Life Abroad
10 min

How to Adjust to Living in Another Country During the Pandemic

In this article for StudyFree, psychologist Evgenia Petrova shares her tips on how to adjust to living in a new country, what challenges might await you, and how to help yourself in immigration during the pandemic.

What Is Adjustment and How Long Can It Take?

Adjustment is a process of transition to feeling comfortable in a new environment. You have to get used to a lot of things, from communication in a foreign language and different shopping and office hours to loneliness, homesickness, and the who-am-I crisis.

The adjustment period abroad goes in four stages.

Tourist excitement. At first, you are charmed by a new country. You can't wait to see new places, try new foods, enjoy a new pace of life, and meet new people. You don't see any drawbacks yet and feel excited when having to deal with first everyday difficulties. This initial enthusiasm is fueling you for around six months. Then, the second stage starts.

Disappointment. Over time, after you've gained certain experience of living in a new country already, you start to compare your current life with how it used to be. Apparently, new life is often a loser in this game.

The adjustment process might be hampered by numerous stereotypes that make it impossible for you to look at things differently and adapt to a new reality. As an immigrant, you feel like you've lost your role. You have to turn over a whole new leaf without having any social network which is a blow to your confidence.

This is a major crisis when you are no longer a tourist but an immigrant. A person's typical response to this is frustration, denial, and even aggression towards any triggers, even minor ones. Missing home is also very common during this period. Sometimes, homesickness gets so bad a person drops everything and goes home.

After approximately two years of living in the country, the third stage follows. Here, one starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Adaptation. Over time, after you've been at the very bottom, you start to look for new opportunities for self-actualization. The world doesn't seem so hostile anymore. Now, you feel safer and get better at handling everyday problems. Some people start helping other first-time immigrants at this stage.

Biculturalism. Here, you've drawn the best from each culture and assimilated completely. You've soaked in the new culture and developed stronger emotional resilience. You find it easy to communicate with people and handle everyday errands. Good self-esteem is finally back. This stage usually comes after three to five years of living in a new country.

Interestingly, an immigrant does not necessarily go through all four stages. One may get stuck somewhere, usually at the second stage. How one goes through each stage depends on their personal qualities that might facilitate or hinder the adjustment process. These qualities determine the defense mechanisms you develop. Some give up and leave, some build sort of an enclave of their home country, and some get adjusted to the point when they totally belong there.

What Difficulties May Arise When Moving to Another Country? 

Many immigrants come to a new country filled with big hopes. However, when they get there, they are knocked over by a whole bunch of stressful experiences and problems that they've had no idea about before. Here I'm listing the most common ones.

Losing your customary routine. Often, one has to radically change their lifestyle when moving to another country. Besides, routine things like shopping or paying bills become more of a problem.

Homesickness. Humans are social creatures. It's important for us to be close with family and friends. Any immigrant would tell you that a video call can never replace hugs and real-life communication.

Isolation. When you hardly know anyone yet, it's like you’re against the whole world. This feeling is very unsettling.

Culture shock. When you find yourself in a different cultural environment, you feel uncomfortable. The more a new culture is different from what you are used to, the stronger your culture shock is.

Language issues. Having to speak a foreign language might be stressful. Being afraid to talk to the locals, lack of confidence, doubting your skills, or feeling upset about the number of grammatical errors in an email — all of this may discourage you from learning a new language.

Wishing to escape from reality. When you have trouble finding a common language with other people, you feel like withdrawing into your shell and avoiding any social contacts.

Identity crisis. When moving to another country, one has to figure out their new role and identity in a new culture. We tend to identify ourselves through being a part of certain social groups based on our jobs, hobbies, and interests. When we move to a new country, other people want to know who we are. But before you tell them, you have to figure it out yourself.

I know it all may sound pretty pessimistic, but don't rush to give up your dream. It's not like all these difficulties will inevitably accompany you throughout your adjustment journey.

Immigration is definitely a complicated experience. On the other hand, one can't find better personal growth training. You will cope with a lot of difficulties you weren't even aware of before you moved there, and, in the end, you'll become more confident, flexible, and resilient.

