How to cope when things outside of your control happen overseas

Living overseas, whether to study, work or travel, can be exciting and fulfilling. You’re literally leaving your comfort zone and opening up a whole different world of experiences. On the flip side, being apart from your loved ones can be tricky – especially when things happen that are outside of your control, such as emergencies, sickness or death.

For many of us, it isn’t possible to simply hop on a plane at a moment’s notice. Flights can be expensive, or you might have responsibilities like a job or family to take care of. And when international borders are shut or there is an overseas travel ban, you may not even have the choice.

We spoke with Tithi Mukherjee, the Youth Involvement Coordinator here at ReachOut Australia, who wasn't able to see her family and friends in India for years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some of Tithi’s and our top tips for coping.

Think about the media you consume

When things are happening outside of your control on a large scale – for example, there’s a natural disaster, a pandemic or a war in your home country – it isn’t easy to switch off. You might be following the news to find out what’s happening, or your loved ones there may be sending you updates.

For Tithi, doing a ‘media cull’ helped. She spent a couple of hours looking at her social media channels and thinking about the accounts that made her feel down or distressed. She decided to unfollow them and replace them with media that she enjoys and finds calming, such as content about comedians, animals, sports teams and artists. Find more ways to relax here.

This exercise can also help you think critically about the media you consume. There might be news outlets that you find distressing because of all the bad news they contain, or because their content is graphic or sensationalised. If you still want to know what’s happening, try to choose news sources that are as unbiased as possible, to reduce the emotional impact the news has on you. Get more info here on improving the way you consume the news.

Take time out from ‘bad news’

Tithi found that, in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis in India, every time she was on the phone to family there, she would hear more bad news. ‘I didn’t even want to call anymore. I didn’t want the details. I was just thinking, “Do something” – but I couldn’t.’

When the bad news gets too much, you can set boundaries for yourself, and with your family and friends. If you want to be up to date with the latest developments, set aside 15 minutes during your day to catch up on the news, and then leave the rest of your day news-free.

You can give friends and family a heads-up by saying: ‘I’m not in the headspace to talk about [topic] right now. Can we leave it for this weekend?’ or ‘Can we talk about [topic] for 10 minutes? Then, I’d like to talk about other things.’

In some cultures, telling those older than you, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about it’ can be considered disrespectful. But if you feel safe doing so, it’s important to be firm with your boundaries. Get some tips on navigating cultural conflicts between you and your family here.

Tap into your support network

If it’s urgent or you don’t have a support system in Australia If you need to speak urgently to someone, call a hotline such as Lifeline or Kids Helpline. If it isn’t urgent, check out the ReachOut Online Community, where you can connect with other young people. Get more options here for culturally sensitive support services or ways to get free or affordable professional support.

Your immediate support network Friends and family should be there for you through the good times and the bad. Reach out to your loved ones to have a chat. Think about trusted people in your community who you could talk to, such as a sports coach, religious leader or neighbour.

Your workplace might have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which can provide professional counselling and support. Most universities and schools also have a counsellor available free of charge to talk with students.

Give yourself time to process your feelings

It’s okay to try and distract yourself, but pretending forever that everything’s okay usually isn’t helpful. Take your time to figure out what works for you in dealing with your feelings. You might be feeling:

  • grief

  • guilt

  • sadness

  • anger.

Read more about how to deal with grief here.

Make sure to take care of yourself and to do things that make you feel good. Keep up with your regular hobbies, or try some new ones. You could try self-guided meditations, playing with pets, baking/cooking, playing an instrument, playing games with friends or going for a run. Even doing just one activity you enjoy a day can help to lift your mood.

Have realistic expectations

It takes time to bounce back. Being realistic about the expectations you set for yourself and others can help you to cope.

Coping with work/study Feeling anxious or down may affect your concentration and motivation. If you can’t take some time off, have a chat with your supervisor or student counsellor and let them know you’re going through a tough time. This will help take a bit of pressure off you to perform as well as you would normally.

Relating to friends/family You might not be in the mood to socialise like you normally would. It’s okay to put yourself first when you need to. If you don’t tell people that you need a bit of space, they won’t know, and they might be asking for more attention than you can give them just now. Being clear about this can avoid miscommunication, resentment and hurt feelings.

Some people also don’t have much experience of being around others who are coping with grief, so it might feel like they’re being unhelpful. Remember that, most of the time, they’re not intentionally trying to offend you.

Dealing with cultural expectations Your family and culture might have expectations of you. For example, in Tithi’s Indian culture, when an immediate family member passes away, it’s mandatory to eat only vegetarian food for 11 days. As someone who loves cooking and eating Indian cuisine with meat as a way to remind herself of home, sticking to a vegetarian diet wasn’t the most comforting idea for Tithi. She brought this up with someone she trusted – her mum – and they agreed that this wasn’t the right time. So, Tithi found alternative ways to pay her respects.

Celebrate your culture, wherever you are

If you’re feeling homesick, you can find ways to bring a bit of your home country and culture to wherever you are. This can help you feel connected, even if you’re physically distanced. You could:

  • cook the foods you grew up eating

  • celebrate cultural holidays

  • listen to music or read books in your native language

  • engage in cultural traditions, such as traditional dancing

  • wear traditional clothes or incorporate some traditional items into your outfit

  • connect with your spirituality, if you’re religious

  • watch shows or films from your home country.

If you have friends who are from the same culture as you, you could make a plan together. If you don’t, you could ask your friends if they want to be involved and tell them how important it is to you. This could be a great way to bond and connect, and to share an important part of yourself with your friends.

If you don’t feel like celebrating or if you just want to be alone, that’s understandable, too. It’s okay to stay at home and do your own thing. Celebrating your culture and coping with loss doesn’t have to happen in public. Try to give yourself the time that you need to heal before moving forward. What has happened isn’t in your control, but how you deal with it can be.

What can I do now?

  • Hear from registered psychologist Rashida Dungarwalla about how to deal with mixed emotions.


Leaving home