Moving house is among the top causes of life stress alongside grieving, marriage troubles, job loss and financial insecurity. Moving to another country takes that to another level. Doing it with your partner and children in tow can be disastrous if unprepared. As one of the most mobile professional groups, researchers no doubt know the importance of physical planning when making such a big move, but what about psychological readiness?
There is no such thing as a stress-free move. The sheer scale of the activity, the logistical steps and things to remember can be overwhelming. Researchers planning to move to another country usually have a fair amount of time to make the necessary physical preparations. They can also usually count on some support and guidance from their host organisation, programme sponsor and peers for many of the administrative aspects. But less attention is given to the mental wellbeing side, which experts agree must go hand-in-hand with the practical measures.
Neglecting mental preparations can cause additional stress on mobile researchers and their accompanying families. That stress can build and feed longer-term anxieties which threaten to derail the experience for everyone. It can affect the researcher’s performance on the job, undermine marriages and family unity, and ultimately lead to health problems.
According to WebMD, “More than half of Americans say they fight with friends and loved ones because of stress, and more than 70% say they experience real physical and emotional symptoms from it.”
Common signs of too much stress, WebMD continues, include headache, fatigue, irritability, sleeping problems, difficulty concentrating, upset stomach, weight changes, and reduced sex drive. Among the longer-term medical and physical implications are high blood pressure and heart concerns, hair loss, skin problems, flare ups of asthma and arthritis, and clinical depression.
Stress and anxiety stem from internal and external pressures. Deadlines at work, a constant stream of emails demanding attention, dealing with bureaucracy, planning a complex project or activity… these are external demands on our attention that drain emotional energy. Our responses differ according to our personalities and resilience, an internal mechanism which is more developed in some people, and less in others.
Those who tend to internalise more of these stressors are usually aware of it and go to extra lengths to plan ahead in order to reduce the tension. Whether it is arriving an hour before everyone else for a flight or generating detailed check-lists or Excel sheets ahead of a big move, the measures are a way of mitigating the risks and minimising the fear and uncertainty associated with the events in play.
Other forms of internalised stress can stem from primitive reactions, past experiences (even traumas), fixed ideas of how things should be done, and unrealistic expectations of situations and people. The sense of foreboding that accompanies big changes, such as births, deaths, marriages, divorces, new jobs and, yes, moving house, is a major cause of anxiety especially among those more prone to it.
Being aware of the triggers and having insight into your own ability to process stressful events is a good first start to dealing with them in a healthy way, the experts say. Knowing that these traits may also present in your partner and children, who are facing these new challenges, is a proactive way of heading off potential mental health issues associated with a move abroad.
How can you tell whether they are coping? The first and best way is simply to ask. Discuss the grand ‘adventure’ openly and don’t sugar-coat the challenges or magnitude of the move. The mobile researcher needs to include the whole family in the preparations, and preferably even the primary decision as to whether to accept the new placement in the first place. If there is opposition from the start it will be much harder to get everyone onboard as the more tricky and stressful stages unfold.
Visualising the move
Imagine scenarios, visualise how the new life abroad will look for the different members of the family. Map out the likely challenges and how each person might respond.
Little Jonny has to leave his football team and doesn’t know if he can join a new one mid-season in the new town. Carlos has had to take a demotion or even quit his job in order to accommodate his partner’s career move. Will he cope with being a home dad? The eldest daughter Janine will enter an international school system with a different curriculum and teaching style. Everyone is going to miss their friends, cousins, grandparents and of course the dog who had to be billeted with an uncle during the research exchange.
These are the sorts of worries and issues that the whole family will be facing if and when they decide to relocate for one person in the family to pursue their dream or advance their career. If everyone is not filled with the same sense of adventure and shared ambition, resentment could build and relationships tested especially when faced with a foreign setting far removed from the usual home-comforts and connections.
Everyone needs to be prepared for this and take active steps to build a family trust circle with full honesty embedded in the whole process. Without it, intense feelings of anxiety can develop into a sense of isolation, foreboding and even depression for families who are under-prepared for the challenges of moving house and country.
AXA, a major insurance and health group, carried out a survey which revealed expats in Europe face higher than average levels of anxiety and depression. Safety concerns, stress in the workplace, and dealing with illness were all exacerbated while abroad.
