For highly sensitive introverts, change can be overwhelming — especially when change means adjusting to a new country and culture.
I emigrated from Switzerland to Estonia in January 2020, shortly before Covid-19 hit, to a country I’d never been to before. I also didn’t speak the local language. Thinking back, that was pretty brave. Or maybe just naïve?
And I wasn’t the only one. During the Covid-19 pandemic, more than seven million households moved.
My husband suggested starting a new life in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, only three months before our actual move. He’d already lived in several different countries before that and I didn’t have anything to lose; I’d reached my career goals and felt a bit stuck anyway, so I said, “Let’s go!”
However, as a highly sensitive introvert, I didn’t realize how challenging it would be for me to not only move, but to also adjust to a new country and its culture.
Over the months, I tried different things to make myself feel more at home — I struggled with homesickness and feeling isolated much more than I expected. Now it’s been 17 months and I’ve happily adjusted. That’s why I want to share nine tips that have helped me acclimate to a new country and its culture. Even if you’re just moving to a new town, some of these tips can still help.
9 Ways to Adjust When You Move to a New Country
1. Join expat groups, both online and off.
The pandemic kept me mostly inside, so I wasn’t able to join any social groups. This made it essential to connect with others online, which is what I, as a highly sensitive introvert, prefer anyway. There are plenty of Facebook groups, and in my experience, people in them are primarily supportive and helpful. They know what you are going through, and since many of them have already been in your new town for years, they can provide beneficial information and tips on how to navigate life in your new country.
For example, thanks to some new online friends, I found a little shop with specific hard-to-get ingredients I needed to bake my vegan and gluten-free treats; the shop is so tiny it doesn’t even have an online presence, so I would not have found it without the help of experienced expats.
Despite providing insider tips, I didn’t speak a single word of Estonian when I came here, so being part of this English-speaking community made me feel less alone. And now that the world is opening up more and we’re transitioning to post-pandemic life, I may join some in-person expat events, too.
2. Make your new place cozy and add comforts from home.
For too long, my new apartment looked very sterile. It came already furnished, and since it was clear from the beginning that we would not be staying in Estonia forever — we eventually want to settle closer to our families — I was hesitant to spend money on decorating or personalizing it. However, I discovered that you do not need to spend a lot of cash to make your place cozy. I bought some picture frames, and now have pictures of family and friends smiling at me from my shelves.
As a highly sensitive introvert, I am also deeply moved by art and found an affordable art print from a fellow expat and talented artist that touched me, as it hit close to home. Her inspiration for it was the difficult circumstances regarding traveling abroad due to Covid-19.
After having transformed my new home into a cozy safe haven, it made me realize that giving the apartment a little makeover contributed a lot to my overall happiness. And I’ll spruce up our future homes, too.
3. Be aware of “expat syndrome” and glorifying your home country.
“Expat Syndrome” is when expats focus on the negatives about their new culture and the positives of their home culture. (The opposite may also occur.) In my personal experience, I have had both, and what has helped is talking to friends back home (which is easier these days thanks to modern technology).
When I was at my lowest because of homesickness, I remember talking on the phone with my sister, complaining about an unpleasant situation I encountered in Estonia. She said, “You know Switzerland isn’t any better about that!” As I let my mind wander too much in this specific moment, I realized that I unwillingly started to glorify my home country and forgot about the not-so-good aspects there. In the meantime, I was also able to take short trips back to Switzerland, and it truly did put things in perspective. It fully confirmed what my sister said, as I think every country has its pros and cons.
4. Talk to locals (even though I know this doesn’t come naturally to introverts).
I know, fellow introverts, approaching a stranger and starting a conversation doesn’t come naturally to us, but it’s a must when you move, especially to a new country. For me, this was tricky because there were several lockdowns, and I run my business from home. So all this meant I was barely ever outside during the last year.
But whenever there was a chance, like when I needed help at my local farmer’s market, some of the natives were curious as to where I was from because of my accent. If there was a chance for me to engage in a quick chat, I did, even though I know this is not an introverted thing to do at all.
Still, when emigrating, you need to have an open mind, and getting out of your comfort zone is part of the adjustment process. Only after I did that did I understand what a friend of mine, who also expatriated, said shortly before I left Switzerland: “Don’t be a stranger.” For too long, I stayed in my shell, and it affected my mood negatively, as it can quickly become a downward spiral.
But if talking to strangers isn’t your thing — I totally get it! — there are also friendship apps, like Bumble BFF. They work just like dating apps, but the intention is to find a friend instead of a partner (you have the option to select same-sex only if you wish).
5. Learn (at least) the basics of the local language.
In Switzerland, where I’m from, it’s considered rude if you approach people talking in a foreign language and naturally expect them to speak your language, as well. (The irony is, many Swiss people speak English.)
As we will eventually move again, I will never be fluent in Estonian, that’s for sure, but learning the basics is not too much to ask. And with all the language-learning apps out there, like Babbel and Duolingo, there’s no excuse not to try. (Plus, we introverts like learning new things!) Not to mention, it shows respect to the local culture.
If whatever I want to ask someone is not possible for me to do in Estonian, I will then ask the person first if they speak English rather than just start talking in it.
6. Stick to your old routines, if possible.
Having healthy routines can be comforting, especially at first when you will be confronted with so many changes. If you manage to stick to routines you had from back home, like a workout one, you’ll have more valuable brain space for the adjustment period, which will probably be quite draining. Sticking to a routine is something that comes naturally to many introverts, and is also good for you: It helps you better deal with change, enables you to create good habits, and lowers stress.
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7. Try not to ruminate (which introverts are very good at!).
Try not to ruminate and overthink things — I know, I’ve been there, and it’s much easier said than done. But once I stopped dwelling on the past, things started getting easier for me; I felt like my mind was no longer occupied with thoughts that led nowhere.
I learned to do so with creative visualization. Every night before falling asleep, I remind myself why I moved to Estonia and how great opportunities are ahead for me. This helps me focus on the positive, and I highly recommend it!
The author Gail Sheeny once said. “If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.” I fully agree with this philosophy.
And if you struggle to fall asleep because of overthinking, the Headspace app has a selection of Sleepcasts (calming stories told by soothing voices), and Insight Timer has various meditations that can help you get to sleep, too.
8. Do one thing at a time; that way, it’ll help you feel more in control and reduce your stress.
With new surroundings come new potential stressors, like noises and different smells, which many highly sensitive people struggle with. Instead of rushing, give your body and mind the required time to adapt. Trying to get everything done as quickly as possible can be tempting, but also overwhelming, which will leave you feeling unaccomplished.
So, set small goals like, “Today, I’m unpacking all the kitchen boxes” instead of trying to unpack all the boxes. By doing one thing at a time, you will be more in control and feel less stressed.
9. For the bad days, stock up on your favorite comfort foods from home.
I’ve talked to many expats coming from different parts of the world, and they all say one thing: “I miss the food from home!” This is something I underestimated, too, before I moved to Estonia.
As a nutritionist, I know we often have an emotional connection to food. If you have the chance to take trips to your home country, consider bringing some of your favorite foods back home with you (just check the import regulations first before transporting items in your suitcase).
I always leave some extra space in my luggage to stock up on my beloved Swiss chocolate, for instance. If you cannot travel, check out your local farmer’s market. My French husband is lucky; ours has a French stand where he can get his favorite cheese.