Nina Volontey

Psychologist / Gestalt-therapist / International mediator

Psychological problems of being abroad and ways to help your self

Psychological problems of being abroad and ways to help your self

I had personal experience of dealing with migration and emigration problems. Therefore writing this article is personal for me. I would like to share my experience, difficulties, victories and losses I have had as an expat and practical advice and knowledge I’ve used or acquired, that helped me in the fullness of time.

First of all, I’m an experienced expat. I was born in Akademgorodok of Novosibirsk, lived in Malaysia with parents later, then a bit of US, then India, then, a bit longer, Moscow, then Poland (I hoped it would become my home, but plans changed). As for now I live in Moscow and I hope this is the final destination of my movements. At least for some more or less long period of time. Every movement was hard for me, but it gets easier with practice. But some problems never change. For example…

Constantly feeling stressed

Different people have different signs of stress. When I’m stressed, it feels tense in my back and stomach when it comes to physical reaction. Mentally stress is presented as a dilemma: “Who I can trust and to what extent”. Who can I rely on, who can I ask for help, and what help (and who can I not)? Who should I stay away from and why? Who is my friend (at least hypothetically)? What should I do in different situations? What will people think about different actions? How do they expect me to act? What am I ready to accept in a new environment and what is inappropriate? Etc. Those were emotionally difficult moments, and to deal with them, I needed a lot of support, risk and self work. Of course, people also wonder about these questions in their usual surrounding, at home, at their city, at their country. However, these questions are especially actual, on point and vital in a new environment. Cause moving means experiencing a loss and uncertainty of future, hopes, meeting new things.

Who is easy with this?

Success of adaptation in a new place usually depends on several factors. Including person qualities (for example, original depression level), amount of negative and unwanted occasions through life, social support level. It’s easier for those people who perceive movements as a temporary action, who are certain with a job and a place to live. But even in this case expat’s emotional connections to people who stayed at the home place get partially broken. It can be hard to pass through it, and making new relationships takes time. I.e. the expat is emotionally weakened anyway. If emigration is conjugated to a big proportion of uncertainty in every area (work, living, relationship, future) or is forced, people take is as a psychological trauma. The most difficult process of expat adapting in a new place occurs at the first two years.

Emotions, negative thoughts and health…

During two years of working with expats in Poland I noticed that some people adapt easier in a new place than others. Those having stronger stress and worse adapting often think: “I can’t change myself and my life”, “There is no place for pain and suffering in my life”, “Everyone should help me and feel with me”, “I’m defective, cause I can’t deal with the situation” etc. Those who adapt faster have less negative thoughts.

Migration affects mind stressfully and can easily initiate psychosomatic diseases development. Not experienced and/or ignored emotions can result into these diseases. There are bronchial asthma, neurodermattis, anorexia, bulimia, dyspnea, skin diseases among the most spread expats’ diseases. Emotional support and ability to express one’s thoughts are very important components of self-support, especially at the early stage of emigration. Besides, if you decided to emigrate, you should take care of having time of get your hand in. Cause going through hard emotions rapidly is yet another stress!

How to support myself?

A. Local language
While getting used to a new country, you should learn the language and culture of this country. During 2 years in Poland I was meeting with a Polish girl Katia in a language tandem. This was not only an opportunity of learning the language, feeling your mother tongue knowledge needed, but also a way to make friends and get to know more about local traditions. Overall, these meetings were a great support for me. As for me, I found Katia on a Couchsurfing website, but there are other ways to find alike persons in emigration. If adapting was successful, a person is integrated in a new environment with ease, partially accepting new cultural customs while keeping original.

B. Contacts and communication
One of the ways for me to adapt in Poland was a theatre workshop where I could make scenarios that were close to what was happening to me. While I was playing situations, I received support and got a new vision of the situation. Being involved into a certain activity and connected to a group of people in a new place guarantees successful adaptation. Also a therapy group would greatly fit for this purpose (a small where you can experiment, get support, notice differences and similarities between you and others). Being in contact with other aliens was also an important thing. I could discuss things that didn’t satisfy me or seemed weird. Discussing my dissatisfaction with the society was much easier with them, than with local friends: I was confused and afraid to offend them. It may sound trivially, but try to stay in touch with your folks. Use modern means of communication, video chats etc. to be able to share your feelings and talk about news.

Even in difficult circumstances there is always a choice of self-supporting ways. Here are few pieces of advice which can help reduce stress over the first two years in a new place:

  • Don’t refuse support
  • Help other people when possible
  • Take part in workshops (language, religion, sport etc.)
  • Share your feelings with those who are ready to hear them
  • If you want to cry, don’t restrain yourself, cry
  • Go in for sports, choose any possible
  • Have your meals according to the timetable
  • Talk to your friends and folks left at the previous place of living
  • Learn the language and culture
  • Avoid negative thoughts
  • Remember, adapting doesn’t last forever. There will be a day when you wake up and feel that you are home.

Written by Nina Volontey. Psychologist and gestalt-therapist.

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