Expats – Your Body Aches But You Don’t Listen (And What To Do Instead)

‘I’ve got a terrible headache. And it’s not the first time.  Expat with headache

My vision is blurry. When the pain strikes I can’t even stand up. I’m feeling dizzy.

At first I didn’t worry too much. I thought it was due to the move and the changing environmental conditions: jet lag, humid climate, food.

But after one year, I keep getting those migraines and they become more and more debilitating. It’s scary. I can’t stand it anymore.’

Sound familiar?

Whether it’s headache, back pain, gastrointestinal disorders, skin rash – and the list goes on – your body aches.

It’s uncomfortable, it’s annoying.

No matter how hard to try to push it aside, it’s always on the back of your mind.

Putting you on the edge.
You know something is wrong but you’re postponing a doctor’s visit.
So why are you playing with your health when you know it’s potentially detrimental?

1. You’re too busy!

Moving country is a huge change. You’re building a new life from scratch: housing, furniture, transport, food, utilities, school system, complex administrative procedures, language, culture, friends, settling the family.

At the end of the day, you’re exhausted. You don’t need more doctor appointments.

2. You’re not familiar with the healthcare system in your host country

Should you go to the hospital, a general practitioner (GP) or find a specialist straight away?

Can you choose any physician or do you have to go to your local medical practice?

If you can choose, how do you know this doctor will understand you?

Will you be able to communicate properly and describe your symptoms with enough details – in a foreign language ignorant of the subtleties of the local tongue – and when you’re so emotionally involved?

You don’t even know where to start. It’s daunting.

3. You prefer to wait until you go back ‘home’

Because everything is more familiar and thus seems more trustworthy.

You’d go to your previous health practitioner who remembers you (hopefully) and your medical history as well as your family situation. Even if s/he is not available, you may be able to get a recommendation from your extended family or some friends.

It’ll be easier to handle and possibly even cheaper!

4. Your children are sick. You focus on them first.

In a study conducted from 2002 to 2005 on 400 French expatriates in Rio de Janeiro, Dr Scola found out that if adult expatriates typically are less prone to go to the doctor than their French counterparts, it’s not true for expatriate children.

In some cases, the thorough examination of the child ‘who is not sleeping well and complains a lot’ doesn’t show any pathology. It’s the parent – often the stay at home mother – who projects her own anxiety on her offspring. The consultation is then a pretext to air her frustration and find a listening ear.

5. You downplay the symptoms to get reassured and postpone any action.

When chatting with another expat mum at school, you find out that she got the same when she arrived here and that it disappeared by itself after a while so this makes you feel better.

But what if it is serious?

What if you are jeopardizing your life, even your chance of survival by NOT going early enough to the doctor?

You’re consumed with self-doubt, oscillating between moments of airiness and bouts of despair.

You’re not the only one. But this is what you need to know:

The body itself, by its health or its illness, is language. Health is the language of well-being. Illness is the language of hardship, sometimes anxiety. Being ill is a sign of the fight against an enemy in the equilibrium of exchanges that we call health.

As Francoise Dolto, an experienced psychoanalyst and child specialist mentions in her book, The Unconscious Image of the Body, you need to express yourself with words if you don’t want your desire, frustration, pain to attach itself somewhere inside your body.

Speaking enables you to express a desire and prevents it from manifesting itself [negatively] in the body, if not now, then later.

And when you change country, you experience desire, frustration, pain that you often can’t air!

Rare are the people, even health care professionals, who are fully aware of the reality of the situation: loss of identity, culture shock, expatriate grief (just to name a few).

Remember: If you don’t speak, your body will!

But what if your partner is stressed out, your parents too vulnerable, your sister a bit jealous, your friends too busy? What if you can’t confide in anyone?

Here is a suggestion.

If you need a safe space to talk without being fixed, saved or judged, in all confidentiality, you can participate in our online peer support group from the comfort of your home. Want more details? Click here and join us.

Now over to you, what does your body tell you? Have you experienced any symptoms? Or do you feel you’ve protected your health despite your move? I’d love to know.


Credit picture Depositphotos credit music Piano Society



  1. Hello!
    Another article that goes straight to me.
    I have all of these problems (dizziness, skin rash, back pain…) which I also knowingly attributed to my unhappiness in my current host country. I know I somatize, my body will let me know one way or another what I may or may not want to admit.
    Then I have other morer serious problems for which I tried to get help locally (feeling depressed, huge lump in breast that I know would be taken care in the blink of an eye in the US) only to hear that I should go to church and God would help me. (I am serious, a Dr at the most reputable hospital near me told me that, guess how I feel about their heatlthcare system…). So I wait to go home (which I hope will be within 6months, hoping that no other disappointments will arise), exactly as you wrote, hoping that such delays will not be regretted later on.
    Take care,

    • Dear Sophie, your comment went right to my heart and stayed with me since. If I can help you in any way, let me know. You’re not alone. Sending you lots of warm thoughts.

  2. What a great article! I am not an ex-pat, but have experienced a lot of these symptoms when moving to remote areas within Australia. How wonderful that there is a community of support!

    • Thanks a lot, Lure for this precious insight. I’m convinced that moving even interstate can feel like another country when the distances are so big, the climate and the (sub)culture so different. Looking forward to hearing more about your experience when we meet!

  3. Anne, what a great service you are providing. I remember how lonely I felt when I went to live in Paris for two years. An ex-pat support network would have been a great comfort at that time.

  4. ms-havachat says:

    Waiting til you go home on the next visit …… guilty!

    There are so many reasons to not seek medical advice but if the non-working parent is unwell, the whole family suffers.

    Getting involved with your new local community – be it the kids school, church group, tennis club, international women club etc is vital for so many reasons, especially to feel connected to people in the same boat as you and who can recommend medical practitioners, help you understand the healthcare system and look after the kids while you have appointments and tests.

    It’s hard work re-establishig this network every time you move, but vital for your emotional and physical health.

    Sophie, I hope you get to a doctor ASAP!

  5. I have just moved on our first expat assignment 7wks ago and I’m feeling very anxious. I now seem to spend my life worrying about my health and that of my family but seem to be paralysed to action it. It is reassuring reading your article that this anxiety is experienced by others. I am sure I’m projecting my anxiety on my children as you mention.

    • Dear Karen, thanks for sharing your experience and glad to see that this article brought some comfort. Sending you lots of warm and positive thoughts 🙂

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