The original article about emigration can be found, in Italian, on the Website: “Tornare in Sicilia” by Chiara Crisci.

Every migratory process brings with it expectations, desires, fears, concerns, and… a lot of stress! As I mentioned regarding the doubts and insecurities of expatriation, leaving Sicily was not an easy choice. Beyond my personal motivations, expatriation is an emotionally and bureaucratically complex process in which numerous factors come into play, many of which are beyond our control.

Deciding to leave everything behind to move abroad can be both exciting and terrifying: the excitement of novelty and the desire for change collide with the sadness of goodbyes and the fear of the unknown. Another typical conflict of expatriation is the one that pits expectations against reality. Many people tend to idealize life abroad, pouring in wishes and hopes for success, well-being, and happiness that may be disappointed by reality. When imagination clashes with the reality of expatriation, our levels of frustration and stress increase, and our expat experience transforms from an exciting adventure into a nightmare.

Hand in hand with expectations are the fears associated with expatriation. Fear is an emotion that always accompanies significant changes (whether positive or negative), but each person projects it onto something different. In my case, it was the attachment to roots: I feared living with the nostalgia of home, not being able to be present in times of need, not having the opportunity to see my family very often, and missing moments and people who would never return.

During emigration, all primary emotions are experienced in an amplified manner, but fear is perhaps the one that accompanies us the most. Fear is an unpleasant emotion that arises from a natural aversion to risk or threat and is responsible for increased levels of stress and “organic reactions” in our bodies. Stress is a physiological reaction of the organism, a “General Adaptation Syndrome” that the Austrian physician Hans Selye defined as the response the body activates when subjected to the prolonged effects of multiple stress factors, such as physical, mental, social, or environmental stimuli.

I asked psychologist Venerina Conti to tell me how and why emigration can cause stress and what the main mental, psychological, and emotional effects of expatriation are.

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Mental, Psychological, and Emotional Effects of Emigration

Thank you, Chiara. Migration is not an easy process for anyone. It requires a great deal of courage, character strength, determination, and adaptability. I myself have lived and worked in almost 42 countries, and every time I moved, there was a significant upheaval in my life, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Naturally, the effects of migration will vary from individual to individual and depend on factors such as the reason for migration, the circumstances underlying the migration, social support, and living conditions in the destination country. I understand the euphoria and enthusiasm in dreaming of living in a different country. However, I also understand the frightening fears and uncertainties that arise from the unknown future that awaits, especially if a person is forced to emigrate rather than making a conscious choice to change countries.

From a mental, psychological, and emotional perspective, migration can cause significant stress and anxiety for several reasons. People may worry about migration details, such as travel, expenses, dates, transportation methods, and the transport of goods, etc. In these scenarios, there is a tendency to overthink. We worry about the safety of transporting our belongings. We worry about the expenses we will have to bear. We might worry about timing and everything else related to the details of our migration.

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The stress related to planning and organizing migration can have a considerable impact on us mentally, emotionally, and physically. Much of this stress will stem from the search for quality service providers for shipping, the search for accommodation in the destination country, the search for a job if needed, and the organization of insurance and healthcare. Additional stress arises from the decision on how we will reach the destination country. If we have pets, we must worry about their vaccinations, passports, and pet laws in the destination country. If we have children, we will worry about their integration and educational needs.

Another fear that will certainly arise is the fear of the unknown. This happens when we start thinking about the challenges and uncertainties that will arise in the future. This is highlighted by mental questions like, “What if…?” In this case, none of the fears are real. They are completely unfounded mental constructions because the future has not yet unfolded. It is unnecessary stress that we inflict on ourselves by thinking too much. This fear occurs when we allow ourselves to doubt our decision to emigrate.

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Additional concerns creep in when we start thinking about adapting to a new culture and environment and perhaps even the prospect of having to learn a new language, especially when someone considers themselves not very good with languages. The prospect of not being able to communicate is enough to paralyze someone in making progress. I remember having a conversation with a client who was afraid to move abroad because he wondered what he would do if he got sick and couldn’t communicate with a doctor. This denotes two fears: the language barrier and self-preservation.

When we move, it is natural to feel sadness about leaving friends and family, but for a migrant, this sadness can lead to unjustified mental constructions of isolation. They may experience moments of insecurity about their ability to establish new friendships and find support in the community, etc. Again, this is an unfounded fear caused by thinking too much. I say this because a) the migrant has not yet fully lived the experience of migration itself, and b) if a person has made friends in their own country, they will always make friends in the destination country.

One of the major stresses of migration arises from the need to overcome bureaucratic procedures and legal formalities in the destination country, such as residence permits, opening a bank account, finding an honest and reliable lawyer or real estate agent, and guarding against scams by groups targeting migrating foreigners.

From Trauma to Cultural Identity Crisis Up to this point, I have discussed the stress, concerns, and anxiety that an average migrant by choice may face, but if we talk about migrants forced to leave their country due to wars, famines, persecutions, or natural disasters, we can add trauma to the mental and emotional mix. Just for the record, trauma has a severe impact on mental health. Migrants who have experienced trauma will inevitably end up with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Subsequently, after any migrant has spent time in the destination country, if expectations are not met and/or things do not work out in that country, they may even start to feel depressed, leading to real isolation, lowered self-esteem, and a lack of confidence in their decision-making abilities. Negativity related to their failures could cloud their minds and lead to poor judgments and wrong decisions.

Something that might happen is that a migrant might end up experiencing a cultural identity crisis. This occurs when the person who has migrated stops identifying completely with their original culture and struggles to embrace the new one. In my particular case, I have acquired and assimilated the best of every culture I have lived in, which has prevented me from fully identifying with my parents’ cultures.

This crisis of cultural identity can further develop into feelings of not belonging anywhere and isolation. Stress, concerns, and anxiety can have a severe impact on mental health to the point of causing depression. Depression and other mental health issues involve physical disorders, which I will discuss in the next article.

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Stress, Emotional, and Physical Effects

I thank Venerina Conti for this comprehensive analysis of the psychological, mental, and emotional effects that expatriation can have on migrating individuals and which can also translate into physical effects. In fact, to combat and counteract the negative effects of stress fatigue, the body attempts to produce specific hormonal responses, causing disturbances in the internal balance at the endocrine, humoral, organic, or biological level. The response to a stressful event produces emotional, psychological, and/or somatic effects.

All situations that I experienced firsthand in the first months (or maybe I should say years) of my expatriation: insomnia, nervousness, gastrointestinal disorders, pain and muscle tension, headaches, bruxism, tinnitus… but also sadness, depression, loneliness, discouragement. But I will talk about the physical effects of “expatriation stress” in an upcoming article.

The original article can be found, in Italian, on the Website: “Tornare in Sicilia” by Chiara Crisci.

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