“I Had a High Standard of Living, and Now I Have to Start Everything over from Scratch”: the Psychological Trauma of Emigrants

Psychologist Galina Bobko discussed the feelings and experiences that relocators may face and how to prepare yourself to survive them exclusively for the Anywhere Club blog.

Galina Bobko

— Moving to another country is always stressful, and workers who relocate may experience that stress to varying degrees: some are able to make the transition more easily, while others may struggle and find it very difficult. Psychologist Galina Bobko works with clients who have moved to another country and she highlights a number of common experiences they may face, including:

  • Stress arising from the significant and ongoing effort that you need to make in order to adapt to your new surroundings;
  • Feeling of loss or deprivation resulting from the absence of your usual and comfortable attachments that remained in your previous location, this may apply to things like status and to the members of your inner circle;
  • Feeling of rejection arising from the inability to establish comfortable psychological contacts with your new environment;
  • Unexpected anxiety when encountering the significant differences between your own and another culture;
  • Feelings of inferiority associated with the inability to understand your new cultural environment.


— If some of these experiences are familiar to you, then let’s talk about the impact of culture shock, which underlies the psychological trauma of those who relocate, says Galina.

What can cause the psychological trauma experienced by some relocators?

— An oversaturation of external influences and stimuli that a person feels they can’t cope with, and which threaten the integrity of their psyche, can cause the trauma, explains Galina. A person may begin to feel a traumatic experience vividly once they have moved through the tourist and euphoric stages of adaptation. Afterward, there comes a phase when it is necessary to quickly resolve everyday issues: shops, banks, schools, medical institutions, etc. A fear of helplessness may grow, and a feeling of confusion can intensify. This can lead to trauma. Let’s talk about some common feelings and experiences that you might recognize.

Loss of social status and your sense of self-worth

— I frequently hear: “I had a high standard of living, wealth, and habits that matched my income before, and now I have to start everything over from scratch.”

Violation of self-image

— “Here I am nobody, here I have no rights to anything!” Negative ideas about yourself are a consequence of dramatic changes in your social status, environment, and lifestyle. In these moments, you may have a strong desire to return to the familiar, where everything was clear, calm, and arranged. In the moment, retreating into your former world as you remember it seems to be the only possible way to cope with the stress.

Loss of roots

— According to the science of cultural anthropology, a person, regardless of their nationality, belongs to the cultural group in which their consciousness and language were formed. Those who relocate, especially when they stay for a long time without the opportunity to visit their native country, may begins to feel at a loss, and wonder: who am I now? Where are my roots? What will I pass on to my children?

This may be most acutely felt by those whose closest relatives also emigrated, leaving them with no close connections in their native country. When this happened in my family, I acutely felt that now I had matured, and I urgently needed additional supports to replace those that used to be unshakable in my homeland.

Guilt

— A person who left their native country may feel the guilt of the survivor, the guilt that they missed something, that they did something wrong, that they failed to convince someone, that they quarreled with loved ones. This can be especially hard for those who have now settled safely in a new place but can’t enjoy the simple pleasures of their new life because they are constantly feeling the burden of responsibility for those who have remained back home.

How can you deal with the psychological trauma of relocation?

— An emigrant in a new country can’t exist in isolation, separate, from the society in which they live. To feel a part of that new society, they need to go through all of the psychological difficulties of emigration: getting used to the new country, adapting, adjusting. It is helpful to share the difficult stages of adaptation with people who have gone through it before or are facing similar difficulties now: they know exactly how difficult it is. Don’t be afraid to seek help from local communities, says Galina.

Admit to yourself that you are now in an entirely new situation - an emigrant who has to start many things all over again. Awareness and acceptance of this state, and acknowledging the difficulties that may arise on your way to adaptation, can facilitate your process of integration into a new society.

Knowing the psychological difficulties that may await you at different stages of your adaptation can actually help you avoid getting stuck in them and prevent them from developing into psychological trauma.

Another important tip is to seek help from specialists. Psychological assistance can help you find new meaning in your new life, and help you take responsibility for your path in your new society. The loss of old supports can be a steppingstone to understanding that you can become a support for yourself and others. Professional assistance can help you create a higher quality of life, experience more satisfaction in your new surroundings, and care for yourself and your loved ones.

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