Expats and emotional overwhelm: when everything just gets too much.
It’s all just TOO MUCH!
Emotional overwhelm that catches us at times regardless of where you are on your expat journey, whether this is your first move, or your 21st .
Emotional overwhelm can hit anyone, at any time, in any place, and wherever you are in your expat journey. It can also be particularly strong at the start of a new school year as you work out new routines, timetables, expectations and challenges.
- When you just curl up into a ball and hide for a while but you can’t, because suddenly you have to do the school run again. When you’ve discovered school finishes at midday on Wednesdays, yet it takes you an hour to do the school run, so what’s the point of going back home…
- When your kids are having upsets, meltdowns, tantrums at least once a day and you feel like joining them.
- When you’re frustrated that your life isn’t the Insta-perfect expat dream you expected, when you’re missing the easiness of home.
Discover what causes emotional overwhelm, how it can affect you, and most importantly, how to manage it to reclaim your brain and happiness.
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Hello and welcome to Expatability Chat. Way back in 2020, Season 1, I published a podcast episode called Overcome Overwhelm. In that episode, I talked about the overwhelm that comes with planning and preparing for your move overseas.
This time around, I want to talk about the emotional overwhelm that sometimes catches us at times, regardless of where you are on your Expat journey, whether this is your first move or your 21st. Times like many of my friends and Expateers and clients are feeling right now. Times like when you're getting it in the neck yet again by friends and family, putting guilt trips on you. When you're trying to hold down your business while working out time zone maths for each client. When you're fed up with not being able to work for whatever reason in that new country. Times like when you've not long arrived in your new home and you discover that the nearest supermarket is almost impossible to get to easily, when your mental load is too heavy and your brain wants to explode, when you have a whole new life to create while also being number one parent to your kids. Times like when you really just want to curl up into a little ball and hide for a while, but you can't because suddenly you have to do the school run again. When you've discovered school finishes at midday on Wednesdays, yet it takes you an hour to do the school run. So what's the point of going back home? When your kids start their new schools, when they're having upsets, meltdowns, tantrums, at least once a day, and you feel very much like joining in. When you're frustrated that your life isn't insta perfect and the expat dream isn't quite what you expected. When you're just missing the easiness of home.
Okay, I'm just going to go and lie down in a dark room for a while because that's bringing it all back to me. And of course, that's only a snippet of what adulting is all about, really. Life often presents us with unexpected challenges and stresses that can leave us feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Whether it's dealing with a personal crisis, work-related pressures, or the demands of daily life, finding ways to manage and overcome these overwhelming emotions is essential to our wellbeing.
Expat life is no different. In fact, as I often say, expat life is just life, but in a different country. But with this difference, of course, comes a huge new set of unexpected challenges that are just as overwhelming as they would be at home, with an extra sprinkling of super spicy, oh, my God, on top. If you have just arrived, remember how well you've done. You've actually done the hardest bit. You've coped with the whole preparation, the planning, the journey, the new home, the new country, the new house. Even if you've done expat life before, that's still a lot. But this time your kids are that bit older. Your baby may be starting kindergarten. Your baby may be starting primary school. Your baby may be starting secondary school. And yeah, your baby may be flying the nest altogether and heading to university or their own life elsewhere. Emptiness syndrome. Yes, it's getting to me.
So let's break down what is emotional overwhelm. Emotional overwhelm is the state of being caught up in too many emotions all at once. While you're most likely to become overwhelmed by negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear, guilt. You can definitely include positive emotions in there as well. Excitement, curiosity, eagerness to explore, and so on. It's the sheer number of emotions hitting us all at once that causes overwhelm. So when all these emotions bubble up in your brain, all mixed together, they quickly become overwhelming. They also become negative and affect our ability to think straight, to plan, to make effective decisions, and to move forward, and they stop you being happy. It's all just too much. The good news is this is completely normal.
