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The expat panic attack, a recipe

The expat panic attack

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I still remember the excitement after deciding to follow my boyfriend to his native Australia; a new adventure, a new love story, a new chapter was opening and I was ready!

Then there was that first attack.

I was on the train on my way to work and I my head started spinning, my heart pounding, my hands sweating …

A morning that had started like any other morning was suddenly turning into a nightmare. Fortunately, the train was entering my station.

I tried to gather my strengths and regain control and walked tentatively towards the exit, thinking that my life must be over, I probably had a brain tumour or I was having a stroke.

The end.

But it was just the beginning!

The diagnosis was quick and unexpected: panic attacks.

Even more unexpected was what had caused it.

After only a brief chat the doctor claimed the trigger was my imminent move to Australia.

My initial reaction was to ignore it and set the episode aside, hoping it would go away.

Obviously I was wrong.

The first years of my new life in Melbourne were scattered with attacks of different intensity, at a variety of inappropriate moments, making my settling very difficult.

Panic attacks are one of the most common anxiety disorders and they can affect anyone. They appear suddenly and can have a very debilitating effect.

They arrive out of the blue.

I thought I was strong, I was used to living abroad, I was an intrepid traveler, a confident and independent young woman. 

So why me?

In the book Living with IT, Bev Aisbett offers a list of ingredients, a recipe for “panic attack” and in this list I immediately recognised many aspects of my life abroad.

Here is the recipe for the “Expat Panic Attack “:

  • Guilt, at the top of my list. There are obvious reasons to feel guilty, for example the guilt I felt for having abandoned my family and not being close in case of need. But there are also some subtle ones. In my case I felt very guilty about my unhappiness. After all I had everything, I chose to move, I had a beautiful home and a boyfriend. I had no right to complain and feel unsatisfied. And then there was the guilt I felt every time I returned to Italy, because I didn’t really want to be there, I would have liked to spend a week in Bali! Was I ungrateful? 
  • Shoulds, my days were full of “I should“. I should find work, I should meet new people, I should start driving, I should be happy! But for each of these “shoulds” I could find a thousand good reasons to give up and wallow in my unease.
  • Self-criticism and low self-esteem (non-existent, in fact). My accent and my English would never  be up to the situation, I would always be “different” and this would only create problems. Impossible to find work with such an accent let alone making friends. My negative attitude, rather than my accent, was the main obstacle to my assimilation.
  • Negative thoughts: I will never find work, I will never be able to make friends, nobody wants me, nobody loves me, nobody notices me, I hate this country, I hate these people, I hate living here. Of course, it all resulted in another ingredient:
  • Exaggeration, because in reality nothing was so tragic, but once I entered in the tornado of my thoughts, it was no longer possible to get out of it.
  • Anxiety: constant worries about my parents and my health, I became hypochondriac, visiting the doctor with an ever growing list of symptoms, real and imagined.  

The outcomes might be different but believe me, mixing these “ingredients” will make it difficult to live a rich and fulfilling life!

I remember the relief in reading Living with it for the first time. Until then I thought I was the only one to experience those strange feelings of discomfort that boycotted my wellbeing. Recognising and accepting what was happening to me, helped me deal with some of my anxieties. 

If you are reading my post and recognise yourself in my words, I hope you can experience the same relief.

The path into awareness it’s not always easy, but it’s worth it!


  1. James Witcomb says:

    Hi Barbara, im curious but what did you do to manage your anxiety/panic attacks?

  2. BarbaraA. says:

    Hi James, sorry for the late reply, I did not see your comment. I had some therapy to understand the causes of my anxiety and by developing more awareness I slowly learned to manage them. The work is ongoing as I have accepted that I am an anxious person and I have made peace with it 🙂

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