Beating the blues when you return from working overseas
By psychologist Angie Willcocks
What an exciting month it's been here at Mining Family Matters. It was great to attend AIMEX in Sydney and to hear about what you love and hate about the mining industry and how you cope with the challenges.
One of the issues mentioned was moving back to Australia after a stint overseas. The opportunity to live and work overseas often comes up in mining, and many families understandably jump at the chance. Most realise that the experience will have its ups and downs, but not everyone understands that one of the biggest challenges can be adjusting to life back home afterwards. It's quite common for people to experience an anticlimax on returning home. Some people even find themselves feeling sad and depressed for a few weeks or even months.
Why is this so?
The decision to move overseas, particularly with a family in tow, is not usually made lightly. Taking the family to live in another country is a big decision that requires courage, organisation and optimism. The period leading up to the move is often filled with practical tasks (such as getting the house ready to be rented out, packing up furniture and organising passports, visas and health checks) and the excitement of leaving. There are often many social events in the lead-up to leaving, and a lot of time and energy is spent on thinking and talking about the move. On a physical level, there are a lot of feel-good chemicals rushing around the body, including more than a little adrenalin.
Then there is the time spent overseas. Obviously it takes a while to adjust to living in a new country. There are new and different experiences, ups and downs, challenges and triumphs (both personal and professional). Love it or hate it, it's a time of learning, usually about yourself as much as the world. Individual strengths are revealed, as well as flaws and fears that might have stayed hidden in your home country. On the relationship side of things, some couples find their relationship strengthened away from the support (and expectations) of family and friends, but for others cracks appear or widen.
From what I've heard, almost everyone has mixed feelings about the return home. Even those who haven't enjoyed their time away are cautious about coming home, perhaps wondering if it is their own fault they didn't "make the best of it" while away. Some people are upset or shocked about different living conditions overseas and might even feel a little depressed about the state of the world. Others have such a life-changing experience that they're not sure how they can return to normality.
Coming home can be a bit of a let down, then, particularly if the overseas trip was a first. Friends and family are often doing the same old things as before, and are not always interested in stories from overseas. In fact, one Mining Family Matters reader who returned from a two-year overseas stint once told me that was so disheartened by the same faces on her train trip into work that she had to drive to the office instead!
Then there are the practicalities of getting back into life in Australia. Enrolling (or re-enrolling) kids in school, organising the house, electricity, phones, internet and cars, and unpacking can seem overwhelming and mundane. Many people say that they feel as though there's nothing much to look forward to on arrival back in Australia. This is due in part to the absence of excitement that comes with planning for, and then living overseas.
Coming home also places pressure on couples. For those whose relationship was strengthened while away, there is the question (and fear) that things will go 'back to normal' once home. The expectations and demands of family and friends need to be considered again and these couples might find themselves missing the closeness that comes from relying on each other first and foremost. Many couples resent that they don't have as much time as a family as they did overseas, and some say that they feel slightly disconnected from each other for the first few weeks home.
For those couples whose relationship didn't fare so well overseas, there is the question of what to do about it. Do they go back to 'normal', trying to pretend that the cracks didn't appear, or is it best to address the issues that were raised while they were away?
Despite all of these issues faced by couples and families on the return home, almost all say that they wouldn't swap the experience for anything. So how can you enjoy your time away AND ensure your return home isn't too upsetting?
Here are some tips:
- Realise that it is normal to experience a lull in your mood after returning home. Sometimes just being aware of what to expect helps you to cope. This is known as 'normalising'.
- Notice what you are feeling and continue to go about what needs doing. Noticing what we feel is useful, but we don't need to stay stuck in whatever the feeling is. For example, you can notice that you feel sad but still get on and make the phone calls to get the internet connected again. Feeling sad is not an excuse to avoid getting stuff done.
- Watch your thinking about the return home and your future. If you are finding it hard to imagine an exciting future, stop thinking about the future for now and just focus on each day at a time. Watch out for thoughts like "everything here is boring" or "no-one cares about my trip away". These are examples of over-generalisations that can cause or contribute to low mood.
- Change what you can about what is bothering you. The MiningFM reader who decided to drive to work so she wouldn't have to look at the same old faces on the train is a good example of this. It was depressing her, so she did something different.
- Stay connected to the people you met overseas or to the country itself. For example, sponsoring a child from the country can be a positive way to feel connected, make a difference and pay tribute to the country you spent time in.
- Re-connect with positive people who have an interest in your adventures.
- As a couple or a family, take on a new project or challenge to keep you working together as a team. Build a veggie garden, renovate your house or take on a new physical challenge.
- Don't forget your kids might have changed a lot in the time away as well. Don't push them to be friends with the same people as before if they're not keen. Offer new opportunities and challenges for them as well. Give your kids opportunities to talk and reminisce about their time away.
As always, if you are concerned about any physical or psychological symptoms in you or your family, have a chat to your GP.
To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.