In our Digital Nomad Girls interview series, we feature interviews with Digital Nomad Girls from around the world with interesting location independent jobs. This month we talked to Sonia Jaeger, an online psychologist and psychotherapist.
Hi! My name is Sonia and I am a psychologist and psychotherapist from Germany. I have a dual citizenship, my mum being French and my dad German. I grew up in Munich where I went to a French school, switching between languages and cultures has always been part of my life. I started travelling at a very young age, but Australia, where I am at the moment, is definitely the furthest away I have ever been from home. I just turned 35y last week, and I love it! It just keeps getting better.
You’re a location independent online psychologist, please tell us a bit about that.
Yes, I studied psychology and trained as a psychotherapist in Germany. I worked for a few years in different settings, like in a psychiatric hospital and also did some research. After finishing my PhD in 2014 I decided to take a break before settling and opening my own private practice in Germany.
Well, I opened my practice online instead and haven’t regretted it at all! I can keep travelling, work from anywhere (as long as there is decent Internet of course) and still do the work I love. I really enjoy my work, helping people from all over the world to face and overcome their mental health issues. Most of my counselling is through video chat, but I also offer phone, chat and email counselling.
Why did you decide to carry out your job online?
At first, because I didn’t want to settle! Opening a private practice would most likely mean staying in the same place for the next 40 years or so… with not much more than 3-4 weeks of holidays at a time. To be honest, I had no idea that I could carry out my job online, until I met a girl on beach in Thailand who told me, that she skypes with her therapist… That’s when I started researching it and discovered, that it actually could work.
Now that I have been doing it for a while, I can see, that it is not only amazing for myself to work online, but also for my clients. I am much more flexible, easy to contact and I work on weekends (I really just don’t care that much about the day of the week anymore and love taking days off during the week when everyone else is working!).
Was there a lot of red tape or was it quite straight-forward to start practicing online?
There is a lot to take into account regarding privacy and security issues, but in the end, it wasn’t that complicated. My main problem was, that I am based in Germany, but in Germany, psychotherapy has to be face to face. Which does make sense especially in more severe cases, and acute crises.
It would be really hard to deal with a really suicidal client or admission into a psychiatric clinic while being that far away. Counselling on the other hand, is not really regulated that much in Germany, so almost anyone can do it. Which actually is a problem for potential clients, who should check the credentials of any online coach or psychologist. Where did they study, what kind of therapy training do they have, what work experience etc.
Are your patients mainly digital nomads themselves?
No, but most of my clients are expats. I also have clients who travel a lot for work and are not at home long enough to attend regular psychotherapy sessions. But many of my clients are more sedentary and choose online counselling because it is a lot easier for them than to go see someone, sometimes because they are to scared or because they simply don’t want to wait.
Many digital nomads are not making a lot of money and even though they might struggle with mental health issues, it seems more difficult for them to decide to invest in this. Maybe that is also an age phenomenon; a lot digital nomads seem quite young whereas most of my clients are at least in their 30ies.
Did your friends/family/colleagues think you’ve gone crazy or were they supportive?
Haha, yes! They did initially support my sabbatical, but opening my practice online was a bit hard to understand for them. Especially because I didn’t hate my life back home, on the contrary, I love Leipzig, it’s an amazing city and I still enjoy spending time there every summer!
But they did come around eventually, once they realised that I was serious about it (and working and making money). I am very lucky to have family and friends who love to travel, so I actually get to spend more time with them now, than I used to. My mum came to Vietnam with me 2 years ago and to Laos last year, I went to Thailand and Cambodia with my dad and my brother visited me in Thailand twice.
Recently I travelled around the east coast of Australia with a childhood friend and went hiking and camping in Tasmania with another friend visiting from home. So yes, I think they are pretty supportive now. Actually, I am getting requests on where I should go next, so that they have a good reason to come visit.
What do you think digital nomads struggle with most mental health wise?
