Moving to another country is a major life change. After arriving in the new country, every immigrant goes through an immigration process during which they internally process the effects caused to their life by changes in the external situation. The effects of the change have to be dealt with even when moving between countries with similar cultures. The effects may, however, be stronger when the difference between the home country and the new country is more significant.
People deal with change in an individual manner affected by childhood experiences, age, gender, education, ethnic and religious background, culture in the home country, reasons for moving, traumatic experiences, length of period they have to wait for asylum and the related uncertainty, attitudes towards immigrants as well as the presence or lack of social support.
There are many different reasons for immigration. A refugee, for example, has to leave their home country because of war or persecution. They often have to let go of a lot very quickly and may not have time to prepare for their departure. Sometimes the escape has been prepared for a long time without being able to tell anyone. In many cases, they have not had the time or possibility to say goodbye to their loved ones. Often a refugee has experienced a lot of difficult things already in their home country. Also the journey to the new country may have been long and difficult. Many have lived in refugee camps. Refugees often have to freeze their emotions in order to cope with everything they have been through and to be able to function.
Migrants, on the other hand, have planned their departure. They usually want to improve their lives in some way. They may move to another country to study, to ensure a better future for the whole family or just to spread their wings in a new environment. Sometimes a migrant has also made the decision to leave because of their circumstances and also they may have traumatic experiences. However, they usually have had the time and opportunity to plan their departure, say goodbye to their loved ones and arrange things.
Regardless of why they left, everyone has to let go of something when they leave for a new country and everyone goes through the process of adapting to the new situation. For some, the change may be painless, inspiring and filled with positive curiosity, while for others, it may take years and be painful. The latter is often true for asylum seekers and refugees, but integrating into the new country is also a challenge for migrants. In most cases, adapting takes a lot of time and is sometimes hard.
Most of us are not prepared for how stressful settling in a new culture may be. Stress expressed as anxiety and pressure is a natural response to the change of culture and surroundings. Everything may feel strange and difficult at times. Also feelings of despair are common. Many people also feel other powerful emotions and reactions that may be confusing and scary. This is, however, a completely normal reaction to change. Even after difficult times, there's usually a new beginning and you start to find out how to live your life in the new country.
Arriving in a new country is often positive and hopeful period. Cultural differences do not bother but rather fascinate. Excitement, relief and gratitude are common feelings at this stage. The newcomer usually has high hopes and expectations and they strongly believe, for example, that they will learn the language and find a job. They also usually have lots of energy to arrange things. The expectations and hopes may be unrealistic in some part. It may, for example, seem like there are no problems in the new country. This is because they tend to deny any difficulties or simply close their eyes. They look for confirmation in their environment that leaving was the right choice.
Conflict between hopes and possibilities
Attitudes towards the new country become more realistic after some time: you see problems of life everywhere. You also start to see what's bad about Finland and Finns. Gaining access to education or finding a job is difficult. Your home country starts to feel good in every respect and the new country bad. At this stage, you usually feel bad and suffer from various types of ailments. Feelings of loneliness and disappointment are common: Maybe I should have not come here after all? Did I make the right choice?
Powerful reactions and feelings
Uncertainty about the future and lack of routines cause a lot of stress. Focusing on the new situation takes up a lot of strength and energy. This is mentally very hard. At the same time, one should be able to find new relationships to make up for extended family and old friends. Immigrants may not be able to find a suitable job right away, and there may also be problems with living, money and eating. This usually brings up strong reactions and emotions that may even feel frightening. Many say that they have been completely overwhelmed by how strong the feelings were. Even strong feelings, however, are an understandable and normal part of adapting.
Feelings and reactions common to many immigrants in this phase:
- fatigue, weakness, frustration and despair
- irritation, bitterness, anger, hate and aggression
- insomnia and nightmares
- forgetting words, names and appointments, attention difficulties
- headache, upset stomach, other physical symptoms
- fearfulness and distrust
- not being able to do anything or make contact with the new society
- exaggerated energy in arranging one's matters.
It often helps to know that negative feelings are a part of the normal immigration process. And that this phase will also pass. Sometimes people are afraid that their personality has changed for good; that the negative reactions and feelings remain a part of themselves. This is not true. You will get through this stage when you deal with your thoughts and feelings. Not processing these issues may lead to a deep crisis or depression.
