Moving to a new country can be an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience. You may have left your home country to embark on your dream job or lifestyle, or finally decided to take the plunge and leave your comfort zone for the opportunity to travel and immerse yourself in a new culture. What many people may not realise, however, is that there’s a lot more to the experience of moving than the initial excitement and novelty of a new place. Many are disillusioned and disappointed when the excitement wears off and they start to feel lonely or miss their family and friends back home. The dream of a relaxed lifestyle in the sun can suddenly lose its appeal when cultural differences start to appear and things are not done as you’re used to back home. What can help, when bumps in the road do appear, is to remember that whatever you’re feeling is completely natural and part of the experience of moving abroad. Like anything worth your while, there will be highs and lows, and navigating these is part of the challenge. And, as we love to say in psychotherapy, it’s all part of the process.
So, what is this process and what should I expect? There are 4 stages involved in adjusting to a new country:
1. The Honeymoon period
This is the exciting phase, the one you wish would never end. Here, the new sights, sounds and smells entice you and you want to explore everything the country has to offer. You feel very motivated to learn about the country, its traditions and people and you feel open-minded and excited for what the future holds. At this stage, you can handle anything. Even your neighbours shouting from one balcony to the other at 6am may make you smile into your pillow as you relish becoming part of the friendly, Mediterranean culture you left home to experience.
The honeymoon period has well and truly ended and the differences between your new home and what you left back home begin to stand out. Differences which initially seemed cute and part of island life start to grate on you. Small issues begin to seem like major catastrophes and you begin to question if you’ll survive or if you should pack it all in and go back home. Homesickness also appears at this stage and the ‘grass is always greener’ phenomena gains momentum. You start feeling particularly confused when you begin to miss things back home which you didn’t even like, such as your unfriendly neighbours or the rain and cold. You may become critical of your new-found home and experience frustration, negativity and sadness.
This is the point at which the tides start to turn, as you start to become more familiar with the new country, its culture, values and the people. While highs and lows may still occur, the lows are cushioned by an increasing level of familiarity and sense of belonging within the community, place of work or a social group. Your sense of humour returns, allowing you to appreciate some of the eccentricities of your new home. Your understanding of the country also deepens, bringing with it a greater ability to adapt to and accept the differences. Here, growth occurs as you gain confidence in yourself and your ability to move out of your comfort zone and into uncertainty.
This is the final stage of the acclimatisation process, when you finally start to feel at home in your adopted country. You can now appreciate the differences between your country of origin and new home without feeling the need to judge or criticise. You may still miss friends and family but you feel strong enough and settled enough to experience such feelings without letting them overwhelm you. Another supportive factor are the ties you’ve built in your new home, such as favourite hang-outs, new friends, memberships in groups or clubs, and so on. You now feel a sense of belonging and increased strength within yourself to appreciate and enjoy what your new home has to offer.
Being able to move through all 4 stages of acclimatisation without getting stuck in any of the phases is essential to a feeling of well-being and happiness. The following tips may help you to achieve this:
• Accept that your move to a new country won’t be without its hitches. When you experience practical hurdles or feel frustrated or low, trust that things will get better.
• Get out there to try new things and meet new people. Join a gym, start a yoga class or join a team sport. You may also consider starting a course or searching for online groups offering the opportunity to join group activities e.g. hiking groups, expat groups, etc
• When you question your decision to move to the new country, and possibly even experience regret, take a few deep breaths and recall the reason you chose to move in the first place. If you moved so as to take on a new job, don’t lose sight of the reason you decided to do this. Remind yourself regularly of your goal and what you’d like to achieve as a result of accepting a job in a new country. This will give you a sense of purpose when your emotions cause you to lose perspective and hope.
• Explore ways of managing stress, such as exercise or meditation. You would also benefit from taking care to eat healthily and get plenty of rest.
• Keep in regular contact with people you miss back home. Nowadays, this is relatively easy and inexpensive and will allow you to manage your homesickness until you feel more settled.
• Cultivate an attitude of acceptance. Integration will be easier if you learn to accept the differences between your country of origin and where you are now living. Here, you’re simply accepting that differences exist without trying to change or resist them. A useful mantra may be – ‘People do things differently here but that’s okay’.
• If you’re feeling low, don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to a friend, invite a colleague out for a coffee or make an appointment to see a professional, such as a therapist or counsellor. Whatever you do, remember there is support out there.