In today's globalised world, more and more individuals are choosing to live abroad as expatriates, seeking new experiences and opportunities. However, this can also come with unique challenges and stressors. To shed light on this topic, we interviewed licensed psychologist Gabriela Encina about her experience as an expat and her insights on how to thrive in a foreign environment. Join us as we explore her journey and discover valuable lessons for anyone navigating expat life.
1: Gabriela, you are an expat psychologist offering online counselling! Tell us about your
journey and what inspired you to focus on counselling?
My journey as an expat started 13 years ago. I was working as a Human Resources manager in one of the largest companies in Chile, had a successful career, a great social life and I could do whatever I want whenever I wanted… until, I fell in love with a charming Austrian man. After a very tortuous 2-year long-distance relationship, I decided to take the leap and moved to Austria. It was a super exciting and exhilarating time. But also, one of the hardest periods of my life. And after going through it all, I decided to help other women like me: high achievers, intelligent, drive, ambitious and independent, to find their place and thrive abroad. I’m a psychologist with more than 20 years of experience, so it felt natural to me to combine my professional and personal experience to support humans coping with similar challenges as I did, and I’ve been offering counselling online to expat women for 5 years now, long before Covid started and it was “normal”.
2: What do you offer expats that are different from other therapists? What can expats
expect from counselling sessions from you?
The challenges we expat women face are very specific to the lifestyle we chose. There
are amazing therapists out there, however – and I experienced this myself – if they are
not expats, they don’t understand what it means to move to a new country, start a new
life, learning a language, face culture shock, the loneliness, guilt and grief of this transition and the loss of identity and uprooting. My clients don’t have to explain expat life to me. I know what’s behind it because I’ve experienced it (and continue doing so), so we save a lot of time and misunderstandings. I will never tell someone “Well then just go back to your country”, as many of my clients have heard from non-expat mental health professionals, sadly. Many people, including therapists, think that living abroad is only honey and roses. And we know it’s not. It’s an exceptional opportunity, that also comes with anxiety, loneliness, burnout and even depression. Expat women working with me have a safe space where they can talk about the beautiful, the bad and the ugly of expat life, and acquire tools and strategies that will help them to be the person they want to be, reach their full potential and thrive wherever they are and wherever they are heading.
3: As someone who works in mental health, what are your key tips for daily maintenance
or certain things we can do to improve our mental health?
Movement is pivotal. Either exercising, or walking, any kind of physical movement that
allows us to let go of stress, and the difficult feelings we might be experiencing, plus the
needed release of endorphins regulating our mood and making us happier. Being mindful and savouring our present. We are so wired to “predict” the future or over- analysing the past, that we forget that the only time we have influence on, is the present. There we can change, improve and work on ourselves, solve problems and spend time with the ones we love. Give room to all our emotions. ALL humans experience all emotions at some point, even the “ugly” ones that few dare to admit. All emotions are providers of information and are telling us what we need to address, or change, and what needs are to be fulfilled. The more we ignore or fight the unpleasant emotions, the stronger and more damaging they come back to us. They won’t “shut up” until we listen to them.
4: What would you advise an expat who is chronically lonely? Who can’t seem to integrate anywhere and has moved home to find it even worse than living abroad?
First of all, we need to understand that if we think we will just get rid of our problems by
moving abroad, we are almost “doomed” to failure. We can’t run away from our challenges just by changing the scenery. If we struggled with loneliness or the sense of not belonging in our home town, chances are that living abroad will exacerbate and intensify this, because there are deeper issues that need to be tackled, hopefully with the help of a professional. Loneliness is one of the most common challenges we face by choosing this way of living. And its different as “normal” loneliness, because we experienced it from an uprooting perspective: we feel lonely where we are, and lonely because we miss our loved ones back home.
I have 2 pivotal suggestions here:
1: Never lose contact with your significant people back home. Moving abroad doesn’t
mean forget your roots and the persons who have been there for a long time. Those are
the humans who ground you and don’t let you forget who you really are and all what you
2: In this eagerness of meeting new people, we tend to forget what is important to us,
and what we enjoy. So, look for places where you can enjoy your hobbies: book clubs,
hiking groups, whatever you love to do. This way you’ll meet like minded people and
you’ll have already some things in common that could lead to a potential friendship.
Don’t forget: this doesn’t last forever. Loneliness, as many other difficult feelings, will
pass. It’s important you remain intentional and always remembering what’s important
5: What top tips do you have for female expats who are single and are looking to
improve their relationships?
Single expats usually experience intimate loneliness, meaning you don’t have a partner
you can be your complete self around and with whom you connect emotionally without
being afraid of showing vulnerability or the “not so shiny” sides. Apart from enjoying the single life, having adventures and experiencing new things, the focus should be to forge solid and profound connections, with friendships and eventually romantic relationships.
