Stress of migrating to a new country – a friend or an enemy?
Without doubt, migrating to a new country is one of the most stressful events you can experience. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to face new challenges. Moving abroad involves experiencing multiple changes in many aspects of your life including the working environment, language, customs, financial status, living conditions, social activities, frequency and quality of family relations, plus adopting to cultural changes. Stress can be understood as a state of mind which is under threat of losing balance due to internal or external demands.
Richard Lazarus explains that stress arises when individuals perceive that they cannot adequately cope with the demands being made of them or handling these threats to their well-being. If the stress experienced during a stay in a foreign country is moderate and perceived as bearable, it stimulates the body to mobilise and to act. This helps preparing for job interviews, researching local markets, and reaching out to people when help is needed. Not many people know that stressful events are accompanied by oxytocin release and this is drives humans to seek help and strengthen relations with others when stressed. However, there is also a dark side to stress called ‘distress’ which can, if untreated, lead to many emotional and medical problems. Stress can increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, ulcers and mental illnesses such as depression or social anxiety. What can protect us from this ‘bad’ stress? It helps to be vigilant and pay attention to early symptoms by observing the way stress affects our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. It also helps to know how to manage and deal with distress in more constructive ways.
I spent almost six years living abroad in the UK. In the beginning, I found the most challenging and stressful situations were communicating in English with the locals (even though my English language skills were pretty good). I clearly remember the constant feeling of anxiety about not understanding English in social situations which inhibited my growth in many ways. I didn’t find it difficult to make friends with other expats but found it very hard to mingle with the British. I mostly felt stressed by both career and social demands, resulting in social anxiety and sadness (because of relationship failures and homesickness). After a few years I decided to get psychological counselling as I felt I was experiencing an emotional breakdown. Stress that, in the beginning, was helping me to go for job interviews and meet new people in a social context but in the end, it turned out to be unbearable and it developed into a depressive episode. If I could turn back time, I would have dealt with the stressful situations faster by seeking help sooner and developing a more constructive approach to stress management.
I have always wondered why stress affects us in so many ways? Some people seem to be more resilient while others are more vulnerable to stressful situations. Why do some people, being thousands of miles away from home, face challenges and difficulties resulting in feelings of isolation with emotional breakdown, yet others in similar situations fight and gain strength? There are many factors influencing the way we deal with stress. It can depend on biological factors, personality traits, previous experiences coupled with objective external triggers (duration and intensity). The way we experience stress also depends on our subjective perception of external events and foreknowledge of useful methods for dealing with it. So how do you deal with stressful situations? Do you try to avoid them and use unconstructive and risky behaviours like drinking or smoking? Do you usually try to escape by ‘switching off’ your brain, watching a movie or reading a book? Or maybe when you are stressed you prefer to talk to friends or family? Have you tried more formal methods like breathing technique, mindfulness exercises, workouts, practicing gratitude and/or visualization?
Below you can find a short and useful exercise:
Begin by bringing your attention into your body. Close your eyes if that’s comfortable for you. Notice your body seated wherever you are, feeling the weight of your body on the chair or on the floor. Take a few deep breaths. As you take a deep breath, it brings in more oxygen, enlivening the body. As you exhale, focus on the sense of relaxing more deeply. Notice your feet on the floor and notice the sensations of your feet touching the floor. The weight, the pressure, vibration or heat.
Notice your legs against the chair, pressure, pulsing, heaviness, lightness. Notice your back against the chair. Start by bring your attention into your core. If your stomach is tense or tight, let it soften. Take a breath. Notice your hands. Are your hands tense or tight? Allow them to soften. Notice your arms. Feel any sensation in your arms? Let your shoulders be soft. Notice your neck and throat. Let them be soft. Relax. Breath. Soften your jaw. Let your face and facial muscles be soft. Then notice your whole-body in the present. Take a deep breath. Be aware of your whole body as best you can. Take one more deep breath. Exhale and relax.And then when you’re calm and ready, you can open your eyes.