x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

World Friendship Day: the link between friendship and mental health for expats

There are four aspects to expat alliances: the friends you leave behind; the friends you make in a new place; those you go back home to, and the fellow expats that you befriend

Good friends can positively affect one’s personality, perceptions and emotions. Getty Images
Good friends can positively affect one’s personality, perceptions and emotions. Getty Images

“Five signs your friendship is turning toxic”; “Are you in a one-sided friendship?”; “How does your ambition affect your best buddies?” Friendship quizzes are a dime a dozen both online and in magazines.

While most of us don’t take the results too seriously, experts say that friendship can have a real and measurable impact on mental health. In fact, a recent study, published by researchers from Michigan State University, states that “over a person’s lifetime, friends come to become more important to health and happiness than family”. This theory may hold particularly true for those living and working outside of their home countries.

There are four aspects to expat alliances: the friends you leave behind; the friends you make in a new place; those you go back home to, if you move back permanently; and the fellow expats that you befriend, and who may eventually move away.

Each of these friendship “types” comes with its own set of potential pitfalls, and in certain circumstances can result in negative emotions such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety and even depression. The trick is to be surefooted as you build stimulating and long-lasting relationships.

“Most expats tend to move to a new city or country all alone, at least initially. This leads to adjustment issues, as well as feelings of solitude. Making friends then becomes a major goal, in order to feel better,” says Dr Valeria Risoli, clinical psychologist at the Dubai Physiotherapy & Family Medicine Clinic.

The benefits of having friends are multitudinous. From satisfying our inherently sociable mental make-up and acting as soundboards to making us feel beneficent when we initiate or return the favour, good friends can positively impact one’s personality, perceptions and emotions.

Particularly in the case of expats, having friends who provide emotional support and identify with each other’s needs and struggles, can enhance a person’s coping skills in an unfamiliar environment, according to Dr Pilar Lachhwani, staff physician at the Psychiatry, Medical Subspecialties Institute at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. “Friends help build a sense of belonging and keep loneliness at bay. They may also encourage someone who might need more support to seek out mental-health services,” she says.

Beware, though, that in your haste to form bonds, you may become overly receptive to relative strangers. The temptation to make new “best friends” can result in friendships that are superficial and, ultimately, short-lived. Mentally, this can be taxing if one person drifts away while the other is still invested. “People who are in need of company, or are scared or unable to be alone are more likely to develop toxic friendships. What motivates them to build these relationships is having the physical presence of others around, rather than the appeal of meeting interesting people,” says Risoli.

While there is no set formula for long-lasting bonds, there are a few obvious requirements: communication, respect, patience and trust. Sharing core experiences is another major factor, which leads to the school of thought that the friendships formed in one’s childhood are more likely to be meaningful and stand the test of time. What happens, then, when one friend moves away?

“Long-distance friendships are certainly more complicated to maintain. The lack of face-to-face interactions can lead to a friendship waning over time. But technology has made distance less of an obstacle. Regular online contact means that it is easier to maintain a friendship after one or both people move away,” she says.

However, changing countries or even cities often means that friends – and the backstories they come with – get pushed into the background. Sure, Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype calls are useful tools for keeping in touch, but the likelihood of being on the same page is rather slim. The challenges of adapting to a whole new climate and culture may be a big part of an expat’s life, but friends back home – who might be in the midst of a relationship crisis themselves – will not identify with this in any way. Likewise, while momentous occasions, such as weddings or the birth of a child may warrant an extended conversation or even a visit, daily goings-on are often not deemed worthy of discussion with an overseas friend.

Risoli says: “Technology aside, it’s that motivation to stay in touch that’s crucial. Long-distance friendships absolutely can stay solid and meaningful, sometimes even more than the relationships we have with people we see every day, but there’s no denying that they require more effort and energy. If the relationship is important to you, such as with a friend who’s been in your life since you can remember, find a way to stay in touch. At the same time, being independent and not too needy makes relationships more solid.”

While there’s no denying the importance of bonds forged and nurtured early on, this then raises another question: is it easy, or even possible, for adults to develop friendships that are as strong later in life? Risoli emphasises the role that self-awareness plays in forming healthy alliances.

“I strongly believe that we need to be fully aware of and accept ourselves for who we really are. We need to be happy within to understand what kinds of relationships we want to build. In adulthood, this self-awareness is likely to be more well-developed; so we might actually be more capable of building solid friendships when we are older.”

Lacchwani adds: “New, strong and valuable friendships can be made later in life. Unlike kids, though, adults tend to only choose people who are more like them in terms of age, values, faiths, occupation and interests.” For expats, this restrictive attitude can further dampen the chances of making friends, as many end up seeking out people only from their own nationalities.

There is also a possibility that a fellow expat might up and leave. Befriending locals or members of the many other nationalities that thrive within the UAE’s multicultural milieu, on the other hand, is a good way to feel more familiar with a country, its culture, foods and people. And in the case of mental health vis-à-vis friendships, familiarity breeds comfort.