We all live within various systems that, throughout our lives, shape who we are and how we behave. These systems encompass the verbal community around us, its customs, language, the physical context with its characteristics (political, religious, cultural organization, etc.), infrastructure, and even the climate, all of which influence the environment where we feel comfortable. Additionally, we form a social circle that provides support, contributing significantly to our well-being and sense of belonging.

Relocating is already one of the most stressful events in a person’s life, and when the move is international, it can have an even more significant impact on the pillars of our lives, disrupting the systems that help us navigate our environment satisfactorily.

In this article, we will explore some of the challenges faced during expatriation, as well as strategies to facilitate a smooth adjustment to the new environment.

Psychological Impact of Expatriation

The business world has undergone profound changes in recent decades. In the era of globalization, employees must increasingly adapt to different cultures (Caligiuri, 2013). Expatriation has seen a dramatic increase (Brookfield, 2015), sparking psychology’s interest in understanding the potential challenges people face when working abroad and adjusting to a new environment.

Expatriation, or international relocation, presents numerous psychological challenges that should not be underestimated. Culture shock, separation from family and support systems, adaptation to new rules and values, and the need to establish a new sense of belonging can lead to high levels of stress, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. These factors can, in turn, result in issues such as poor adjustment to the host country (Harari, Reaves, Beane, Laginess, & Viswesvaran, 2018), reduced work performance (Kawai & Strange, 2014), difficulties in dealing with culture shock (Okpara, 2016), or a negative impact on overall well-being (Kempen et al., 2015).

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Phases of cultural adjustment:

  • Anticipation: The initial stage begins before departure. Excitement, curiosity, and anticipation are mixed with anxiety and the apprehension of the unknown. The thought of leaving behind familiar surroundings and friends can create a mixture of emotions, which can sometimes be uncomfortable.
  • Honeymoon: Upon arrival at the destination, the "honeymoon" phase often begins. The novelty and variety of experiences are often enjoyable and intense. New surroundings, social connections, and cultural experiences provide a sense of adventure that is highly rewarding. This phase is often characterized by enthusiasm, fascination, and wonder.
  • Culture Shock: As the novelty wears off, people may experience culture shock. The language barrier, customs, social norms, and daily routines can create feelings of frustration, confusion, and homesickness. The familiar and known may be missed, and the challenges of adapting to the new culture can lead to a sense of isolation and disorientation, which intensify over time.
  • Adjustment: Gradually, individuals begin to adapt and integrate into the host culture. They develop coping strategies, sometimes acquire linguistic knowledge, and establish social ties with local people and expatriate communities. This stage involves a learning process and an understanding of cultural nuances, which helps individuals feel more comfortable and confident in the new environment.
  • Adaptation: In this phase, people become more comfortable within the host culture. They develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of local customs and traditions. Confidence increases, and a sense of belonging may emerge as people navigate their lives with greater ease, forming meaningful relationships and embracing the new lifestyle.
  • Repatriation: For those who eventually return to their country of origin, repatriation can be another significant step. Rejoining a familiar environment can bring its own set of challenges, as individuals may go through another phase of readjustment to their home culture while experiencing the effects of reverse culture shock.

It’s important to note that each individual’s experience is unique and influenced by factors such as personality, learning experiences, support networks, and the specific context of the expatriation.

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How is the process

In the face of these significant changes, if the imbalance between the «pleasurable» aspects we leave behind and the «unpleasant» aspects that emerge in the new destination is too significant, we may begin to feel worse and tend to avoid seeking stimuli that would enable us to adapt and enjoy our new home.

There are countless «reinforcers» that we lose when leaving, such as physical closeness to loved ones, the comfort provided by familiar customs (food, rules, habits, and social interactions like «going out for a drink» after work), sports or hobbies, cultural activities in your language, assistance during administrative procedures, and friendships that deteriorate, among others. On the other hand, there are many factors that can create «friction» when engaging in activities, making it difficult to leave the house and leading us to avoid certain situations. These factors include the loss of references such as currency value, knowledge of prices and products we typically purchase, complete unfamiliarity with local places or available activities, language barriers, and more.