I think that there are two answers to that question:
1) Digital nomads deal with all the same issues that everyone is dealing with. Studies show that about 50% of us will suffer from at least one mental illness during the course of our live; some estimates even go as high as 80%. New data from the WHO shows that 322 million people suffered from a depression in 2015, compared to 35 million having cancer. Sadly, mental health issues are still something, that most people don’t feel very comfortable talking about. But it really is much more common than you would think. And there is absolutely no reason, why digital nomads should not experience those same issues.
2) The digital nomad lifestyle itself can lead to specific mental health issues or accentuate some underlying issues. One thing that most digital nomads learn at some point along the way: you can’t run away from your problems. Changing location may help short term, but real issues will find their way back to you, no matter where you are.
It is very easy to feel lonely as a digital nomad. As digital nomads we often don’t have a very strong (real life) support network, most of our families and best friends are far away and many new relationships remain superficial.
We have a lot less routines and rituals compared to a more settled life. Especially in difficult moments, routines can be very helpful to “make it through the day”. Another aspect that doesn’t only affect digital nomads but is very common among DN too, is related to being self-employed. Most self-employed people work a lot more and are under more stress than employees.
You have to be very pro-active, be super-organized and goal-driven to succeed. It is very easy to get lost in the process, to procrastinate and not get much done while at the same time not taking very good care of your physical and mental health, because “you need to work more”. Or to feel bad, because you spent your day at the beach but should have done something else.
And if on top of that, you don’t feel very supported by your family and friends, while still feeling like you need to keep the show on social media, then this lifestyle can become very exhausting and challenging.
How can we make this lifestyle more sustainable for our health?
By taking better care of our mental health and us in general. First by acknowledging, that our mental health is an important issues. The sooner we see that and do something about it, the better. A balanced lifestyle, where work and private life are equally relevant, would also be a good start. I know that this is not easy for many, as those often get mixed, especially once social media become as much a work thing as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family.
Creating routines is really helpful, a morning and evening ritual that doesn’t involve a phone or laptop, good sleep, exercise and healthy food are something I would always recommend. And opening up to friends and family about struggles, fears and inner demons. Or, if that is not enough, talking to a professional of course.
How do you connect with and meet new people while travelling?
I do like to meet people offline, by simply talking to them in a café or bus etc. I love spending time on my own, but if we are the only two white people in an Asian restaurant, then I will probably start talking to you. Other than that, I meet a lot of people online, networking with other digital nomads or fellow psychologists.
What item should every Digital Nomad Girl pack?
I love my noise-cancelling headphones! And red tiger balm, especially for sore backs after sleeping on a bad mattress or doing too much yoga (not sure if there is such a thing as too much yoga, but I definitely know that there can be sore backs involved!).
What advice would you give a girl friend who wanted to start out as a digital nomad?
If you can, save up money beforehand. I have met many digital nomads really struggling financially and who then had to take on side jobs while trying to set up an online business. It is possible, but so much harder!
Figure out what work you really want to do. Don’t do it only for the lifestyle (unless you can afford to not work at all of course!).
My main advice would be: go for it, try it. See for yourself if this is the life you want. Look behind the glossy social media pictures! And it is ok if you decide that this is not want you want after all!
What are your next travel plans?
I am leaving Australia in a few days. My next bigger stop will be a month in Vietnam. I am really looking forward to discovering the north, where I haven’t been yet, but also going back to Hanoi and Halong bay! And then back to Europe for a few months, starting with Paris and then travelling around over the summer.
And last: Do you have a favourite inspirational (or cheesy) quote you’d like to share?
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. No matter how long the journey or how difficult the task. Break it down and take the first step. And don’t forget to get the help you need. You don’t have to do it all alone.
Sadly, mental health is still a bit of a taboo topic. Digital Nomads struggle with it just like anyone else, so let’s break that taboo and talk about it. Please share in the comments or get in touch with Sonia.