Little by little, you will start to see positive things in the new country as well and take a more positive attitude towards the future. You start to regain your faith in the ability to cope even when there are difficulties. You have the courage to invest in life in the new country both emotionally and in action. You start, for example, building lasting relationships or plan to get an apartment of your own.
A long time may pass without even thinking about having emigrated. That is why many immigrants are surprised by a temporary setback in their settling in process as a result of events in their home country, for example. The strength of this reaction may depend on distance from their home country and the opportunities to visit. For refugees, safety may prevent a visit, for immigrants, the reason may be money. It is important to remember that this setback is only temporary and that the journey will continue.
The basic feeling in this stage is often grief that is also felt as homesickness. Grieving is a natural, even unavoidable phase. You have to let go of the past in order to be able to focus on the future. Only after grieving for what you have lost, you can look forward and see the possibilities of the new country. Grieving is a sign that you are ready to move on. Your history becomes a strength and memories turn into assets.
In this stage of the process, you start to notice the positive sides of immigration. A person knows two cultures and knows how to operate in both of them. The melange of the cultures brings enrichment to life and offers new possibilities. The person has adapted. Normal joys, issues and calmness are a part of life again.
The immigration process can lead to crisis
People can get stuck in various phases of the immigration process. If you feel bad for a long time and don't feel like you are moving on, seek help. Even a powerful cultural crisis will pass when dealt with actively. Seeking professional help is not shameful. It's a good idea to seek help whenever you feel bad for a longer period of time.
Some people have experienced traumatic events. The trauma may be individual, such as a difficult childhood experience, or collective, such as persecution or war. Traumatic experiences often involve a profound feeling of helplessness, fear and horror. It may lead to a post-traumatic stress disorder the symptoms of which make the adaptation process all the more difficult. In such cases, the traumatic event comes back to mind over and over again in an uncontrolled manner as images or thoughts, for example, that cause anxiety.
A stimulus reminiscent of the traumatic event may trigger a strong feeling of reliving the situation. People try to avoid situations where this might happen. This may make it difficult to manage everyday matters and to be with other people. In this case, a person is constantly on guard and fearful and avoids close relationships with anyone. Irritation and expressions of anger are common. This may lead to isolation and loneliness or conflicts within the family.
Trauma often goes hand in hand with sleeping disorders, memory disorders and attention problems. They have an impact on the ability to operate and learn and make it more difficult to learn the language, for example, or work. A person may feel that their opportunities to influence the future have narrowed. They are easily offended and interpret messages from the environment in a way that is not beneficial to themselves. They may find it extremely difficult to trust others. Even when we can't change what has happened, we can learn to live with trauma.
How to adapt?
You can have a great influence on how you feel. Below, some proven methods are listed that might help in adapting to the new country. Noticing that you have an option to influence matters is already a big step in the right direction.
- Realistic expectations concerning the new country and its people.
- Grief for the past, but look forward to the future.
- Focus on living right now even if you plan to return.
- Invest in permanent matters even if you have not decided to stay in this particular country for good.
- Try to learn the new culture, to cope in your new roles and avoid conflicts. The previous culture, your skills and your personality are not going anywhere. No one moves to another country empty-handed. You bring with you your personal history, all valuable experiences, knowledge and skills. These are the strengths that help you survive. Combine what's good in both cultures.
- Be brave: learn the language, start studying or look for work. Learning the language is the best way to adapt. Start it as soon as possible.
- Set appropriately sized goals for yourself and move towards them in small steps. What kinds of goals and ambitions did you have previously? How can you continue with them and achieve them also in the new country? You can also create new plans and dreams for the future.
- Ensure that you follow a steady daily rhythm: get up every morning and do something. Routines support you in everyday life. Daily routines increase a feeling of safety and the ability to survive.
- Start to get to know your own country in the immediate neighbourhood. Later, you can expand your trips. Moving around on your own improves self-confidence.
- Start an interesting hobby. Exercise, for example, is relaxing and improves mental wellbeing. It brings variety, recreation, excitement, joy and something meaningful to do. Exercise also improves self-confidence, initiative, ability to think and ability to perform. Exercise can help to reduce anxiety, tension, sleeplessness and sleep disturbances.
- Enjoy food, relax and rest sufficiently.
- Remember that your feelings and reactions are normal. Talking about your experiences and feelings makes you feel better. Meet friends and loved ones. Talk to others and explain how you are feeling. They may have similar feelings and thoughts.