Faced with the loss of reinforcers and the increase in friction or «unpleasant aspects,» avoidance behaviors may emerge, leading to inactivity, spending more time at home, and reminiscing about how «good things were before» and how uncomfortable we feel in the new place.

However, these avoidance patterns only perpetuate sadness or frustration, without helping us «balance» the pleasurable and unpleasant aspects of relocation. All of this can lead to a negative perception of everything related to the host culture, generating an almost automatic rejection of the place, the new job, customs, and life in general.

Therefore, we must consciously make an effort to stay active and create a new «catalog of reinforcers» that allows us to maintain a positive state of mind, develop a sense of belonging, and truly feel at home in our new environment.

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To achieve this, it is advisable to plan visits to the new city and its surroundings, try out local restaurants, activities, and stores that can become our new references, explore pleasant outdoor places, and become familiar with the areas near work and home. Having social support, whether from a local person or someone who deeply understands the culture, can be very helpful. Learning about customs, phrases, or basic words for daily interactions is an excellent way to bridge the gap with the new place and gradually feel more comfortable.

Here are some recommendations to help you adjust to your new destination:

  • Pre-departure Preparation and Education: Learning about the culture, language, and customs of the new country before the move can reduce culture shock and set realistic expectations.
  • Support Networks: Maintaining contact with friends and family from your home country and establishing new connections in the host country is crucial. Support networks can offer emotional comfort and reduce feelings of isolation. Exploring expat communities can be valuable, as these individuals have likely experienced similar situations and can provide advice and recommendations to help you feel more comfortable. However, establishing social ties with local people is also rewarding and can last a lifetime.
  • Flexibility and Tolerance: Being open to adaptation and accepting cultural differences without judgment can facilitate integration into the new environment. Keep in mind that your familiar systems may lead you to find some situations "unacceptable" or surreal when compared to your own frame of reference. Try to adopt a neutral perspective and seek to understand why certain things are done a certain way by asking and talking to locals and fellow expats.
  • Seek Professional Support: Dealing with emotional challenges is not a sign of weakness. In the face of these changes, seeking help from a psychologist or therapist can provide tools to cope with stress and anxiety.
  • Exploration and Adventure: Instead of isolating yourself, seek out new experiences and activities to increase your sense of control and familiarity with the new environment.
  • Maintain Virtual Connections: Today's technologies allow for close connections with friends and family back home, which can alleviate feelings of isolation and homesickness.
  • Self-Care: Maintaining self-care habits, such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, and sufficient rest, can positively impact mental health.
  • Engage with Resources from Your Home Country or Culture: Regardless of your background, there are likely associations, clubs, or groups (often accessible through social media) that can provide a sense of familiarity and comfort. Don't forget to contact your embassy, which probably offers resources and cultural events in your host country.
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The expatriation experience is a challenging journey that significantly impacts one’s mental health and emotional well-being. As we venture into new places and cultures, we embark on an emotional journey that takes us through various stages, from anticipation to adaptation, and ultimately, the search for a new sense of belonging.

In the midst of uncertainty and change, it’s essential to remember that emotional growth and adaptation are individual processes. There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for expatriation success, but with a combination of flexibility, continuous learning, and both personal and professional support, it’s possible to find a new sense of home and balance in a foreign environment.

If you’re in the process of expatriating, remember that you’re not alone on this journey. Whether it’s a quest for new adventures, career opportunities, or a life change, there are tools and resources available to support you every step of the way. Adaptation is a gradual process, and with patience and a support network, you can find your place in this new reality.

About the author

Alejandro Sancha is a General Health Psychologist and Clinical Neuropsychologist. He also has a postgraduate degree in child and adolescent psychology. He has experience with various psychological problems (anxiety, mood disorders, stress, ADHD, rehabilitation in acquired brain injury, among others) and works from an evidence-based perspective. His passion for understanding human behavior led him to dedicate himself to the clinic, being very important for him that his clients feel comfortable from the beginning, understanding how their discomfort originates and how it is maintained today, in order to generate the necessary tools that allow them to achieve the greatest possible well-being in their lives.

Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
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