The Stress of Moving Countries: Find a Property That Allows You to Be Yourself
An international move is such a big transition. Add family into the mix and the challenges are amplified. As Hong Kong-based counsellor Erin Donahue explains, this requires a period of adjustment for everyone, but each person can experience it differently.
“My own experience of moving to Hong Kong was challenging,” says Erin, who has spent the last three years as part of the Child Development Team at Southside Family Health (Central Health) as a mental health counsellor.
“We had never lived in a foreign country as a family and we moved from a very close knit community, one where my parents and in-laws lived close by. Moving to Hong Kong was a completely different way of life.”
Everyone experiences big change - like moving countries – differently, explains Erin. But people may go through waves of sadness and/or loss during holidays and celebrations when they can’t be with their extended family. Often, time zone changes can also bring frustration and a sense of loss. And of course, settling into a new home doesn’t happen overnight.
Erin says that, when they came to Hong Kong from the US in 2017: “We moved into a space that was completely different from what we were used to and that was hard to adjust.” In hindsight, she says she would have spent more time building a space that blended our previous life with the new, but didn't really know how to do that at time.
“To me, finding the right home means finding the right nest or refuge to create that safe space of comfort and familiarity. People can move through these (new) experiences knowing they have their home to go back to each day. The emphasis is really on creating a home rather than just choosing a space because that creates a safe haven in our minds and allows our physiological response to relax." “There is so much opportunity to experience something different or new when we move to a new place, so finding a property that allows us to be ourselves is important.” For Erin, being able to continue working was an important element that helped her maintain her identity - it was familiar and safe, but also challenging and maintained her connection with professionalism.
“To me, it meant that I still had something to call my own and connect past experiences with the present and future.” She had a hard time watching her children navigating their own grief with moving to a new and faraway place in the beginning, but seeing them build resilience and forge new paths and relationships meant eventually, they could all celebrate together.
From a counselling perspective, when Erin looks to help walk anyone through this period, she helps stabilize as much as possible - and that starts with identifying support and safety. Cognitive behavioural therapy is talk therapy that helps release thoughts and feelings, while having a professional check in about what is true and helpful, what can be let go or filed differently. Tools to utilise include: identifying strengths, identifying a strong support system and building an individualised tool kit of strategies to manage difficult feelings and day-to-day emotions. Being honest with partners is important, she stresses.
An international move does not treat all members of a family alike. “It's important to be able to say what is going well and what is not going well and ultimately problem solve as a team.” This means being honest with oneself, appreciating the highs and lows, building an awareness of self, setting boundaries for what you will, will not, can and cannot do, labelling feelings and ranking friendships (in other words, recognising who you can go to coffee with, who you can call in an emergency, and who you can trust when you're feeling low). Finally, celebrate old traditions, while being open to new ones. “Some adjust more easily and others take more time. But either way, reaching out for support will often help ease the burden of managing overwhelming feelings alone.”