Last updated 6 min read

Why Relocation Is So Damn Hard

Relocation to another country can be extremely stressful and trigger various health problems. This post can help you better understand the reasons in order to get through it more easily.
Why Relocation Is So Damn Hard
Photo by Ryu Orn / Unsplash

Consequences of Relocation

Relocation brings a lot of stress even if it was planned in advance and well-prepared. The big problem is that it is a long-term stress that may last for months or more.

The consequences of it are not inspiring.

Permanent stress in the long term leads to systemic inflammation, lower quality of sleep, and bad hormonal and immune system regulation.

This creates feedback loops with negative effects that may result in cardiovascular problems, depressive and anxiety disorders, and a list of other possible health problems.

Unfortunately, it's far from words of precautions.

Stress during relocation is partially caused by real-world reasons, such as financial issues, paperwork troubles, and a high level of uncertainty in general.

What makes it even worse is that it also produces a lot of irrational stress that could probably make sense a few tens of thousands of years ago in the world of one of our predecessor animals.

Whereas today these things don't threaten our survivorship in the modern world anymore.

At the same time, by understanding the reasons under the hood, we can justify its inconsistency and significantly lower the harmful effects.

That's what I've been sorting out during my relocation adventure.

The majority of my mates, including me, have relocated from their hometowns in the past year. There was no single person who managed to get through it easily and without any sign of depression.

There are biology-backed reasons why we like our hometowns and places we got used to.

It doesn't matter how good the hometown is. It has become so common for our brain that it turns off the alert mode and says: "Ok, chill. We can't be eaten by a lion here". Then the brain releases oxytocin - a hormone that makes us feel safe, peaceful, and cozy.

Just imagine snowy winter outside, and you with a cup of hot chocolate in front of a fireplace, cuddling your sweet fluffy cat - that's how oxytocin feels. Oxytocin is not only enjoyable, but it also lowers the level of cortisol - which is a hormone of stress.

It takes time for a brain to start considering the new place common enough to suppress the unconscious feeling of a threat. Until that time, the alerted state won't let the level of cortisol drop and release oxytocin to feel 100% as safe as we typically do at home.

Living habits make our life so automated that it makes our routine effortless most of the time.

Need to grab a cup of coffee or have lunch? Fix a car? Troubleshoot anything? - Not a big deal. When the processes are familiar, our brain handles them almost unnoticeable.

Habits are nothing but well-established neural pathways that reliably predict outcomes with close-to-zero costs.

Habits are nothing but well-established neural pathways that reliably predict outcomes with close-to-zero costs. It makes a lot of sense because it allows us to save the expensive computational resources of our brains.

When relocating to a new environment, we have to rebuild day-to-day routines from scratch. This is quite annoying, and it feels like life is ruined.

Favorite places to eat out, chill and work. Everything has to be rediscovered. Every simple thing you didn't even notice now requires extra effort because old automated habits don't work anymore.

In order to reestablish new habits you have to rewire your brain and build new neural pathways. It is exhausting like a physical activity because it literally requires changing the physical structure of the brain.

All this is terribly draining and causes permanent pressure on the nervous system.

Social Connection Reasons

When in your hometown, you are constantly meeting old mates here and there. It works in the same way as with a well-known place: we feel safe and cozy with someone we know well.

When moving to a new place, the social bubble is another thing to rebuild and this is a big problem.

Widely spoken, it is a cultural and language barrier that increases the friction towards building new relations, and many people, especially those who have never relocated anywhere, consider it as a defining factor.

In my opinion, it's not the case at all if you have a common language to communicate. Furthermore, cultural difference brings a lot of curiosity and makes it even more interesting to communicate with people from different backgrounds.

I believe that the real barrier is that we are typically involved in making new relationships actively at a much younger age compared to when we relocate.

I believe that the real barrier is that we are typically involved in making new relationships actively at a much younger age compared to when we relocate. Especially deep and trustful relationships, the majority of which we make at school and university.

It happens because schools and universities are a spaghetti-wall method for making friends. We literally spend ~1.5 decades walking into each other with an endless amount of people. Some of them stick and eventually, we find ourselves with those whom we like most.

Then we spend an enormous amount of time together and finally get so familiar with each other that we become something like each other's hometowns: cozy and trustful safe spaces.

By middle age, we don't have that massive spaghetti wall social institute.
Those who don't relocate don't really need it: they are already at capacity with the number of social connections.

Only those who relocate do need it. That's why they are somewhat limited and tend to build new social connections with each other.

Why Is It Stressful to Be Outside of a Social Bubble

Staying in a tribe has always been an evolutionary advantage not only for H. Sapiens but for a lot of other species.

Eventually, we developed mechanics that releases cortisol when we stay away from the tribe and oxytocin when we are with a group of people we can trust. Those individuals who didn't inherit these mechanics systematically had troubles with survivorship for the last several hundred thousand years.

Dropping out from social bubbles causes social pain which we call loneliness.

Why Is It Stressful to Lose Social Connections

Another reason why losing social connections is so stressful is because it triggers one more survivorship mechanics, related to earning a place in the social hierarchy.

Namely, domination in the hierarchy is typically associated with dopamine and serotonin rewards while going down triggers cortisol release.

Imagine doing a thing at work that nobody could do before that now makes everyone pay you respect. That's how a serotonin and dopamine cocktail tastes.

Social hierarchy is a way to distribute resources efficiently. Once established, it allows animals to do their animals' survivorship business instead of fighting each other for food, partners, and space every single day.

For the majority of animals, it's crucially important.

Just like many animals, humans also have a social hierarchy but with way more complicated metrics for defining a place in it.

Human's social metric includes a bunch of things, but typically those, that make sense for survivorship in a modern world, like a bank account, a good job, etc. The number of social connections is one of those things.

From our unconscious brain standpoint, losing social connections endangers our place in the social hierarchy. That's why it releases cortisol and causes stress as if we are just a monkey smashed by another monkey.

How to Get Thought Relocation Stress

From my experience, understanding the underlying reasons for stress can significantly lower its harmful effects. They are just irrational and make no sense.

Another pro tip is to undertake actions aimed directly against the reasons for irrational stress.

The general idea is pretty straightforward: rebuild old life in a new place as fast as possible.

Every little helps here. Here is what helped me:

  • Settle down ASAP and make the new place as cozy as possible: set up a new workspace, coffee machine, and everything needed to feel at home.
  • Reestablish old routines in a new place: find a new favorite coffee shop, make up new walking routes, or whatever I used to do in my old life
  • Force yourself out and build new social connections. Finally sign-up for nomadlist. The social bubble won't grow by itself.
  • Focus on healthy activities generating hardly earned dopamine. Doing sports is a wonderful idea.
  • Avoid creating spikes of cheap dopamine with alcohol, drugs, sugar, impulsive shopping, newsfeed doom scrolling, etc. This is always a good idea, actually.
  • Get some room for proper recovery: sleep well and keep a healthy work-life balance.

I know it may sound trivial. A sort of advice to sleep well, eat well, do sport, and be a good boy.

Indeed, it might not worth caring too much in ordinary life. Your current routine is probably ok if you are ok with it. Whereas, the relocation has a chance to screw you up and requires some extra measures to take.