May 03

Fraud, debt, murder, suicide, love, grief, depression, psychosomatic illness, destitution, drug addiction, lack of job prospects, discord within the family, delinquency in the home, … these are just some of the reasons (or consequences) Expats face when there seems to be no way to return back home. A look at the newspaper is enough, many of the expat-related press reports basically describe people who see no escape from the tension of problems here in Asia on one hand and no option for a new start back home on the other.

Although emigration feels great at first and eliminates many of the pre-existing problems, frustrations or feelings of being ‘stuck’ – sooner or later, entirely new and unexpected problems or old burdens come back one way or another. Not only is there a cultural change to deal with that was often taken lightly when leaving, but we also take our ‘backpack of mental problems’ into the new country with us. Our ‘quirks’, weaknesses, interests and vulnerabilities are superimposed by the emotional high of migration, but gradually, most people increasingly find themselves dealing with the same old problems and difficulties again.

A man who suffered from depression in the States, will most likely also have to face it in Thailand at some point. Someone with a tendency to be aggressive can’t automatically leave it behind just by crossing the border, just as it is unlikely that someone who had difficulties in the West  finding a life partner will find the perfect ‘dream woman’ in a bar. Often, the unpleasant awakening occurs months or even years later – often at a time when a return to the old home seems harder than ever, due to financial reasons, or because relationships have ended, or because a return would raise even more problems than they already face. The result is a feeling of being running around, stuck in a dead end street from which it is difficult to escape.

Many expats facing such feelings try to drown them in alcohol or drugs, entertain themselves with superficialities, or their daily life increasingly turns into a interplay between periods of aggression and frustration.

Expat clubs, social services, or in emergency cases, the embassy can provide important support. Anyone who wants to improve his or her situation and achieve a sustainable change by clarifying the reasons for the difficulties and achieving a better quality of life might find surprising new perspectives while seeking professional support like coaching for a couple of months.

(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)

May 03

When blood pressure rises, neck veins swell – and the rational mind is suspended. Aggression ‘beams’ us back to an early stage of our development … but once the adrenaline rush is gone, we often feel repentance over the damage we’ve done in our rush of emotions (be verbally or physically).

There are basically two categories of aggression: Affective Aggression (revenge, hostility, the tendency toward impulsive and uncontrolled behavior) and Instrumental Aggression (hunting, goal-oriented, deliberate behavior,). Empirical studies show that most people who have a tendency to Affective Aggression also have a lower IQ than those who do not.

Aggression is not synonymous for violence – but it can trigger violence. And there are cultural differences in the ways aggression is expressed. Studies have shown that people from the Southern states of America turn to physical violence more often than those in the Northern states than the Japanese, which prefer verbal conflict resolution. The same applies to people living in Northern and Southern countries of Europe. The murder rate is higher in these regions as well, and there is also a link between the tendency to violence and socialization. People who grow up in families with a high potential for aggression (verbal, mental or physical abuse experiences), adjust their behavior accordingly and have a tendency to outbursts of aggression later in their lives as well.

The same applies for the social acceptance of violence, such as violence against specific ethnic groups: a dynamic that is probably responsible for the never-ending spiral of violence in the Middle East. Many people also react aggressively when they feel they are not understood or taken seriously, or when they can’t achieve their goals and hopes. From a psychological perspective, this is mostly rooted in low self-esteem.

Many relationships are burdened by inappropriate expressions of aggression. Studies show that men are more likely to express aggression physically and directly, while women do it more verbally and indirectly. Relationship criseses often lead to escalating patterns – starting with a verbal exchange of blows, and at some point one partner loses control of himself/herself and injures the other one either physically or psychologically. The more regularly such processes occur, the more difficult it may be to resolve the conflict patterns in couples therapy, which again proves that the earlier professional help is sought, the more promising the results!

(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; Image

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)