6 Emotional Stages of Moving Abroad

moving abroad

We’ve all heard of the 5 Stages of Loss and Grief, haven’t we? Anyone who’s seen the movie “On Golden Pond” is familiar with this concept. We go through five emotional stages of coping, as spelled out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969.

Moving overseas isn’t nearly as dramatic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own range of emotions attached to it. And I’ve done it enough time to recognize each and every one. There’s a marked pattern to picking yourself up and dropping yourself off in a foreign land, and it starts before you’ve even entered your first airport.

I’ve outlined for you five emotional stages of moving abroad, and thrown in a sixth one for good measure. Here goes:

1. Anticipation

Everyone knows this – the butterflies, that feeling in your stomach when you’re about to embark on something adventurous. Your excitement can barely be contained. You’ve certainly had no time to think about what could possibly go wrong, outside of extended flight delays that is (the horror!).This is the anticipation stage, when you just know everything is going to be so wonderful and you struggle to wait even another minute to conquer the world.

2. Shock

This is what you’re left with once the initial buzz wears off. You’re laying alone, in some strange place, maybe a hostel or empty apartment… and you start to think, “what the h*ll did I just do?” You seasoned travelers out there, don’t lie. You know what I’m talking about. It’s still exciting, but you’re starting to wonder what sort of adrenaline high you must have been on when you agreed to these terms.

3. Adjustment

The shock stage luckily doesn’t last long – usually about as long as you start unpacking and realize your stuff doesn’t have a “home” anymore. Once that’s sorted you’ve entered the adjustment stage. You’ve started to form a routine, and you realize that your day to day isn’t quite as different as you imagined. You still check your email, check Facebook, do your laundry and buy toilet paper. You just do it with a different landscape in the background. Not that it’s boring, not by any stretch. But you’ve adjusted to your new life.

4. Belonging

This is, in my opinion, is the top of the bell-shaped curve. By this time you’ve met people, made friends, and formed a core group of “your people.” They’ll start showing up in more of your photos, and more of your stories. Your social calendar gets more varied and your activities more diverse. You know you really belong when you actually have options for the weekend nights. That’s a heady feeling.

5. Denial

Now you’re having so much fun, you never want to leave. So why should you? You’ll get a job, find a way to extend that visa. Move to a bigger place once you get your first raise. Your life is all mapped out. Except in most cases, if you’re a student or working holiday traveler, things rarely work out this way. Permanent visas are extremely difficult to obtain. Most people have them because they transferred with a job already, or have that piece of gold otherwise known as dual citizenship. Or a European passport if you’re on that continent. But you don’t want to think about that yet.

6. Acceptance

Well… you didn’t get the job. The visa looks more impossible with each passing day, and you’ve realized you won’t be staying longer than originally planned. But, what can you do? You go out, have a last few laughs and trip and thrills with those friends who have become dear, and you don’t let that ruin your good time. And you remind yourself that there are plenty of other adventures to be had right around the corner.

So there you have it. The emotional roller coaster of moving abroad. And don’t think it’s unique to just you or me, this post by Ashley Hubbard of A Southern Gypsy features multiple travelers sitting down and sharing their initial thoughts on traveling solo.

{Image by Gareth Nichols}

  • Haha. These are so true! I studied abroad during college and pretty much went through all of these. 🙂

    • Yep, they’re pretty standard!! In spite of all the good memories that are made and the fabulous stories, we all start out not knowing what the hell we just got ourselves into lol. 🙂

  • All of these resonate with me so much! It’s what we go through every time the Army moves us somewhere. The anticipation of something new. The shock of figuring out what it’s actually like. The feeling of playing tourist that makes you bring home new things, new ingredients, figure out new favorite spots, and creeps into your life bit by bit until all of a sudden you realize you are a regular somewhere, you not only have favourite haunts but favourite servers and bartenders, and you have half a dozen new recipes using things you pick up at your local market. And when it’s time to leave, you’re like…but this is HOME now!

    • That’s exactly what it’s like!! They say it takes about a year to fully adjust to somewhere, and two to start to feel like you really belong. I can certainly add my testimony to this theory! I was only in Melbourne for a year, but I was just getting to the point where I was super comfortable when it was time to leave. After being in Paris for three, I can definitely say it felt like I was leaving home. It’s quite the roller coaster!

  • I haven’t actually moved anywhere for an extended period of time (just a month at most in some places), but I definitely know the first 3 (and sometimes even the 4th!). I just got to Thailand where I’ll be for the next month, and I already had my shock! We had a layover coming over in Hong Kong, where we got out of the airport to explore the city, and I saw a huge cockroach. Immediately, I said “I don’t know if I can do this part of the world…”. But everything’s fine now and I’m at the 3rd stage already!

    • Good to hear Anna! I was only in Thailand for about 5 days or so – a couple nights in Bangkok and the rest down in Koh Samui. I absolutely loved it, though Bangkok was definitely a full-on assault on all the senses! It does give you a jolt of adrenaline though, and I think that gets addictive. And once you adjust, you have a feeling of accomplishment that can’t be duplicated any other way. Can’t wait to follow along with your adventures there!! 🙂

  • I definitely went through all of these during my two years in Taiwan. However, I would add one more…depression (just before acceptance). It was very difficult for me to be happy to leave a place I called home for so long.

    • Ah yes, this is true. Depression can be a prominent emotion if having to leave a place you’ve called home, especially if it wasn’t your choice. That’s why I try keep myself in the denial stage until the bitter end – probably not any healthier, but we all cope the best way we know how. 🙂

      • Yeah I had this depression face in many of my longer stays outside of Germany, too. Good point! 🙂

        • The depression stage is a tough one – usually goes away though if you have something to look forward to upon your return. Like, another trip! 😉

          • I think I am slowly overcoming that phase, too. Since I started to have more time doing local activities, like going to percussion events or so. They are really great. And yes of course! Uni is almost over and then I have time to travel outside of Buenos Aires, I cannot wait!!^^

  • Thank you Suze! I’ve been living overseas now for about 8 years, though not always in one place, and with plenty of chunks of time back in Florida. The emotional cycle stays the same though! And thanks for stopping by as well! 🙂

  • This is exactly how I feel when I am going abroad.
    Here in Buenos Aires the shock period is a bit longer than exprected, but I won’t give up! 🙂

    • Yes I can imagine Buenos Aires would take longer to adjust to! At least when I came to New Zealand, and Australia, the language and the culture were similar. Argentina would be full on, but exciting! Good luck over there!! 🙂

  • Yes yes yes! Definitely SO true. I think I’m still in denial that I’m home. I’m ready to go again.

    • Haha that does happen!! And then you go through the reverse culture shock of being home – it takes a bit to get settled again!