Mar 13

Everybody knows at least one: unhappy expats. Well, some of us might just have to look at ourselves…

Frequent complaints about ‘the Thais’ and the annoyances of daily life in Thailand, ranting about other expats, worrying about sickness, feeling isolated, bored or easily upset: all of these symptoms are quite typical amongst people who are experiencing culture stress.

In the late 1960’s, American anthropologist Kalervo Oberg described stages of what he called culture shock: the honeymoon stage (idealizing the host country and being excited about moving there), crisis stage (emotional stress and rising frustration, often along with physical illness caused by turning overweight, a reduced immunity system and congestive problems), recovery stage (getting familiar with the host country, learning the language, understanding cultural differences) and adjustment stage (integrating cultural differences and adapting to the host country).

Some people have difficulties reaching the recovery and adjustment stages, or repeatedly fall back to phases of serious cultural stress, even after having spent months and years in the host culture. They are dealing with what experts call the ‘expat syndrome’. Often, the reason is a lack of resiliency and/or communication skills, a lack of information about how to deal with cultural stress, and some expats simply can’t accept that certain aspects of the different culture will probably never change. Unfortunately, this means that they have to experience constant emotional stress, putting a serious strain on their bodies that will sooner or later cause physical illness. Psychologists have also found that many symptoms of culture stress are very similar to symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder.

Of course, counseling can help ‘boost’ the cultural adaptation process.Expat clubs are a very valuable resource of experience, just as many books that deal with cultural differences make it easier to understand why many of us feel as we do and how to improve our situation. Treat yourself well and use these resources if you can manage it, because after all, each of us initially came here to live a happier life, didn’t we?

(This short article is part of a weekly series dealing with psychological expat problems and general mental health issues and was published in various newspapers and magazines in Thailand, 2011)

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