Emotional overwhelm is a recognized and very real condition, which can be dealt with. More good news is that in the main, it's not a long-term mental health issue. Many of us can get through it without therapy, medication. This doesn't mean that it can be safe to be completely ignored. And if you do find it all too much, please seek professional help. And of course, I'm going to share lots of tips to help you move through this. Most expats go through emotional overwhelm, but that doesn't make it any easier when it's you. So many things happen all at once for expats, and every event has a different emotional reaction. You spend months planning, which is emotionally exhausting. You start a huge list of things to do and the things that you're going to do for the last time. For example, the last time we will go here, the last time I'll see grandma. This is upsetting. You finally take your leave of your loved ones and everything that is familiar and comforting, terrifying. And then you arrive in your new country, exciting and yes, a little bit scary. You settle into your new home, new job, new school, tiring, exhilarating, frightening, and so on. And just when you think you've got it all cracked, along comes the come down, the six months slump, isolation, perhaps, uncertainty, homesickness, expat guilt. Oh, God, I'm sorry. I'm really not trying to scare the hell out of you. It's just that all of these challenges are so normal, experienced by so many expats that they've become almost commonplace to me. I've recorded podcast episodes on most of these, I think, so do have a listen. And the thing is, I've been through all of these feelings as well, apart from the homesickness, but that's me. And I've supported so many others through the same, that it's easy for me to sound a bit glib about all this. I'm really not. It's not my intention. And I absolutely recognise that you are you and your feelings are overwhelming you. So I'll slap myself around a bit and move on to helping you.
Emotional overwhelm. Oh, yeah, that's what we're doing. You may find yourself sobbing uncontrollably at random times of the day and wondering if this move is the biggest mistake of your life. This is a natural reaction. Let me emphasise that. It is natural. This is a normal state of affairs. A natural reaction to emotional overwhelm is to start to shut down, to withdraw from everything, to withdraw from social activities, to perhaps sleep more than normal or less, depending on your personal response, and to avoid as much as you possibly can. This is emotional overwhelm, and for an expat, it's a very real problem that can impact your ability to enjoy your new adventure if you don't handle it in the right way. This hiding response, by the way, is a form of preventing more stimulation from getting into your already overloaded mind. And it's also a primal way of trying to find a new comfort zone for yourself. Sort of hibernating, I guess, because when you move to a new country, regardless of how many times you've done it before, you are still spending every second of every day way outside of your comfort zone. Everything is so new.
So please, let's acknowledge that moving to a new country, starting a new school and all sorts of things can be emotionally overwhelming. It's okay to feel anxious, scared or uncertain. Our emotions are a natural response to change. Let me share some strategies to help you find balance and resilience during this transition.
Firstly, I want to address emotional overwhelm in children because this will be impacting onto your emotional overwhelm as you try to be the best parent possible. Yeah, it's a good old vicious circle, isn't it? So emotional overwhelm in children is what's causing all of those tears, tantrums, meltdowns, sassing, answering back. That's what this is all about. Your children are experiencing their own form of emotional overwhelm, which is really the same as we're feeling. Remember that they are also going through their own challenges right now, especially if they've started school, changed school, whatever. You know. Now here's the thing. We cannot control our emotions, not because there are too many of them at the moment, but because emotion is a raw human response to any given situation. So no matter what we do, the mind experiences emotion, and we have no choice but to accept it. The trick to coping with it is to teach the body how to respond to it. For example, anger is an emotion. It's a raw feeling that is contained within your body and is a reaction to external events. Throwing a tantrum, hitting out at people, or chucking things around are not emotions. These are physical reactions to emotions. And kids haven't yet learned how to control their emotions in this way. Mind you, some adults haven't either, but let's not go there. Supporting your children while they're experiencing emotional overwhelm can be challenging. It's essential to provide them with the necessary emotional support whilst also taking care of your own wellbeing.
