Relocation Is Like the First Child's Birth: 5 Psychological Phases of Adaptation
Euphoria, tourism, getting around, depression and stabilization — this is how the emigrant's path looks simplified. Psychologist Galina Bobko talks about the stages of the relocation and the moments you should be prepared for. Exclusively for the Anywhere Club blog.
— My family and I moved from Minsk to Vilnius in 2021. We experienced both the first joys and the difficulties of relocation. Including psychological, which comes with the packed luggage — says Galina Bobko, — I am a practicing psychologist, and last summer, I conducted a study as part of my training: I examined families who have moved to other countries. My analysis was devoted to what level of family adaptation families live through at different stages of relocation. It turned out that the emotional difficulties that families faced the first time after moving to a new place were typical for families when they had their first child.
What are the similarities? New challenges must be met, and new rules must be worked out. The family must simultaneously discuss new contacts with the outside world alongside continuously solving internal management and communication problems. Relationships with new people are being formed. The family must deal with hospitals and schools and re-establish the "kilometer zero" infrastructure with proper stores, customary services, and favorite foods. Going through the adaptation process in another country, the family must find appropriate ways to maintain a balance while contributing to the development of the family.
Whether we want it or not, moving to another country will still refer to a crisis in its scope and impact our growth.
The cycle of living a crisis is very similar to the classic coping with grief. But, like any cycle, this process is finite and has every chance of ending with successful integration into a new society.
Relocation adaptation can be divided into five stages.
Phase 1: Euphoria
Duration: from several days to several months
In this phase, primarily positive emotions predominate. A person feels relief from the first big successful step. Such things as difficult choices, the preparation of documents, the relocation itself, and the search for a new home left behind. It took a lot of effort to convince relatives that this decision was correct. The accomplishment is enormous! This is basically the riskiest and most challenging step for some people. A moment when you want to exhale and reward yourself.
Phase 2: Tourism
Duration: 1-3 months
During this phase, people learn about the visible surface of an unfamiliar society: houses, transport, streets, advertisements, and way of life. As a rule, they like it all very much. During this period, the attractive aspects of the new life are noted, and every detail seems interesting. Impressions of the move are expressed by enthusiastic phrases, for example: "Can you imagine, everything is different here, such friendly people, clean entrances, everyone smiles at us, not like at home!"
The influx of positive energy could be helpful in two ways: to establish routines and expand social connections. On the one hand, it will help reduce the initial disorganization and chaos that can be overwhelming in the first weeks, and on the other hand, active networking and joining local communities can help when you no longer have the energy or time to do so.
Phase 3: Getting Around
Duration: 3-6 months
There is a constant process of overcoming stress in this phase. It is the gap between what is desired and what is real. Many questions arise that are difficult to answer. A relatively minor problem or conflict can become very significant. Something you would have reacted to calmly at home seems to worsen. Some migrants feel like "deaf-mute unemployed." One ceases to feel like a master of one's own destiny. For the first time, people ask themselves, "What am I doing here? Should I drop everything and go back?"
The advice is not to take impulsive actions. Rely on the settled routine and relationships by this time. This will help you learn survival skills more quickly by imitating what's around you and feeling more confident in your new circumstances.
Phase 4: Depression
Duration: from 3 months to 2 years
As a rule, all migrants go through this phase regardless of how successfully they overcome the previous adaptation phases. It is a reaction to a prolonged impact of stress factors: change of habitual life stereotypes, feelings of separation and nostalgia, loss of social status, and dissatisfaction with self-realization within different activities.
This is the most challenging phase since, in addition to everyday organizational differences, we begin to notice that our values, ideas, and problems are different from what is vital to the locals. In contrast to the initial stages of adaptation, we begin to convince ourselves that everything turns out to be the opposite, that everything here is wrong, that people here are evil, do not understand anything about trivial things, that the difference between you is vast and close communication becomes impossible.
Detachment, isolation, and reluctance to communicate are characteristic of this stage. There is a considerable temptation to shrink into oneself, shut down, and cut off much that has been done by this time. It is most dangerous to get stuck here. If you notice that this condition lasts more than 1-2 months, don't hesitate to seek help from specialists.
The best thing you can do is force yourself to communicate with locals, attend local events, speak the local language, and gradually integrate into the community.
Phase 5: Stabilization or productive interaction
Duration — the person can come to this stage in a year after moving, in more severe adaptation scenarios — in several years.
Overcoming the depressive stage hinge on the degree of activity and the level of social adaptation. There comes an understanding that you do not need to live the life of the locals: it is enough to know why what is normal for them seems alien to you. A state of comfort, emotional stability, and equilibrium become possible here.
This too, shall pass!
If you find yourself at any of the stages, great! Now you can orient in what has already passed and what may lie ahead. It is reassuring and encouraging that everyone goes through such a cycle when relocating and that it is finite. In most cases, it ends with acquiring new adaptation skills, connections, and new opportunities under challenging conditions.