“Understanding how other expats look after their general health and wellbeing, as well as what some of the common concerns are, can help you prepare for your time abroad, so you can make the most out of the opportunities it brings,” notes AXA.
More widely, expats with experience of depression have shared their coping mechanisms which include joining a gym, more sightseeing with family and friends, building relationships, communicating and expressing themselves better, keeping busy and practicing mindfulness.
For younger children, special effort is needed to help them understand the basics of the move – the why, when, what, where, how questions. Why mum and dad are moving. When it will happen and what that means concretely (i.e. living in a different house, dealing with hotter/colder weather, eating different foods, adapting to unusual cultural habits…). Sometimes kids pick up on or mirror their parents’ increased anxiety, so experts warn to watch for tell-tale behavioural signs, such as altered sleeping, eating, speaking and playing habits.
Older children face their own difficulties dealing with unfamiliar social and cultural settings, having to make new friends and adapt to different surroundings and study practices. Parents need to prepare the children for these challenges well in advance, constantly asking them how they feel, what they need. Good communication is paramount, and needs to be channelled towards the individual child’s needs and strengths, the experts recommend – see our side-story for more advice and guidance for families and couples dealing with anxiety and cross-border issues.
Doing your homework
Above all, you don’t want to leave anything to chance with such a significant change affecting you and your family.
A visit to your country’s foreign office website for official information about another country is an advisable first step before even accepting the post. The country page will often include health, safety and security advice, and sometimes issues warnings of what to avoid or be aware of once you are there.
Some states may recommend travel to a country be taken with a degree of caution or not at all. Clearly, it is up to the individual and their concerns for their family whether to proceed under those circumstances. Host organisations will often have a liaison office or someone responsible for helping the incoming researcher/professor/fellow/worker settle in and navigate the red tape. This may or may not include family services, so the individual needs to be sure what sort of assistance they can expect from their host organisation and country.
Of course, being mentally fortified for such a massive adventure goes alongside physical preparations. In practice, that means putting together and checking off the long list of administrative steps for the new job, meeting the requirements of the host country or programme, but also the pragmatic things that need doing to set the family up in a new location.
The following is a very basic list of some of the important things to confirm before moving abroad:
- Check the country’s life quality, safety, health, and general status on key issues (human rights, gender, religion, etc.) is compatible with your values and needs
- If possible visit the country/location as reconnaissance for the move with the family or at least do lots of internet research (schools, rentals, transport, etc.)
- Explore financial impacts including the cost of moving, conditions of the relocation package, and general cost-of-living changes
- Choose a relocation service with proven capabilities delivering to your destination
- Join expat fora and relevant networks such as Euraxess Worldwide to get a feeling for what to expect, and ask as many questions as you can (including those put forward by your partner and children)
- Put together a realistic to-do list of steps before (months/weeks/days), during and after the move, and factor in contingencies (unexpected scenarios); use proforma guidelines found online to help with this
- Study how best to fit in with the local culture (language, customs, food, etc.)
- Prepare the ground for trailing partners and children (schools, activities, etc.)
- Brush up on local laws/rules and requirements, especially important for moves outside the EU
- Confirm travel, documentation, health, insurance, and other essential administrative details long in advance
There are also useful websites and templates dedicated to moving house, such as TodoistSukoshi Zutsu style of breaking down the tasks into bite-sized actions, or the Klaxoon visual optimisation approach.
Euraxess Worldwide at your disposal
The EU’s Euraxess network has been created to give outgoing and incoming researchers and their families peace of mind during this important stage in their lives and careers.
It draws on the support of some 600 centres, offering tips and advice on a wide range of issues, from living and employment conditions in different countries and their working/entry/visa requirements to how pension, health and insurance works for mobile researchers and their families.
Mental wellbeing is of course an important part of the ‘personalised assistance’ that Euraxess network and its worldwide hubs seek to support. Researchers share their experiences through formal and informal events, workshops, coffee clubs, and more.
This is on top of the network’s efforts to provide reliable news and insights about research and innovation policies, jobs, funding and career development activities in Europe, as well as opportunities for international collaboration and funding schemes. Membership is free.
