Loneliness, culture shock and disappointment. 5 ways to get over settlement stress

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Do you suffer from settlement stress? It’s the strain and tension that newcomers feel in reaction to events related to integration in a new country. Whether it is caused by difficulties in finding a job, hardships in learning the language or maybe even the weather, it is something that most newcomers go through in this journey.

Why do you need to know about settlement stress?

Immigrating is one of the most stressful things a person can endure. While we experience stress throughout our lives, according to career strategist Zarélsie Van der Merwe, immigration has “the compound effect of stressful life events in short succession.” Life events such as going to school for the first time, making new friends, leaving home, looking for a first job, etc. – all cause major stress. However, the occurrence of these events are spread throughout in our lifetime. That’s why they are easier to deal with. But when you’re an immigrant, you experience events of the same gravity within about two to four years. The result is a high level of stress that may also be compounded by factors like loss of networks (family and friends), new and different surroundings, or unfamiliarity with the language.

Needless to say, this compounded stress can limit your ability to rise above the challenges of integrating. And if you don’t realize what is happening to you, you may not be able to address the problem properly.

When you have settlement stress, you may feel:

  • sad and anxious
  • that you lack control. You feel uncertain
  • frustrated and lost
  • angry or irritated by small things
  • discouraged or hopeless
  • loss of confidence

It is important to note that these feelings are normal reactions to stress. It is when these feelings become overwhelming and prolonged that the risks for mental health problems and medical problems increase. Long-term stress may lead to anxiety and depression, sleep problems or substance use problems. Medical issues that may arise include headaches, gastrointestinal problems, muscle tension, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, and weakened immune system.

What you can do right now to deal with settlement stress:

  1. Accept change – First, acknowledge that everything that is happening to you is part of the settlement process. Understand that these feelings are not your fault and that you can do something to feel better.
  2. Eat right – This sounds simple but it’s important to watch what you eat and drink. Choosing the right food, having a healthy breakfast, eating regular meals can keep your mood and energy levels steady. If you don’t know how to start eating healthy, get free nutrition advice. Consulting a dietician is free in Manitoba. Also, you can choose to cook your native dishes here as Manitoba has a lot of ethnic food stores.
  3. Exercise – Fresh air and a change of scenery does wonders for your mood. Make it a habit to walk outside (or jog) every day. Take advantage of Manitoba’s beautiful parks and recreation centres. Discover your neighbourhood. Sign up for activities in your community centre. Some classes, like swimming, skating, aerobics, or yoga, are free or require a minimal fee.
  4. Practice healthy thinking – This means looking at things in a balanced way. Instead of dwelling only on the negatives, balance it with the positives. Some practical ways to start healthy thinking:
    • Make a gratitude list. Van der Merwe, who is an immigrant herself, made a list that included clean streets, great medical care, safe environments and proper schools as a way of remembering what she had gained. These may be simple things that locals take for granted, but for most immigrants, these are major reasons for leaving our home countries. Now that you are in Canada, ask yourself, what are you grateful for?
    • Know what you can change and what you cannot. Focus on things that you can control. This will help you channel your energy in the right direction. You can then start making small strides to improve your situation.
    • Allow yourself to make mistakes. Be gentle with yourself. It is not easy to start from zero. It takes bravery to take a chance and try and make it in a new country. Making mistakes is normal. What you need to do is learn from them and move on.
    • Face your problems one at a time. It can be overwhelming when you think about your problems all at once. Make them more manageable by dealing with one problem at a time.
    • Talk to a counsellor – Talking to a counsellor can ease your stress and get you started on practicing healthy ways of dealing with stress. Ask for a referral from an immigrant serving organization. What is great about these centres is that most of them have staff who are immigrants as well. They can relate to what you are going through and know what it’s like.
    • Connect with other people. Mingle with other people, especially those that are not from your own circles. Talking to diverse groups of people can help change your perspective and expand your mind. Avoid talking to negative people. These are the ones who are always complaining and find something wrong in any situation. It can feel good at first to find someone you can talk to about things that you find negative about your new country. It can make you feel understood and somewhat justified for feeling down. But indulging in negative talk does not solve anything. It will only reinforce your negative thoughts and further depress you. Don’t waste your time.
    • Meditate – This is the process of focusing your mind and redirecting your thoughts. Many people swear by this method as it reduces stress. It also helps you develop a good self-image and a positive outlook in life. Enroll in a class for meditation or check out these YouTube videos to get started.
  5. Get busy – Start making new experiences in your new country. Start going out, enroll in classes, participate in community activities or volunteer. Make time for things that you love to do. Write poetry, paint, knit, read or dance. Being occupied with fun activities will help get your mind off from too much thinking. Remember, you moved here to have a better life. This is a just a phase and soon you will notice that things will be changing for the better.

If you are at that point where you:

  1. feel depressed.
  2. can’t sleep.
  3. have problems focusing, remembering or making a decision.
  4. are getting dependent on drugs/alcohol.
  5. need to take medication to get through the day.
  6. have suicidal thoughts.

Seek the help of a professional right away. Call the Crisis hotline. Remember that you should not have to suffer in silence. You are not alone. Many people will help you and care for you. Hang in there; it will get better!

Sources: Settlement stress or cultural shock: Tips to keep healthy, ISANS; After immigration. . . when depression comes knocking, Zarélsie Van der Merwe, LinkedIn; Stress, Centre for Addictions and Mental Health; and Tips for improving mental health, here to help, CMHA. Retrieved January 3, 2019.

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Community Resources

Read Coping with change for more tips on dealing with settlement stress.

Alone in Canada: 21 ways to make it better by the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health. It is available in various languages.

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