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Separation Anxiety: Dealing With A Common Expat Problem

separation anxiety

It’s normal for expatriates to feel homesick from time to time. But what happens when longing for familiar faces and places becomes the worry and distress of separation anxiety? An increasing number of expats struggle with the condition that detracts from the experience of living and working abroad. Thankfully, there are ways to deal with it.

For many people, their experience of separation anxiety is limited to their first few days of day-care or school when they were toddlers or children. However, the condition is not limited to the very young. As expats around the world can attest, it can happen to adults too.

Separation anxiety is one of several mental health issues that can affect people who live and work outside of their home country. It’s not the most prevalent issue (depression takes that dubious honor), but it is widespread. If left untreated, it can contribute to the development of other anxiety or panic-related disorders.

Delve into separation anxiety and learn about the symptoms, risk factors, and various ways in which to prevent or treat it below.

Expats and Mental Health

While there aren’t up-to-the-minute statistics available for mental health issues among expats, a couple of surveys carried out a few years ago provide insights into the topic. An Aetna International analysis of expat mental health carried about between 2014 and 2016 found a 28% increase in prevalence of anxiety.

Speaking about the findings, the insurer’s medical director Dr. Mitesh Patel said that the absence of a support network of family and friends was one of the reasons expats are susceptible to mental health issues.

The Mental Health Status of Expatriate Versus US Domestic Workers study revealed that twice as many expats as US-based workers felt anxious or nervous. Three times as many expats as US-based workers felt depressed or trapped.

Risk Factors For Separation Anxiety

You might think that separation anxiety develops only when separated from friends and family. While that is the singular most important trigger, there are other risk factors that can increase expats’ chances of developing the condition.

Among those factors are:

  • Temperaments that are more susceptible to anxiety disorders
  • Environmental issues such as a disaster that leads to physical separation from loved ones
  • Inherited genetic traits that may make people more prone to anxiety disorders
  • Stresses such as moving away, parents getting divorced, illness, or the death of someone you love

Separation Anxiety Symptoms

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are several common symptoms of separation anxiety. Among them are:

  • Feeling disproportionately distressed about separation from loved ones and the home environment
  • Recurring nightmares with themes of separation
  • Constantly worrying that something bad will happen to loved ones
  • Constantly worrying that you will lose a loved one to disaster or illness
  • Fearing being home alone

In most cases, separation anxiety doesn’t go away unless it’s treated. If you have the condition and you don’t take steps to treat it, it could contribute to conditions such as panic disorder.

Tips For Managing Separation Anxiety

The following tips may help you deal with separation anxiety. Besides implementing them, speak to a doctor about the condition.

  • Start and keep a journal: Daily journaling can help you express your feelings privately. The mere act of writing down what you feel may help alleviate the distress or worry.
  • Acknowledge your heightened emotions: Your inner emotional gauge becomes hypersensitive when you experience separation anxiety. Acknowledge that you may be overly sensitive if you start feeling forgotten, neglected, or rejected.
  • Refocus on future positives: When you start focusing on being far from loved ones and feeling lonely, take a moment to reframe your thoughts in a positive way. Remind yourself that, sooner or later, you will see your friends and family face to face again. If you have a return date, even if it’s for a short visit, start planning a few things that you and your loved ones can do together.
  • Don’t keep asking friends and family for reassurance: You might want to reach out to loved ones and ask them for reassurance every time you experience separation anxiety. They might give you a response that might lead to you feeling rejected, even though they don’t mean it that way. Such a response could increase your anxiety levels. Instead of picking up your phone and texting them, write about your feelings in your journal.
  • Find something to do: You may find that you start to experience separation anxiety at times when you are not busy, or doing something passive, such as watching TV. Find things to keep you busy. Take up a new hobby, spend time with friends in your new location, play a mentally stimulating game, or read a book by one of your favorite writers.

If the above suggestions don’t help, or you want additional support in dealing with separation anxiety, speak to a doctor or therapist. They may suggest treatment such as:

  • Group therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Medication

Separation anxiety is unpleasant for expats. But it’s not a permanent condition. Take steps to overcome it and live a healthy, happy lifestyle. Doing so is possible.