The 3 Emotional Stages of Moving Abroad or Just Moving

If you’re considering moving, in general not even abroad, then you’re probably already realizing how time-intensive it can be. And not only time but you may notice there are emotional stages or layers to this as well. And of course, a physical component — literally, physically moving to another place.

Some of us, like myself, move by choice. Others of us, like my family, move or transplant to other countries because they have to. And so I want to make it clear that the three mental stages I’m about to present are from a place of choice and privilege, not to discredit how challenging and nerve-wracking it was for myself and perhaps you or others, but to make it a point that being a transplant because you need to flee to create new safety — there may not even be the opportunity to witness these mental stages because of the need to survive, find shelter and be safe.

“Your mind, emotions and body are instruments and the way you align and tune them determines how well you play life.” — Harbhajan Singh Yogi

Moving, for me, is a mind, body, and soul experience — and each time I’ve moved it takes me to another level of discomfort, personal growth, and relationship expansion with others.

“Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.” ― Meister Eckhart

I’ve moved around kind of a lot once I hit 18, and while LA is my birth city, the more I move the more I realize that this wasn’t just any ‘ol city to grow up in. It provided a worldview that I still carry with me to this day.

On top of that, and perhaps more importantly on worldview, I’ve been traveling abroad since I was 5. And not because I was a rich kid that traveled to luxurious places (just had to call that out). As I mentioned above, my family and parents left their birth country of El Salvador in the 70s and 80s during the civil war there.

Seventy-five thousand people were murdered in El Salvador during the civil war (Source: Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, another staggering number of this time: two hundred thousand people were murdered in Guatemala).

At some point, they transplanted to Los Angeles where my sister and I were born, along with a whole new generation of cousins. Once the war was technically over in 1992 (I say technically because I don’t know if the country ever fully recovered)— we all traveled to El Salvador every summer in the 90s and early 00s. It was such an interesting position to be in at such as early age. To live in the US and be middle class, maybe on the lower end but we weren’t exactly poor, but then hop on a plane and be in a third-world country that just came out of a war. At that young age, I thought everyone did this — didn’t everyone travel to third-world countries and see family? I didn’t yet have an analytical mind to see that this was a very unique in-between position to be in. And perhaps where my wanderlust and curiosity to experience more started!

“This is why it is up to my generation to start our healing journey as war trauma lurks within us every day.” — Jessica Hernandez, PhD, Fresh Banana Leaves

Aside from this, I left LA when I moved to Santa Cruz for college. Santa Cruz felt like a small town to me, which it was compared to Los Angeles — but I was such a brat my first few years being there. Unconsciously, I allowed myself to go through these stages, and by the end, I loved it and even to this day, dream about going back.

LA → Santa Cruz → San Jose → SF → NYC → Seattle → CDMX

While most of my movement has been within the US, my time abroad in Mexico solidified this process that I’ve gone through each time. I can’t believe how fast time flew, while my first visit was 3 months long we ended up returning for another 6 months. You can read more about some of my experiences here and here.

These phases aren’t sequential either and can happen in any order since every move and experience is unique. But let’s get to it, I hope you find them helpful!

The Traveler and Newbie Stage

This emotional stage happens to many of us regardless of whether we’re moving to that particular city. In this stage, everything looks beautiful, the city or location is exciting and we’re kind of experiencing it through rose-colored glasses.

We see all the cool spots, eat at all the great restaurants, and we’re in a good mood so everyone else is in a good mood too. You’re living your dreams, whether it’s moving or checking a city off your bucket list, and it’s so incredibly thrilling!

But not to say that the newbie stage can’t be full of uncertain moments. Those moments when you’re not sure about the corner you just turned on, or perhaps something you ate is making your tummy hurt. Over time, you learn from these rookie mistakes or you go back if you are “just traveling.”

The Immersion and Embrace Stage

Now you’re settling into a routine and immersing yourself with the people and culture around you. The immersion stage can have many types of emotions from confusion, fear, excitement, love, and everything else in between.

I remember when I was in the immersion stage in Mexico, I felt like I was learning so much! Even though I grew up speaking Spanish, I never learned how to ask certain questions like “what do you do for a living?” I would probably literally translate by asking “what do you do for work?” which is still totally understandable. But can you see how there’s a difference in fluency? When someone can say “what do you do for a living” is actually kind of an odd question but it’s just part of the English language. Now that I am thinking more about it, it’s such a weird question. Should we say, “I breathe to live?”

One of my favorite pastime activities, if I could call it a pastime, is eavesdropping. Haha, I’m a curious human and love to people watch!

One day I was at a coffee shop and overheard someone ask someone else “A que te dedicas?” which literally translates to “what do you dedicate yourself to?” But that’s essentially the Spanish version of asking “what do you do for a living?”

This stage is also when you learn the most. Research shows that we learn best through stories, and through connections. So, perhaps eavesdropping is a stretch on storytelling but it was definitely a learning moment for me!

The Reality and Grief Stage

I remember when I first moved to Seattle I was immediately struck by reality and the grief of leaving NYC and the life I built there. I didn’t arrive in the newbie stage, I didn’t immerse or embrace the moment but literally faced with a ton of emotions.

I have a very clear memory of feeling so dark one day. It was a beautiful sunny summer day in Seattle (if you live in Seattle, you know how special summer is) but I felt the complete opposite of this sunny day. I was wearing a black sip up, my hoodie was on, shoulders low, walking around my new neighborhood and I could not stop crying.

I sat on a park bench in Queen Anne and I felt so incredibly sad. I had no idea why, since I actually wanted to make this move. I was so exhausted and burnt out from living in NYC. Now I understand that it was simply a way for my body, mind, and soul to grieve and cope with the transition of moving across the country — where everything was new.

Sometimes these realizations are subtle and not “dark” but other times it hits me like a ton of bricks, like this instance. So, if this is you or if you’re experiencing moments of sadness, depression, loss, anxiety and so much more while you travel, move abroad, or just move — know that this is normal. What coping tools can you lean into to support you?

Overall, moving can be an emotional rollercoaster

Even moving to a different neighborhood! So the next time you are in the process of moving, traveling, or moving abroad just notice what mental and emotional stage you’re in. It can literally change daily, weekly, or hourly! Our emotions are like mini-rollercoasters, where sometimes we are completely terrified and the next moment we’re laughing with tears down our eyes so happy that the last fall is over.

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