PSYCHOLOGIST, sam capon, on loneliness abroad
Life abroad can be exhilarating. Dopamine, the chemical that provides pleasure, pumps through us as we explore different places, try new foods and have different experiences. What an achievement! We’ve left our old life behind and have made a fresh start. We’re on a journey of self-discovery.
I AM ALL ALONE HERE
But why does the journey often get so lonely? And, why does it feel different, heavier than the loneliness we sometimes felt back ‘home’? In my experience it is because we don’t just feel alone – we are alone.
blame it on the brain chemicals
Loneliness is very familiar to women living overseas and there is no shame in it. The lonely feeling is built into the very core of our being, into the brains we inherited from our ancestors. The brain’s ability to feel loneliness is linked to Oxytocin. This brain chemical which is released into our brains through the act of bonding, would have ensured that our ancestors stayed close to their group, giving them greater chances of survival and procreation. Today, our brains still function the same way and the brain just loves that “happy hormone” because it feels so good.
It is what you feel during the beginning stages of a relationship when the oxytocin being released in tsunami-like quantities. But, when a relationship ends, your oxytocin levels drop. This can cause deep sadness, even if the rational part of your brain tells you it was the right decision.
“Oxytocin will keep you in places you don’t want to be, far longer than you think you should be, like a drug addict looking for their next fix.
I MISS… OXYTOCIN
Oxytocin is released around friends and family and any (wanted) social interaction. It is released when you say a quick, “Hi, how are you?” to the barista, when the old man walking his dog nods good morning, or when the neighbour waves from across the street.
Each of these social interactions, however insignificant, are dripping oxytocin into our brain and add up over time. We may not notice it then, but we will definitely feel it when it’s gone.
This is what happens when we move abroad.
All those mini social interactions that usually fill up our oxytocin tanks have disappeared. We find ourselves without those we most care for and rely on. We find ourselves in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people and customs. We may even find ourselves avoiding people in case they ask something in a language we don’t fully understand yet. No wonder our oxytocin account is at zero. Throw in the pandemic and it is probably in overdraft.
No wonder we feel lonely!
HOW TO STOP FEELING LONELY
This feeling is a reminder that your brain is doing its job. Loneliness is an ingenious way to let you know that it’s time to reconnect with your surroundings. It’s time to up your dose of oxytocin!
We need to be active participants in this process though and take control and design our life in a way that ensures adequate oxytocin levels.
Some of us start a romantic relationship which provides a quick boost in oxytocin but once the excitement of a new relationship wears off, your oxytocin level will return to normal. Also dating can be exhausting and we shouldn’t be relying on a romantic partner to fill us up.
So what are my top tips for oxytocin-starved GGIs? For a quick fix, hug a pillow for 20 seconds or snuggle with a hot water bottle while watching your favourite characters on TV.
Say hello to the faces around you. Go to a local supermarket or coffee shop where you will see the same staff and connect in whatever way you can.
Join a sports team. Go to a bar and watch a game. Learn the local language. Take classes, learn something new.
Catch up with people. Don’t play games waiting to be contacted. If you want to talk, pick up the phone and talk. FaceTime, phone calls, therapy — these are all valid options.
Look out for people who might need help. Volunteer (huge oxytocin gains here). Get to know your neighbours as if your happiness depended on it — because it just might.
you are not alone
Remember, you are not alone in this feeling. You are not the only one looking to connect and interact. Loneliness is a place we all visit when we live overseas, but it is not a place we should stay too long. Find your local GGI community, connect with others on the same journey and come to a free Girl Gone International event and your happy brain chemical levels will be overflowing!
By Sam Capon
Sam is a “no-nonsense” online psychotherapist and counsellor who moved from the UK to live in Spain over 20 years ago. She also specialises in neuropsychology, behavioural psychology and organizational psychology. Although she is dedicated to studying the brain, Sam is currently working on a cure for her evening chocolate binges. Unfortunately it is still a work in progress!