Expats: Loneliness Can Make You Sick (And What To Do About It)

Mary was perfectly healthy. Then she got nasal drops containing a cold virus and was locked up in quarantine for five days.

Mary was one of the 276 healthy volunteers in “The Common Cold Study”. This work was carried out by Dr. Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

In addition to the virus exposure, Mary had to report any interaction whether by phone or in person that occurred at least every two weeks.

This included her husband, parents, in-laws, children, other close family members, close neighbors, friends, workmates,
schoolmates, fellow volunteers and any members of religious and non-religious groups.

sick woman

Mary was quite isolated. She only mentioned two close relationships: her husband and her children.

Mary got sick. She wasn’t the only one.

As the conclusion of the study reports:

People who are socially isolated ( who have three or fewer relationships) are 4.2 times more likely to develop illness!

The risks are comparable with cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and obesity.

On the other hand, people exhibited a greater resistance to colds when they had the most diverse types of networks!

It didn’t matter that Mary had three children. It was the same type of relationship: mother to child. What’s more important is the variety of roles you play in your different relationships.

In other words, loneliness can make you sick.

Physically and mentally.

But there’s some hope.

Let’s take a closer look at your situation to see if you’re at risk…

Since you’ve been living abroad, who can you confide in?

Who is always there to listen to you?

Who can relate to you?

Your parents

Last time you called your mum, she cried on the phone. She ‘s caring for your dad who has serious health issues. She’s missing the grandchildren terribly. She feels so lonely.

The other day, you thought she was feeling really well:  she had the visit of your brother for a whole week. You dared to express your doubts about your life abroad.

What about your professional career? Will you be able one day to go back to work? In this country, with the language barrier, it’s impossible to find a position that fits your level of education. You’ll have a gap in your CV.

You also shared your concerns about the kids.

The academic level at their school is very low. Will they ever be able to fit in when you go back?

You were hoping for comforting words. Your mum said, she warned you: you didn’t want to listen.

Your sister

She is busy too, juggling an unemployed husband, your aging parents and three young children. She feels you let her down, choosing to live far away in exotic destinations. She thinks you don’t have to worry about the mortgage, the car lease or the school fees. The company pays for everything. She doesn’t understand how you possibly can’t be happy.

Your friends

You promised each other to keep in touch. With Facebook these days, it’s so easy. You can lurk pics of their latest birthday party, the new outfits for Halloween and the decorations around the house.

While you’re happy to see them having fun, you feel homesick. No pumpkins where you’re now living. You’d give so much to join them. You feel sad that your children won’t relate to your traditions. They won’t get the sense of community, the excitement of trick-or-treating.

 At first you shared photos too: your new neighborhood, the odd plants, the city center, the monuments. This is what your friends remember. When you occasionally Skype them – all too seldom – everybody’ s so busy and time zone differences don’t help – they rave about how exciting your life must be and how lucky you are. You just don’t have the heart to go into further details…

Your partner

Can he really relate? If you complain, that means you’re not happy. If you’re not happy, he feels guilty. This is a shortcut. Sure. But not so far from the truth!

Add to this, the stress of the job, the pressure of his boss, the tiredness of the frequent travelling. When he comes home, he doesn’t really want any further problems to fix. I know: this isn’t what you’re asking for. But listening to a loved one without trying to provide a solution is hard. Extremely hard. Even harder for men, it seems. Maybe for some, just unbearable.

Your children

They need protection. They need direction. They need to feel you’re strong. As a person. As a couple. With the above description, it’s unlikely to happen. While I’m a strong advocate for talking openly to children and not denying your vulnerability, you can’t realistically ask them to fully support you.

Your local expat community

They know what it means to uproot the whole family but they protect themselves in different ways:

The deniers: “Everything is fine in the best possible world. Let’s enjoy the pool, the tennis court and have a cup of tea.”

This was great for the first two2 months. Now you need something else. Something real.

The complainers: “This country is underdeveloped. I can’t even find a vegemite jar here. I’m so looking forward to go back for Christmas.”

The gossip club: “Did you see the Millers? They’ve got a new car. There ‘s something brewing there. I saw her rushing outside with sun glasses on at 10 pm. She didn’t look well.”

And can you trust the wife of your husband’s boss?

Wherever you look at, you feel more and more isolated.

Building relationships is hard work.

People come and go. You’re not even sure how long you’re going to stay.

Each departure is heartbreaking. It’s another loss to grieve.

And then, you have to start again… from scratch.

You’re scared to suffer. You’re too tired to make the effort.

So what’s the solution?

There’s no quick fix and more than one unique solution.  But if you believe in Cohen’s study, you ought to at least diversify your networks. It’s good for your immune system.

To help you on your way, here’s  my proposal:

A peer support group.

Online. Supportive. Non-judgmental. Private.



Because you don’t want to lose all your efforts each time you move or each time one of your friends moves.

In our last group, one of our members relocated from Amsterdam (NL) to Dallas (USA). We focused on encouraging her and we could be happy for her without feeling stressed or sad. It didn’t change our relationship.

… but not impersonal

We meet via video call. We’re a small group (between 3 to 8 participants max). We get to know each other personally and we interact in real time with the benefits of eye contact and body language.


Each member of the group has an opportunity to talk and to be heard. This is particularly helpful to process emotions and to heal from grief. The others are deeply empathetic because they’ve been through similar experiences.

And they’re the living proof that you can overcome the hurdles ahead of you.

.. but not judgmental

Nobody tells you what to do and what not to do. We exchange ideas. We accept all nationalities and people from all faith political and sexual orientations.


All our conversations remain confidential and anonymous. Each member signs an agreement with those conditions at the beginning of the program.


This peer support group is called  “Unpack Your Bags”

We’re launching a new group in May 2016.

If you’re interested, contact me at anne@expatriateconnection.com

More questions? Other suggestions?

Speak your mind in the comments!


* Mary is a fictive but representative character of the study carried out by Pr Sheldon

Photo credit: bookgrl via photopin cc and music from the piano society



  1. Anne, bravo pour ton altruisme


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