So here are some strategies, firstly, to help your child. Keep communication open. Encourage your child to express their feelings, their concerns, and their fears. Create a safe, non-judgmental space for them to share their life. Remember, most tantrums are caused by a child not actually having the words, the vocabulary to explain what they're feeling, what the problem is. A tantrum is basically a communication breakdown. Validate your child's emotions. I've said this lots of times before. It's very easy in the moment to just dismiss, Oh, that's nothing to be worried about. But let your child know that it's okay to feel overwhelmed, to feel anxious, to feel sad. Validate their emotions by saying things like, I understand that this is a big change, and it's normal to feel this way. Use empathy. Show empathy and understanding towards your child's situation. Actively listen to their stories and acknowledge their struggles. Sometimes, especially with older children, they don't want the problem to be fixed, as it were. They just want to download, to offload to you. Maintain routines. Stick to familiar routines as much as possible, especially in the early stages of your new life. Predictability can provide a sense of security. You're basically their rock in this rocky sea of their new life. So stick to your boundaries and provide as much stability as you can. And celebrate achievements. Make sure to acknowledge and celebrate small achievements and milestones in your child's adaptation to their new school. It shows that you're taking notice, that you're taking care, you're understanding, and it makes them feel good. Remember that adjusting to a new school in a new country is a huge undertaking for a child, and it's also a gradual process. Pretty sure I've said in a previous episode that it can take at least a full term for most children to settle properly, depending on the age and said child, of course.
Now, let me share some strategies to help you navigate emotional overwhelm, to help you find balance and peace in your expat life. Actually, these are similar to the tips I gave just now to help your children. Firstly, though, it's important to recognise that your child will take cues from your behaviour. Demonstrating resilience, adaptability, and a positive attitude can inspire them to do the same. So, no tantrums from you, please. Tears are okay, but no lying on the floor, screaming and kicking your legs. Well, not where anyone can see you anyway. Make sure to prioritise your own self-care to ensure that you've got the emotional capability to support your kids. This includes getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in activities that rejuvenate you. Even if that's simply enjoying alone time, binge watching whatever makes you content. There is no guilt attached to looking after yourself. So acknowledge your feelings. The first step in overcoming emotional overwhelm is to acknowledge and accept your feelings, your emotions. It's okay to feel stressed. It's okay to feel anxious or upset in response to a difficult situation.
Recognising and validating your emotions is an essential part of the healing process. You are not doing expat life wrong. It's really important to recognise that. You are a human. You have human emotions and feelings. It doesn't matter where you are in the world, you're still human. Yes, we use labels like expat or accompanying expat partner or mum or sister or wife. You are still a person in your own right. You are perfectly entitled to feel what you feel. Accept that you cannot control everything. Work on what you can control and events outside of your control. Just let them go. You can only control how you react and respond to things. Emotional overwhelm is a common experience, but it doesn't have to control your life. Please don't hide your feelings and don't allow yourself to feel ashamed that you are struggling. They will pass. This is an overwhelming time. Make sure to reach out for support. You don't have to navigate emotional overwhelm alone. Talk to others who have gone through similar experiences. We can provide valuable insights and emotional support. Rely on your network for emotional support and practical assistance when needed. That's what I'm here for. Hint, join the Expatability Club. Well, I've got to try, haven't I? Sharing your feelings and experiences provides emotional relief to you. It helps you gain perspective on your situation.
What's that saying? A problem shared is a problem halved. It's true. It's one of those sayings that actually does work. Set realistic expectations. Please don't try and do everything all at once. You've got plenty of time. This isn't a two-week holiday. This is your new life. Sorry, I probably made you eek. You've got plenty of time. Yes, it can be so tempting to push yourself to get everything sorted now and to hit the ground running. But please try and space it all out a bit. Understand that you need time to adjust. Be patient with yourself. And also create a supportive routine. Just like with children, a routine helps us feel grounded. It helps us feel safe. And remember that we are very much outside the comfort zone when we're living an expat life.
So a routine for you is just as comforting as it will be for your kids. Your aim is to provide stability and a sense of control in probably chaotic times. Of course, this now needs to fit around your new life, which can cause its own overwhelm, especially when school hours are radically different from what you're used to. I know this particular aspect of expat life really did get to me. I really didn't like school starting at 7:30 in the morning. It's all kinds of wrong. And I very much didn't like the half days on Wednesdays, because it really interfered with my day. I, especially when I was trying to hold down a business at the same time.
Now, I've got a lot of expert connections on my social media, so I asked for advice on how to overcome overwhelm by people who know.
