Tips for Men: The Stress of Living Abroad
Expats are 2½ times more likely to struggle with mental health issues than people who work stateside. That might surprise you or make you say, “Of course!” but what are you doing to take care of yourself in this new home away from home? When is it the right time to reach out for professional support—and how would you even do that?
Men, stateside and beyond, are even less likely to reach out for help—it’s just not something we are taught to do. And when you look at the statistics showing that men are four times more likely to die by suicide we really need to start questioning why we don’t reach out.
What makes this all even more challenging is how often men’s anxiety or depression is masked. Depression in particular rarely looks like the stereotypical person who doesn’t get out of bed and is sad all the time. Vulnerability is not something we’re socialized to express very well. So how does this often come out?
It’s the unholy trinity of masculine vulnerability masks. And it’s rarely just one or the other.
Let’s take a look these three ways.
If you’ve begun noticing that you’re annoyed a lot more often than you’re used to, it may be helpful to look a little deeper at that. Particularly this is true if it’s the “little things” that seem to be bugging you. Do you find yourself struggling to concentrate on something because of a talkative co-worker? Maybe you’re hyper-aware of something that at another time you’d easily block out.
You know yourself better than anyone, but check in with someone else, too. Have they noticed you being in a particularly bad mood lately? Has there been a change since you’ve been in a new place?
Depression may be hiding underneath.
Maybe you’ve gone beyond mere feeling annoyed much of the time and you’ve had unfortunate outbursts. Maybe these have been verbal: yelling more at home or even at someone who reports to you—to say nothing of a stranger in the street walking too slow or driving too fast. Perhaps it’s even gotten more physical with a fist thrown or kicking even at inanimate objects. These are the actions that often lead to “anger management” and that could help, but only if we look at what is getting someone angry in the first place—and why so angry! Sadness, fear, and shame have a strange way of turning into aggression for many men.
This is a classic means of hiding emotions and mental health issues that we don’t want to deal with. It can be very effective for quite a while too, but like the rest, it becomes unhealthy fairly quickly. Avoidance can be physical—working 24/7 or consistently coming home late or not making time for socializing. It can be in the form of substance use—drinking alcohol excessively (not necessarily as an addiction, but enough that you’re avoiding uncomfortable feelings.) It can even be used by the Positive Thinking way of living: looking at life in a positive way is great, but only if you’re not actively editing out the challenges, the hurt, and the fears as well.
So men, is there anything here that sounds like you? Be particularly aware of any changes since you’ve moved or that have come up in the three months since being in a new place.
And you know yourself—have you always struggled with allowing yourself to feel (or show to others) your fear, your shame, your sadness?
If these feel familiar, there are some things you can do.
- Get mindful. Maybe this comes in the form of meditation if that’s something you think you’d be into. You don’t have to feel too daunted by this. Meditation can be as simple (though not easy) as sitting down and following your breath as you breathe in and following your breath as you breathe out. Do that for ten breaths and when (not if—when) other thoughts come in, just acknowledge them and go back to your breath. Do it twice a day and start to notice if there are any changes and if you can allow yourself to feel some of those vulnerable feelings without pushing them away.
- Write. I’ve been keeping some form of a journal forever and many men find this very helpful. Not to go back and read or to even learn from, but just to pour out whatever is being held in. I don’t care if you free write for ten minutes and then shred those pages, just move the stuff out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or into a Word document. I think it’s better to write with a pen or pencil, but I’m flexible.)
- Move. It’s nothing new to say that getting our heart rate up for twenty to thirty minutes a day can do wonders for us. So run, go to the gym, do jumping jacks while watching TV. Just get yourself sweaty for some portion of your day. It’s best if you do it early if you’re having trouble sleeping at night, but just make sure you do it. And speaking of sleeping….
- Get the sleep you need. Maybe that’s eight hours, maybe it’s six and a half, you’ll know when you wake up feeling rested. Sleep is one of the first things that’s disturbed when you’re managing with uncomfortable emotions. We distract ourselves all day long, but it’s when we’re in bed with the lights off that all of the avoiding comes to an end. That said, maybe your body chooses sleeping as a means of avoiding. Be wary of that and combine this tip with the journaling—get those feelings out before turning in.
And while these are all things you should be doing for you, remember that over half of expats that are experiencing mental health symptoms are doing so because of missing their social circles. How are you going about creating new ones? Are you reluctant to strike up conversations in cafes or pubs? Nervous about making friends at work? Have you gone online to sites like MeetUp to see what communities are already in your community? Or you could start one1
Don’t forget to connect with people back home. You may need to be the one to reach out because your loved ones might feel you need space to adjust. Let them know that you want to hear from them and schedule a regular time to talk/Facetime/Skype with them. Use our technology for good!
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a therapist who sees clients online throughout New York State and internationally. He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.
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