily 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, and many have become the best friends that I have met.

Get away

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 traveller 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 my partner Ali was getting overwhelmed with our move abroad. 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.

(Right image: Source of the Danube River in Donaueschingen; one of my Saturday getaways.)

Build normalcy

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 'okay-ness' around you. You expand this bubble until most of what you do on a daily basis is okay. This doesn’t mean it is not foreign or not chaotic, just that it is okay. From okay, things will not overwhelm you as much.

Last word: patience

Becoming an expat was a great experience for me. But I didn’t feel okay overnight. Patience is one of the greatest virtues for expats to learn. You will be fine, but it will take time.

Reprinted with permission from Grounded Traveler

Andrew Couch: Grounded Traveler - Expat life in GermanyAndrew Couch is an American expat living in Germany since 2007. He is a freelance web developer. Travel is the passion of he and his wife who fill their time between travelling and work with blogs like Grounded Traveler about expat life and Germany, Ctrl-Alt-Travel about the details of travel, and a resource website for travellers about carry on luggage. You can also follow him on Twitter. Thumbnail credit (CC-Licence): © Bob Embleton via


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