Expat funk is a relatively new concept for me. It is a particular English language expression, and I suspect colleagues use it to make it more relatable to a broader audience.
In psychology, we call it adaptive mood reaction, reactive sadness or fatigue—even dysthymia. Whatever you call it, it is something to be aware of.
Expats are vulnerable to funk, depression and anxiety
Expats continuously deal with adaptation stress, which demands many mental and emotional resources.
Sometimes, these demands are engaging, exciting, and motivating.
Yet, this is quite often a source of insecurity, frustration and sadness.
“I’m not going to adjust to this country.”
“My partner is going to leave me because he/she will not overcome the adaptation process.”
“I’ll never find a job” or
“I’ll be alone forever because I can’t find any friends/ partner in my host country,”
are the daily bread of people living abroad.
Expats show signs of anxiety, burnout and depression 2.5 times more frequently than not expats. I’ve seen different studies, and all point to the same: expats are vulnerable and exposed to anxiety and depression for various reasons.
Depression, funk or anxiety can be exacerbated because expats:
demand a lot of themselves
tend not to show what’s going on to the ones they love
feel ashamed of not enjoying the expat life as they are “suppose” to
lack a strong support network
see how their relationship suffers
struggle with learning a new language.
What is Expat Funk?
Expat Funk can be experienced in different forms and situations:
Apathy, self-isolation, excessively worried about the future, fatigue, trouble sleeping, uprooting (not belonging).
It is triggered by specific events involving expat life: moving abroad, culture shock, adaptation struggles, loneliness, relationship problems.
One of the primary triggers of expat “funkiness” is the sensation of starting all over again that involves feelings of incompetence and stagnation.
Tasks as easy as going to the supermarket feel like climbing mount Everest and opening the door of our house can represent fear.
We must not forget the effects of weather, food, even water changes, affecting our physical reactions (for example, hormone regulation).
What is Expat Depression?
Depression is generalized in almost all aspects of our life. If we experience expat funk, we can still enjoy some part of our life, feel motivated in some areas and don’t feel drastic physical signs like significant weight changes (gain or loss) or obsessive negative thoughts.
This is the DSM V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) Diagnostic Criteria:
- Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
- Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
- Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
- A slowing down of thought and a reduction of physical movement (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down).
- Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.
- Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.
I want to stress that depression is not (as most people believe) only expressed with sadness. It can be irritability, anxiety and even intense physical and chronic pain (stomach, back, neck, for example).
Expat Funk vs. Expat Depression – When is what?
The main differences between the two concepts are the duration and severity. The DSM-V considers a diagnosis of depression when symptoms manifest consistently over two weeks and nearly every day.
In depression, people have difficulties anticipating happiness and pleasure; meanwhile, those experiencing reactive sadness or expat funk can still think happily about the past or contemplate the future with excitement.
In expat funk, sadness or unpleasant emotions relate to specific thoughts or situations triggering that discomfort.
In depression, this discomfort is unspecific to a thought or situation and is more related to internalized criticism or self-loathing.
As discussed before, a clear indicator of clinical depression is the time, prevalence, and how generalized it is. Also, chronic pain and suicidal thoughts are precise indicators.
I want to address the readers who know someone who might be dealing with expat funk or depression: the worse thing we can do is get someone of this state by minimizing it or resting its importance.
Saying “you have to snap out of it” or “you have a wonderful life, why are you complaining” might be well-intended, but it can backfire and turn into feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness.
How to deal with Expat Funk and Expat Depression
1.- Accept that you might need help.
Acknowledging the need for support and seeking help are the first steps to address the problem and manage it, whatever it is.
2.- Share how you feel with the ones you love; journal if you are not ready to verbalize it.
Find help from someone who went through what you are experiencing, and it’s trained to help you, like an expat psychologist.
3.- Surround yourself or actively engage with positive, supportive people and leave much space for joyful activities throughout the day.
4.- Take 10 minutes and mindfully write (pen and paper if you can) three things you are grateful for on that particular day.
It can be anything that brings a “thank you to your lips”: an object, a person, an experience. This practice will induce the release of dopamine, and you’ll feel calmer and rewarded. Also, it will help you sleep!
5.- Practice healthy habits.
Balanced food, exercise, enough sleep and rest, leisure time. Sunlight and fresh air!
6.- Performing acts of kindness.
Towards others – loved ones and strangers- we release oxytocin, also called “the love hormone,” and serotonin – a mood regulator-. That gives us a boost of energy and makes us feel good. This great sensation is also known as “helpers-high”… great name, right?
I had the privilege of talking with Annalee from The Brain Basement Podcast, which she hosts with Angi Solley.
This is a powerful episode for all of you living abroad and experiencing these uncomfortable emotions. You’ll appreciate Annalee’s struggles with depression and my advice on differentiating and dealing with funk and depression.
A final message for my fellow expats.
You are not alone, and you don’t have to go through this alone. Depression is very serious, and it may seem that you can’t see through it, but you can. There are professionals specially trained to help you.
People living abroad that have experienced expat funk or depression can manage to have fulfilling, healthy, exciting lives—they need to take extra good care of their mental health.
Talk about it, with a professional, with your community.
If you are experiencing one or more red flags described in this article, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Do you want to know more about on how to overcome Limiting Beliefs of life abroad? Check my Workshop here
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By your side,
Gabriela Encina is an online psychologist specialized in expat women and supports them with the guidance and tools they need to feel confident, make the best decisions for their lives, build and maintain meaningful relationships and prioritize their well-being.
Her approach is practical, solution-oriented and focused on the present.
Gabriela offers counseling to expat women in Spanish, English and German.