4 Tips for Maintaining your Sanity as an Expat

Living abroad can easily be an immensely thrilling experience; however, it can be equally frustrating at times, making it difficult to maintain your sanity.
Regardless of the drastic highs and lows I experience living in China, I can honestly say that I’m extremely lucky to live in Shanghai, a city with a phenomenal expat community. In a moment, this community can remind me why I am choosing this lifestyle at this point in time. It’s all the other moments that are a struggle. Over the past year, I’ve developed (and am still developing) habits to help me maintain my sanity in this world of extremes I’ve subjected myself to.
If I’ve learned anything about what it takes for me to remain mentally stable here, it’s these four things: putting myself first, being overly productive, actively discovering new health habits, and getting involved in the community outside of work.
1. Being your first priority: For some people, this just comes naturally. For others, it’s not quite that easy, myself included. This year specifically, I’m learning how to care for myself. It’s wonderful to want to help people and do everything you can to make others happier, but it’s not okay when the cost becomes your sanity. Cut out the toxic things in your life, or at least regulate them so they don’t consume you. Figuring out how to put myself first has not been the easiest thing, but I’ve definitely noticed a difference in my mental health since I’ve begun trying. I’ve also started meditating to help me let go of the things that aren’t worthy of being a stressor and allow myself time to relax. Trust me, you can find time for yourself. Even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, you owe it to your body and mind to set this time aside.
2. Making good use of your time: If you’re an expat that has a tendency to ask yourself why you are where you are, then you need to find ways to be productive and make yourself feel like you’re spending your time doing something worthwhile. I constantly go back and forth with my feelings of living where I am and what my future plans are, focusing only on the big picture. Worrying about the future will not help me in the now. I’m guaranteed to be here for an entire year, so it’s important that I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time until the next big thing comes along. Identify your priorities and your why and then fill your time with things that serve your purpose.
3. Forming new health habits: In general, your idea of being healthy will remain the same, but the means of achieving good health may change based on your environment. Adapting to a new way of life isn’t always easy. Finding clean, healthy vegetables may be difficult or overly expensive. Going to a gym may be less convenient than ever before. Discovering this may be incredibly discouraging, but you mustn’t let it deter you from continuing to live a healthy life. You just have to redefine how you achieve it. Find out what options you have available and choose what works best for you. I personally have invested in a mask that I can run in on high pollution days, and try to exercise with videos at home. I’m constantly participating in Fitbit challenges with friends from all over the world. One of my good friends in China, Rachael, is going to start leading a couple of us in a weekly yoga session. There are plenty of options out there. Don’t give up on discovering a new angle. I will say that planning out meals is still a struggle for me and I often resort to ordering unhealthy food or just eating loads of pasta. If you know any ways to make maintaining a healthy diet in Shanghai easier, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
4. Exploring the wonderful local events and groups: I can have the worst “China week” possible and question everything, but going to watch an improv show on Saturday can completely reset my views on being here. I go from questioning what I’m doing here to being in awe of the amazing community I live in. It really helps me to appreciate the life I have here. There’s something about being around a group of open-minded individuals from all over the world that reminds me why I live abroad. Interacting with the expat community outside of work makes me proud to be a part of it. For me personally, watching improv groups in Shanghai does this for me. For you, it may be something different. The point is, find that extra something that brings you happiness and grows your network a bit. It’s easy to talk (or even complain/worry) about work when you’re always with your coworkers. Expand your group of friends and find something new to show you just how awesome your current home is.
When I really think about the things that help me get through the tough times and random daily struggles of life as an expat, it’s these. All of these things could easily be applied to life anywhere, but being a million miles away from home may cause you to question your decisions a little more frequently. These help me to relax my mind, prioritize my life, stay healthy, enjoy myself, and overall just stay sane.

What activities do you do regularly to keep your life in check? If you’re an expat, what gets you through the toughest days?

4 Responses to 4 Tips for Maintaining your Sanity as an Expat

  1. Agree with you on all of these, and you've made some pretty good points. The one that's really getting to me lately is not having any non-teacher friends off-campus.

  2. Tara says:

    Thanks! And I completely understand. It's not as easy as it seems like it should be. You're always welcome to join Rachael and I for improv whenever you want!

  3. Well said! All of these are important and things that I'm still working on, even going on my third year as an expat. Love you!

  4. Rachel says:

    Living with purpose–filling time with good relationships and practices and work worth doing definitely makes life abroad a very good thing.