Integrating into a New Culture and its Effects on Mental Health
“The last rays of light, with warmth that dispatches every memory of loss tattooed in the core,
my mind is like the cloudless sky that surrounds me,
without any thought, without any worry.
The disarray vanishing with the vivacious sun,
every leaf of my every branch feeling buoyant,
The worn-out path of the past,
detached and a new one that blossomed with enduring strength,
It lay ahead, as limitless as the horizon itself.”
The quote above is a reflection of a very difficult process of letting go and assimilating new experiences into my life after re-locating to the Caribbean in 2009. Having moved abroad three times throughout my lifetime, I have encountered various situations that have challenged my mind and capacities in ways that I had never experienced before. When moving abroad, a change of environment can often feel foreign and discomforting. The act of moving abroad challenges our ability to cope with new situations and our flexibility to adapt to a new environment.
Allowing ourselves to give into this process, rather than having resistance towards the new situation, enables us to express heart wrenching, unyielding emotions, in order to allow new experiences and perceptions of viewing the world to become assimilated in the present moment. Many times this process of change involves letting go of preconceived notions and re-defining our identity and inner strengths. Identity is an ever changing process when adapting to a new culture. It is also known as acculturation, the assimilation process of a different culture within the personality of an individual. The resistance toward change can lead to emotional difficulties such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Below is a list of symptoms that some individuals experience after moving abroad.
Lack of pleasure in daily activities
Feeling lethargic, low on energy
Experiencing excessive guilt
Lower sexual drive
Excessive time spent sleeping, overeating, watching television or distracting behaviours
Unwillingness to leave the house
No desire in socialising with others
Increase of alcohol or drug consume (Sean D. Truman, EAP Chestnut Global Partners)
Relocation symptoms can lead to depression if symptoms persist after 12 months. In generalised anxiety disorder, the main symptom includes the presence of excessive anxiety in a variety of activities, topics, and events, for at least 6 months (DSM V). This difficulty is shown in a study by Black and Gregersen, (1991). They concluded that mental health problems are more likely to occur when there is a significant difference between the home country culture and the foreign country. Having an awareness toward new situations allows individuals to integrate and embrace various cultural differences and learn to embrace a new way of life.
How to cope with the challenges of moving abroad?
As many individuals have experienced, including myself, moving abroad is often accompanied by emotions such as loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and homesickness throughout the first six months in a new country. Moving abroad is a process of adaptation and assimilation. My experience, as seen by the writing above, included creating diverse poems and finding an outlet for my emotions. Finding ways to express emotions creatively can cause a release of built up emotions in the body. This could involve writing in a journal, painting, crafting, photography, or other creative projects.
Writing allows individuals to process emotions and let go of previous situations. Expressing emotions through creative media, as seen in Gestalt therapy, allows the individual to externalise the inner world toward the outside through projection. Through this projection we are able to create some distance, which allows a renewed perception to be brought into the current awareness. This broader awareness can allow the person to integrate new aspects into their experience. The expression of emotion can hinder the many difficult symptoms of relocation stress to further develop into mental health issues including depression and anxiety. (Hartmann-Kottek, 2014). Throughout my experiences of moving abroad, I adopted a few attitudes that allowed me to facilitate the transition to a new environment. Some of these include putting all preconceived notions and expectations aside and attempting to approach the new environment as a blank slate, including curiosity toward cultural differences and an overall openness to a different way of life.
According to Berry (1992), there are various ways to maintain the individual’s own identity while becoming part of the new society. It might be important to ask yourself if there are traditions that fit within your personality and way of life. This type of question might lead to changes of identity in the individual. The process of acculturation is an essential process which often results in a positive impact on mental health. Adapting to a new culture can prevent a person from isolation and developing social anxiety. However, it is a challenging process that can also trigger unresolved emotions and conflicts involving our home country culture, relationships, and identity.
For this reason, emotions and adapting to a new environment can be difficult to navigate on our own. While some of us can grow from adversity and adapt to situations, others might need extra support from expat communities or from a mental health professional when overwhelming emotions persist over long periods of time. The importance of reaching out for professional psychotherapy lies in the symptoms, which persist over longer periods of time and tend to get worse over time rather than improving.
Despite how worn down and secluded one can feel when moving abroad, getting psychotherapy is a sign of inner strength. It is a sign of taking care of yourself, of accepting the vulnerability within yourself in order to grow from adversity. Acculturation when moving abroad is a process of assimilation, learning to express emotions, adapting to situations, and ultimately in finding your own path in a limitless horizon of possibilities.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013)
Lök S, Lök P. Efficiency of physical exercise programs on chronic psychiatric patients: a systematic review. Current Approach Psychiatry. 2016;8(4):354–366.
Rubin/ BackBone Inc., Michele. Expatriates at Higher Risk for Mental Health Issues and Substance Abus. 14 Mar. 2012, www.prweb.com/releases/2012/3/prweb9277073.htm. Accessed 20 Jan. 2019.
González, G., & Bretones. (n.d.). Identity and migration: The formation of new transcultural identities. México: Plaza Y Valdés Editores, 137-164. Accessed January 20, 2019.
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About the Author
Originally from Hamburg Germany, Ms. Stephanie Sattkowski moved around a lot as a child and is familiar with confronting changes and transformation in life. All of the obstacles she's been through made a positive impact on her attitude towards life and her work as a psychotherapist in training. Ms.Sattkowski speaks English, Spanish and German.
Gestalt Therapy helps clients focus on the present and understand what is really happening in their lives right now, rather than what they may perceive to be happening based on past experience. Instead of simply talking about past situations, clients are encouraged to experience them, perhaps through re-enactment. Through the gestalt process, clients learn to become more aware of how their own negative thought patterns and behaviors are blocking true self-awareness and making them unhappy.
Stephanie offers a free consultation to interested people.
For more information visit sattkowski-praxis.com