Expat Resilience


To be a resilient expat…

In my first article in MeL, I discussed the key health issues for expats. In the top 4 was Stress – Stress of global assignments and mental health problems make you more vulnerable to illness and injury, which can affect both your health and relationships.

Many of us have children who are or are going to become adolescents. This group face a particularly challenging set of circumstances in expat family life. Frequent moves disrupting education, transient friendships, pressure on relationships, pressure to do well academically and follow in their parents’ footsteps…

Expat life is a competitive environment to grow up in within a highly driven and high achieving community. This week even Prince Andrew was in the press talking about the need for children to experience failure. Failure helps us to learn from our mistakes and become more effective. It needs to be OK for things to go wrong!

I recently watched an inspirational Derren Brown documentary about luck – and how you can change your attitude and perception about something to change the outcome. When you are finding life difficult, does a particular issue from your history spring to mind? Is that memory or learned response stopping you from doing something different to get a different result?

Despite growing up in difficult circumstances several studies have found that a third of children remain able to behave and achieve normally without intervention, the remaining two thirds showed destructive behaviours into adulthood. The achieving group was classified as ‘resilient’, perhaps because of genetic traits or other positive influences and support. So how can we help the two thirds of expat children (and ourselves), who are likely to need support, to become more resilient?

By nature expats are risk takers passing on those genes to their adolescent offspring, who in turn react more strongly to reward than adults and children and their lack of impulse control leads teens to greater thrill-seeking. This is why it is crucial for adolescents to have appropriate ‘social scaffolding’ – the right balance of monitoring and interest in which to develop the skills of self-control within support and protection. Being as connected as possible to parents and the wider family protects them from every health risk behaviour they might indulge in.

The nature of expat life can mean that parents are stressed or out of their comfort zone and therefore introverted and/or self-absorbed. Teens will migrate towards support in the wrong or uncontrolled places in a high-risk social context . My daughters tell me that the movie ‘Thirteen’ is a very scary extension of the type of peer pressure adolescents (especially unmonitored expat adolescents) too easily find themselves in. Appearing ‘older than most’ in the class, a level of sophistication that many expat young people develop as a coping strategy, has also been associated with emotional distress in high school students.

Learning the hard way

This article explores a growing trend in strategies to improve our mental capacity to overcome problems. Being an expat adds an extra dimension to the stressors on Holmes and Rahe’s scale and must be accommodated for when these events happen.

Being aware of your own coping strategies or mechanisms protects you against the psychological risks associated with adversity and is key to being emotionally resilient. There are four main themes :

1) reduction of potential loss (risk impact)

2) reduction of negative chain reactions (consequences)

3) establishment and maintenance of self-esteem and self-efficacy

4) opening up new opportunities

So what strategies are there out there to help us in times of difficulty?


Mindfulness is being taught at organisations as diverse as Google, AOL, Transport for London, Astra Zeneca and the Home Office. It teaches you how to manage the symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Transformational breathing

US philosophy that reached the UK last year to teach us how best to use our lungs; on the premise that increasing oxygen to the brain and vital organs makes them work more effectively and reduces adrenaline flowing round the body.

Emotional resilience

Originally developed to help victims of natural disasters and massacres cope with catastrophe ‘Emotional resilience’ is more hard-hitting than many of the other methods promising to keep us cool, calm and collected.

The word resilience comes from the Latin resilio, which means to jump (or bounce) back. Emotional resilience measures our ability to cope with or adapt to stressful situations or crises – be this a natural disaster in the country you are residing in or an exam. These two situations are what is called a ‘spectrum of adversity’ but the human response to them (adrenaline and fight or flight) remains the same.

200 of the country’s leading independent schools will attend a conference next month to learn how to equip their pupils with emotional resilience, so that they can deal better with stress and failure. If it’s good enough for them…

We now know that educational and financial advantage during the school years does not correlate with top degrees. So somewhere along the line our children need help to cope with the things that life throws at them.

The Work Foundation, a research group linked to Lancaster University and the Samaritans have started hosting emotional resilience workshops for their own employees (Volunteer Samaritans) and major companies including EDF Energy and housing associations. Even the BBC school based drama Waterloo Road has got in on the act – my children talk about emotional resilience now.

Employers report better productivity, improved sickness absence and higher staff morale. Geetu Bharwaney says “Many people’s problems, even in business, are emotional,” she says. “An emotionally fit individual is able to apply strategies in their everyday life to get the outcomes they desire in six areas of health – career, intellectual, social, spiritual, financial and physical.”

Emotional resilience teaches you to how to create an action plan yourself – for how to work effectively in your job and/or deal with challenges as they occur.”

For employers

The effects of emotional resilience training are well-documented and it originates in science. Schools and offices in which the practice is taught have improved so much – increased motivation, innovation and better relationships. That the Department for Health now sponsors a free, downloadable ‘emotional resilience toolkit’ for employers, with tips on how to ‘survive and thrive’ at work, is highly significant. http://www.bitc.org.uk/our-resources/report/emotional-resilience

So, next time you find yourself feeling guilty for being disproportionately distressed or comparing a stressful day to surviving a major disaster, don’t berate yourself – it was stressful. But with a perspective based on emotional resilience, you’ll be able to survive and grow from it.


Fear is a very real paralysing agent, it was designed to prevent our prehistoric ancestors from getting killed by wild animals: in modern day terms it could be fear of spiders, mathematics or even talking to strangers. Many of us barely have time during day to floss our teeth, let alone arrange a daily overcoming of fear, so start with a realistic goal: doing one new thing or something on your to-do list every week.

Overcoming a fear boosts your self-esteem. You will enjoy a sense of achievement, even elation, when an obstacle is tackled or a seemingly unobtainable skill is mastered. Use new parts of your brain to jolt it into accessing hidden resources, strengthening neural connections as well as avoiding a sense of inertia in your life, so take up a new hobby with new people or try using your non-dominant hand to do things – you’ll be amazed what a different perspective you’ll see!


Lucy Kenyon SCPHN, M.Med.Sci., RGN is a Specialist Community Public Health Nurse, with a background in occupational and environmental health. She has a keen interest and expertise in the relationship between people and their environment. Prior to moving to Moscow in 2009 she was involved in pandemic planning for Tier 2 emergency services in the UK. She has written specialist articles on health matters for Croner Special Reports since 1997. She is also an expat spouse, who understands the challenges of day to day issues when living abroad.



Protecting Adolescents From Harm: Findings From the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health Michael D. Resnick et al. http://www.mdft.org/mdft/media/files/Resnick-et-al-(1997)-Protecting-adolescents-from-harm-National-longitudinal-study-on-adolescent-health-JAMA.pdf

Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms. Rutter, Michael.

American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol 57(3), Jul 1987, 316-331.
doi: 10.1111/j.1939-0025.1987.tb03541