I would say, my top tip is prioritising yourself, who you are and what you are looking for.
Know yourself better and know what you want for your life and which aspects of
yourself you want to share with a potential partner.
6: When should one seek professional counselling?
I’m a firm believer in my profession and I think counselling is always good and useful.
I would recommend all expat women to find some kind of mental health support to
navigate their journey with ease, confidence and joy. But to answer your question, one should seek professional counselling when you see that what you are experiencing is affecting negatively the way you interact with your world, the people around you and your professional life. For example, if you experience anxiety and this takes over most of your day, makes you avoid interactions and isolate
yourself from the world, is time to look for professional help. The same with sadness,
loneliness, grief and any other challenging emotions.
7: As a psychologist what do you do yourself to maintain a healthy work/life balance?
Boundaries are key. I work only in my work hours. Once I leave my office (wherever that
might be, I work location independent) I focus on what needs to be done in my personal
life.I’m lucky enough to be doing what I love to do and that’s an enormous privilege, but I
need my time to disconnect and recharge. Long and mindful walks are a must for me,
every day, at least for one hour. I also meet friends as much as I can, I’m gregarious and
working by myself makes me miss being around people. Of course, I also do what I recommend to all clients: journaling every day, write everyday 3 things I’m grateful for, and treat myself everyday with something I enjoy, just for me.
8: How can women prevent and treat burnout?
Burnout in high-achieving expat women is a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion that arises from the stress and frustration of the significant life transition of moving abroad. It comes with the following symptoms:
Feeling powerless and purposeless
Frequent thoughts of returning home
Detachment and isolation
Hostility toward work
Irritability and anger
Anxiety and difficulty relaxing
What to do?
1.-Reevaluate your goals
Think “one thing at a time.” Expat life is an experience that should be enjoyed, not dreaded due to a mindset that holds you back. That said, make sure the goals you have are ones you want to accomplish rather than ones you feel obligated to obtain.
2.- Slow down
If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed or stressed, consider taking a step back. Stop saying yes to everything and take a break. Take some evenings off to disconnect from work and people and reconnect to your hobbies and passions. And remember why you came to this new country.
3.- Know your stressors
Get familiar with the things that tend to impact you the most. The more you get in touch with your stressors, the more effectively you can learn how to cope. It helps to gain a healthy perspective and understanding of the factors you can and cannot change. An expat psychologist can help you understand the difference and teach you coping with work, personal, and cultural stressors.
9: You live in Valencia, Spain - what is your lifestyle like? Would you recommend it to
females looking to relocate?
I love my life here in Valencia. I live near the beach and I seize it every time I can, with
my mindful walks, for example. I used to live in Vienna, a wonderful city, but I missed the sun and the sea. Here I have both and also amazing food! Valencians are fun, warm and inclusive… also super noisy! Last year Valencia was picked by expats as the most beloved city to live in the world.
It’s a city, but not as big and chaotic as Madrid or Barcelona, and you have all the perks of the Mediterranean lifestyle: amazing food, warm weather, nice beaches and the whole country to discover and enjoy. People here know how to enjoy life, take the best from the worst and laugh until your stomach hurts. So yes, I would definitely recommend it to female expats!
Suggestion: if you want to experience the local life, you better learn Spanish!
10: What tips do you have for digital nomads who are always traveling and, on the go, or
working tirelessly alone with their laptops to still take care of their mental health?
Always block time for yourself! I understand the urge of many digital nomads to be
social after so many hours working alone in front of a screen, and that’s also important.
However, having time to themselves, rest, pay attention to their emotions and needs and
practicing self-compassion and self-care are MUST DO in a nomadic lifestyle. Wherever you are, find a little corner of that space that grounds you. Put some candles, pictures, or anything that brings you peace of mind and a sense of belonging. Uprooting is tricky and can cause serious problems among some of my digital nomad clients, so symbolic roots can help to get that sense of home that many of us long for.
Connect with Gabriela!
Gabriela is a Licensed Psychologist and MSc in Psychology with over 20 years of experience and
has provided online counselling to expats and globally mobile clients since 2018, supporting more than 400 people living abroad to cope with the challenges that international life brings or exacerbates. She was born in Chile, is an Austrian citizen, and works online-based with clients worldwide while living a location-independent life. Gabriela knows first-hand the complications and advantages of the expat journey. She uses her experience and professional training to help her clients live purposeful and fulfilling international lives, build up their confidence, create and maintain meaningful relationships and prioritise their well-being. Her approach is mainly through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and aspects of Gestalt and Humanistic Therapy. She also integrates Coaching and Mentoring tools.
In addition to her online counselling practice, she facilitates workshops on- and offline, dealing with
the mental health concerns of living internationally. Gabriela supports her clients in Spanish, English, and German.
Here you can book your free 30-Minute consultation with Gabriela, to see if you are the right fit to work together!