How to Adjust to Living in a Foreign Country During the Pandemic?

Don't be hard on yourself if you can't do something. Today, the whole world is adjusting to a new reality. The pandemic has shaken us all badly, and we are only starting to comprehend in what ways it has changed our lives.

Dial down your expectations of yourself. When you decided to move to another country, you may have set the bar too high, with no regard for your circumstances and numerous external factors. You’ve promised yourself to make friends as soon as possible, find a job right after you move, and start speaking the language no later than six months after you arrive in a country. Unrealistic resolutions put a lot of pressure on you and hurt your self-esteem. Think about whether you’ve taken on too much. 

Learn the new culture. A new culture is a significant factor affecting how comfortable the adjustment process is for you. If you find it hard to accept it, you are going to feel a lot of resistance and frustration with the fact that people there don't live the way you do. I'd recommend you to read “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” by Erin Meyer and look up the concept of ethnocentrism and how it affects our perception of other cultures.

Be kinder to yourself. A great deal of stress arises from our mental setting. Life in another country can reveal the paradigms that don't work for you anymore and help you get rid of them.

Give yourself time. People today seek to do things fast, like master a new job within three weeks or adjust to a whole new life within a month. Remember that adjustment is a long, step-by-step process.

How to Help Yourself if You Are on Your Own?

Moving to a foreign country is never easy. The pandemic has made it a million times harder. So you must take good care of both your mental and physical health.

Create a daily routine that works for you. Our body gets used to living at a certain pace so that any major change of plans can throw it off. Try to get enough sleep, have meals at approximately the same time, have some physical activity, and relax the way you enjoy.

Meditate. Research keeps showing meditation is good for our health. Ten to fifteen minutes of conscious breathing practice and listening to your body every day will help you combat insomnia, bring down the stress level, and improve your general health.

Stay away from negative news and other triggering information. Unsubscribe from bloggers and Telegram channels that make you feel down. Don't read too much news or at least choose reliable sources. Remember about cognitive distortions that may affect how you see reality. For example, the illusory truth effect makes us believe false information that we hear all the time. Think about how mass media try to put our focus on dramatic and resonating stories, often by exaggerating or stretching the truth.

Figure out what boosts and drains your energy. To this end, use the following simple exercise. Imagine you have ten units of energy for a day. Write down all your activities and decide how many units each activity is worth. For example, a stressful work meeting requires ten units, while an online chat with a friend gives you five units. Over time, you will understand what takes up your energy and what fuels you.  

Keep in touch with other people. After all, you are not alone feeling the way you do. There must be a student community at your university where you can meet other international students and talk about the hardships of living in a foreign country. Is there someone you've wanted to get to know for a while? Don't be shy to contact him or her and suggest that you have a chat over a cup of coffee. Knowing that you are not alone makes the adjustment easier.

Maybe you're the kind of person who keeps everything to themselves. Look around though: is there anyone you can trust and rely on, even if you can only stay in touch online? Sharing can make you feel better. If you're afraid to get feedback, just tell a person you need them to hear you out now and be there for you, without giving you any advice. 

Figure out what is going on with you. Take a piece of paper and try to write down what bothers you. This exercise will help you figure out what exactly is difficult for you. The idea is that if you know the enemy, you're more likely to find a way to defeat it.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you feel you can't fix your personality issues yourself, you can always visit a doctor, a therapist, or another specialist who will support you and help you develop a strategy to improve your life.

Don't underestimate your efforts. We've learned an important lesson from the pandemic. As it turns out, we don't control as much as we think we do or can. So if you feel that you don't take enough care of yourself or that you could do better, take a deep breath and think. You are doing well enough given the circumstances.

What Not to Do?

No unhealthy stress relievers! Our brain keeps looking for various ways to combat stress. Not all of them are good for us. Alcohol, binge-watching, or stress eating will only make you feel better for a short while. In the long run, though, they are going to derail you even more.