Immigration – Process and Impact

by: Dr. Rana Karam, C. Psych.

Welcome to our blog on immigration! In this blog, we will discuss the immigration process and its impact on the immigrant. In our next blog, we will discuss the adaptation process and offer strategies for coping with the various challenges of immigration.

Starting a new job, going to a new school, moving to another city are common experiences that resemble immigrating to another country. The individual leaves a familiar milieu and dives into a new and unknown environment. This, inevitably, implies a period of adaptation. Such a period can be filled with excitement and hope for success and growth but it can also bring stress and anxiety. Most notably, for people who are changing countries, these difficulties are amplified because the difference between the familiar and the unknown environment is greater. 

What are the underlying experiences of migration? Migration means departing from (emigrating) the people, places, sounds, and scents upon which ones internal and external world was built. Migration also means arriving in a new country (immigrating) and rebuilding, in a short period of time, ones life. Immigrating entails recreating for oneself essential and basic things that were once established in their native country. For instance, rebuilding a work environment, forging new relationships, establishing a new home, and the like.

The experience of immigration is unique to each person and varies according to ones personal history, the reason for, and context of, immigration (whether it was voluntary or an obligation, temporary or permanent, etc.). However, some challenges and impacts are common to that experience.

In general, immigration leads to a period of disorganization that varies in length for each individual. For example, struggling with contradicting desires is very common. Two distinct types of desire are usually manifested, these are: 

  • The desire to blend in with others in order not to feel different or ostracized; and
  • The desire to distinguish oneself from others in order to remain the same person as before immigrating.

In general, this period of disorganization is sometimes referred to as “Culture shock”.

The concept of culture shock describes a common reaction to a new culture and is one of the phases of the adaptation process to that culture. It is a period of stress, anxiety, tension, nervousness as well as sadness, confusion, surprise, disgust, rejection, and helplessness vis-à-vis the host society.

During this stage, one may undergo a broad range of experiences and behaviours such as:

  • Feeling angry, uncomfortable, disappointed, confused, frustrated or irritable;
  • Eating and drinking compulsively or needing excessive sleep;
  • Having difficulty going to work or looking for a job;
  • Avoiding contact with people from the host country and spending time alone or only with people from ones own culture;
  • Having negative feelings about the people and the culture of the host country;
  • Focusing on the differences between oneself and people from the host country;
  • Missing ones family and feeling no connection to the host country; or
  • Feeling guilty about leaving family members behind.

The reaction to a new culture is a “shock” primarily because of massive and unexpected changes in ones life and overwhelming exposure to new things. Moreover, exposure to cultural differences can lead a person to question their cultural values. Culture shock is also caused by the anxiety provoked by the loss of our cultural references and familiar symbols in social interactions (e.g., whether to shake hands, hug, or kiss when meeting someone; when and how to tip a service provider; gift exchange; dress codes and customs). Other contributing factors to culture shock include language barriers, experiences of discrimination (prejudice and racism from the host culture), getting recognition for ones education, and qualifications in the host country.

Psychologists and psychotherapists at CFIR can support you and your family members to better cope with these immigration-related difficulties. 

Read more about our Multicultural Treatment Service.