Debbie Barr says, “Breathe, go outside and look up to the sky, see the bigger picture. When we are overwhelmed, we often look down. So looking up helps us see the expanse sky, and with some deep breathing or mindful breathing exercises, calm can be restored. I also suggest getting your bare feet onto a natural surface to help grind any excess energy. And often an Epsom salt bath can help. That's if you can find Epsom salts in your new country, of course. Emotional overwhelm can also be eased by talking with a trusted friend or professional rather than bottling it all up.”
Excellent advice. The look up one is something that I've used a lot.
Nicola Kemp says, “It is okay if you feel overwhelmed and none of the advice seems to work for you. Every person is different.” Yep, Nicola speaks my language. Know your triggers. Acknowledge that feeling, but don't let yourself dwell on it. Try doing things which ground you, something small. If it helps, make a list of achievable goals, small things which will make you happy to tick off your list. Even add things you do which weren't on the list so you can see how far you've already come and what you've already achieved. You don't have to justify yourself, your existence, or your feelings to anyone."
This is particularly relevant, I think, for expat guilt. Let me just repeat it again. You don't have to justify yourself, your existence, or your feelings to anyone. Most importantly, know that you are not alone and you are not the only one who feels like this from time to time, and seeking help is not a sign of weakness.
And from Emily, How to overcome emotional overwhelm in the instant. “Get some space, get some privacy, and a glass of water. Over a longer period of time, quiet companionship, understanding, space away, quiet outdoor time in the sunshine, comedy movies and ice cream on wet days. Everyone is different, but the one factor that is a constant is that the overwhelmed person is aware that they are overwhelmed and they are embarrassed about it. Privacy and reducing stimulation is key.”
So that's back to the hiding in bed wrapped up in a duvet thing. You're reducing stimulation.
I do hope that I've helped you in some small way to discover methods to overcome emotional overwhelm yourself and to find strength during these challenging times. Coping with any change is difficult. Anything that takes us out of our comfort zone is stressful. It's called the comfort zone because moving outside of it is uncomfortable. Any upheaval of any kind is hard work, not just physically, but emotionally as well. Change is hard work, and you're doing everything that is unfamiliar and uncertain.
You're doing expat life, and you're doing it fine. It's okay. Stress can affect people in different ways. Everyone's different. Some people may not feel overwhelmed at all. Others may feel everything is just too much. Once you recognise how overwhelm can affect you, you can look at ways to overcome overwhelm. Give yourself emotional support, seek help where necessary, and practice self-care. You can navigate this transition as a stronger and more resilient family.
Perhaps the move away from familiarity has made you question your sense of identity. I know this happens an awful lot with accompanying expat partners, and it's something that I'm working on. I'm quite excited about that. Perhaps you feel like you just don't belong anywhere anymore, and this is something that serial expats can really find, and third culture kids, of course, don't really have a home. But that's the topic for another episode maybe. Or perhaps you're struggling to make new friends, make new connections. It may well be early days for you. It may not be early days. In which case, just give it a shout. I can be your support network. These are all perfectly normal feelings, and accepting that you have them does not make you a failure.
And if you feel any of those by the way, you need to be in my Expatability Club. Yep, I'm going to plug it. This is exactly what the Expatability Club is for, for a support system, for a safety net, for a place where you can talk about expat life in a non-judgmental group of people who all totally understand expat life. It's definitely not just for new expats. It's to help you build success into every aspect of your expat life. Check out the show notes, drop me an email, or find me anywhere online for the details. I'm quite easy to find. There's only one of me. Just look for Carole Hallett Mobbs. I'm pretty sure there's only one of me. I'll be quite surprised if there is another.
Please take the pressure off yourself. Work out what you can control and drop the rest. It doesn't all have to be done now. Take your time. Understand that you are not alone and you are strong. You have the strength to overcome emotional overwhelm. You are awesome. You have done this. You are doing this. You can beat this. So as I say, if you need understanding and somewhere to offload where you aren't judged, then somebody to offload to who completely understands expat life, then the Expatability Club is exactly the place you need to be. Or if you'd prefer to chat with me one to one and get my expert, Expat insight and advice into your specific life challenges, book a call with me. All the links are in the show notes. Or as I say, find me anywhere and let me know how I can help you live the expat life you deserve.
I'll be back next month with another episode to help you navigate expat life's challenges. Until then, take care.
Stay strong because you are brilliant.