For more information and assistance during your move abroad, contact us at email@example.com
Q&A: ASK THE EXPERT
For this edition of EURAXESS Worldwide Newsletter, we spoke with Julie Rentmeesters, a cross-border family mediator based in Belgium, for some tips that mobile researchers could bear in mind while planning and carrying out a longer-term assignment abroad. Julie combines her background in law and mental health with specialist training in parental burnout and mediation to help families deal with the stress of life abroad and in general.
Family life can be stressful at the best of times, but what are the biggest issues you are seeing in cross-border settings?
As a cross-border family mediator, I see couples, parents and families when they are in a state of conflict. Parents that struggle to take care of their children as they are alone in Belgium, couples who separated, one parent who has moved back to their country of origin with the child (sometimes without the authorisation of the other parent or the judge i.e. a case of child abduction).
Moving to a new environment, being a parent, and separating from your partner are very demanding psychologically and reconnect the person to their primitive memories. That’s why, in such cases, it’s really important to receive affective emotional support – care, compassion, reassurance and comfort when needed.
I’ve noticed with expats that loneliness is one of the major problems. Expats usually have lots of connections and a busy agenda but their relationships are often superficial. When they don’t feel well, family and friends are far away. That’s why some parents don’t see any alternative than moving back to their country where they can feel the support of their loved ones. Of course, it’s traumatic for all the family members when it’s not a common decision.
What sort of things do you usually counsel people in these situations? What can mobile researchers do to alleviate some of the anxiety for their partner and children before and during the move?
I observe in my clients that, apart from the administrative side, their move to Belgium (for example) is not well prepared. Usually, one of the partners has found a job in Brussels and the other follows. The excitement of a new life hides all the difficult aspects of an expatriation. It’s really important to prepare and discuss the move. Who is going to work? How long do you/we agree to stay? Who is going to take care of the children? The more one discusses the details of the future life, the easier the move becomes.
Moving is a very stressful experience in life and its effects are often underestimated. Moves reactivate rather primitive anxieties that exist when a baby establishes autonomy from its mother. It’s important to anticipate the support that the family members will need. Is it by visiting their home country more often? Is it with a daily Zoom call with friends? They need to visualise the separation and ways to alleviate the anxieties that spring form that.
Once abroad, can you propose some things families can do to help with the integration process. What should they prioritise?
It really depends on the duration of the stay abroad of course. Reflecting on and discussing the project is very important. Evaluate regularly if every member of the family is happy with the new life. Then it depends on everybody’s interest. I would recommend localising the experience as much as possible; learn the language, meet the neighbours, participate in activities like sports with locals and get out of the expat bubble… All good occasions to create new friendships. And if they feel lonely, stressed or anxious, they should not hesitate to consult a therapist.
Talking, expressing one’s feelings is key. It takes minimum a year to feel integrated into a new place. So, expect a range of feelings at the beginning; a clash between the excitement of the new life and the nostalgia of the country of origin is normal.
Marriages and close relationships with family back home come under strain in foreign settings. What should couples be on the look out for and what do you advise they do if tensions are building?
Surprisingly, research suggests that the people most subjected to parental burnout are educated woman that don’t work and take care of the children.
Communication is very important with as few taboos as possible. The place and the role of the partner is really something that should be discussed and anticipated. Are the two partners still aligned with the move and experience? Are some changes needed? If tension is building (which happens in every healthy couple), they should not hesitate to consult someone about the problems before conflicts arise.
Depression and health issues abroad are worrisome for would-be mobile researchers and their families. What are the main signs to watch for and what steps should they take?
First, be on the lookout for unusual (new) behaviours like excessive alcohol or substance use, aggressiveness, violence, moods, etc. Sometimes we see something called psychological decompensation after, for example, a trauma which reveals itself due to the stress involved with moving abroad.
It’s important to find a professional that takes the expat dimension into account. Sometimes, a reconnection with the secure link (family, friends…) can help to reduce the symptoms. Affective support can be more efficient that taking medication, for example.
Julie is a board member of the ForMediation group, which offers continuous training to all professionals dealing with families. She is also a Family Mediator and Jurist at CHS and the Mental Health Service ‘Le Chien Vert’.