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Cognitive Immobility: Dealing with the Mental Stress of Leaving Home to Study Overseas

by Megan Soria, former Study Geelong Ambassador

Wednesday, 28 September 2022


When I first came to Australia from the Philippines in 2019, I was the typical international student. The thought of moving to another country to get a degree is an adventure of a lifetime, but it is at the same time, a terrifying thought. I was leaving the land and the environment I grew up in. Goodbye comfort. Goodbye support systems. And goodbye familiarity. Perhaps the reason why it seemed so scary in the first place is that most international students like me come to foreign countries with no friends or family. We come alone, in the literal sense of the word, as a “stranger in a strange land”.

I was lucky to have met a fellow Filipino on the plane to Melbourne and that gave me a sense of comfort. TJ was also like me. We knew no one in Australia. We settled in a home owned by a Filo-Aussie couple (TJ and I ended up becoming housemates and good friends) and beyond all hopes and fears, we embarked on the exciting journey of earning a degree in Australia.

But something strange was happening to me in the first few months. At first, I thought I was homesick. The first morning I woke up in Australia, I felt disorientated. I didn’t know where I was. I thought I was in the Philippines! I remember opening the window in disbelief. “Holy smokes. I am in Australia”, I was muttering to myself. Disbelief. This is the closest word to describe the sensation. This feeling of being displaced, of still thinking that you are in a different place than you really are, would repeatedly creep up on me. As I am going through the motions of the day, my mind naturally goes back to thoughts of home. Sometimes I would try to recreate a sense of “home” by eating the same food and even doing the same things I did back in my country. I have to keep reminding myself that I am in Australia, and I needed to adapt. It seemed like my body travelled but my mind refused to come with me. I might have missed packing it in my suitcase.

I have never told anyone about these sentiments before because it was so weird that I thought people might think I have gone mad. But just last month (a little over three years since I have moved), I read an article from The Conversation about a psychological process called Cognitive Immobility. I got goosebumps and I was so relieved. What I felt had a name and other people had the same experience. I wish I had known this existed before. Dealing with it would have been easier. So, I am breaking down this mental phenomenon for my fellow international students and migrants who are experiencing it, as a warm hug, and to say that yes, it is a real and a shared experience.


What is Cognitive Immobility?

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Cognitive Immobility is a term coined by Enzewa Olumba in his research paper published in Culture & Psychology. He defined it as:

“a stressful mental entrapment that leads to a conscious or unconscious effort to recreate past incidents in one or more locations that one lived in or visited in the past … their bodies may physically move to a new world, while their minds are left behind – trapped in the previous location.”

As an international student himself, Enzewa had to move from the Igbo land of Africa to the United Kingdom. Reading his research article made me realise how overly focused we are, as international students, in the physical and practical aspects of migration while immensely neglecting or even failing to prepare for the mental aspects of this big move. Most of us have secured a new home for our bodies while our minds are left with a sense of “metaphorical homelessness”.

The core of our identities, who we are as individuals, are closely entangled to the place and time that we grew up in. When I was physically distanced from my town, country, and culture, I am no longer close to these important influences of my personhood, and I must constantly reimagine my place and my people to remember who I am. Being mentally trapped in memories of my past might just be how my brain is dealing with the stress of the move. The loss of one’s home is a difficult emotion to endure, and it needs a period of mourning.


How do I deal with it?

If you are an international student dealing with these emotions, reading this article is already a good first step. It is important that we recognise what is happening and understand it as a phase we may go through in the migration process. For me it was just that: a phase that eventually went away. And although there is no place like home, there is no reason why you could not build another one. Reflecting on my journey now, here are the things that I did before to cope:

  1. Baby steps - look for people from your own country and city.
    The first few months will be the toughest part. Being with my fellow Filipinos, speaking our own language, and eating our food eased the loneliness and the bizarreness of it all. Seeing them able to thrive in Australia is an inspiration as well. They did it and so can I.

  2.  Connect with those who understand - find people with the same experience.
    Speaking to fellow international students and their experiences also helped a lot. It made me feel seen and heard knowing that I am not experiencing this alone. This also helped me develop friendships and increased my overall sense of wellbeing

  3. Manage the stress of the move - being overwhelmed is okay.
    I noticed that the feeling of cognitive immobility is strongest when I was stressed or worried about something. I wouldn’t be surprised. I have just uprooted my entire life and planted it somewhere else. I acknowledged that feelings of fear, anxiety, and being overwhelmed is part of the adjustment period. I suggest doing what you can to ease some of it. Make a checklist of what to do and create a calendar. I find myself more relaxed when I know that I have a plan. You might have different strategies to cope with stress. Pick the healthy ones and do it.

  4. Don’t be afraid of help - ask questions if you are unsure about something.
    Go to a student representative in your educational institution, an information desk in your local mall, or call the hotlines listed in relevant websites to ask about your concerns. Asking for help, although a bit painful sometimes, is also a huge part of being a migrant. The sooner you learn this skill, the faster you will be able to figure out how things are run locally and the faster you will be able to settle into your new environment.

  5. Make local connections - grow where you are planted and make new roots.
    In my experience, this is the trickiest but the most helpful step in my adjustment process. It was hard to find friends who are locals at my university because I have become so comfortable with my gang of international students. Be careful not to limit your interactions or you might miss out! I was able to find connections in my part time job and I have no regrets. I was able to learn the Aussie culture and finally I was able to understand the local lingo. Believe me, the locals love to teach you their language and culture. All you must do is ask! It also helps to find and join programs organised to foster these types of engagements, such as the Rotaract Club of Djilang.

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Leaving your home country is probably the bravest thing you will ever do in your life. If you have started your journey, pat yourself on the back and be proud. The list of things to do to settle in can be enormous and endless. But as all things in life, balancing the attention that you give to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs is key to your success as an international student. Sure, go get that grade. Go get that part time job to pay the bills. But don’t forget to pause, recognise, and deal with the cognitive and emotional processes of being new in town. Always remember that you are not alone in this journey and your seat mate during your orientation might be experiencing the same emotions as well. The loneliness will pass. You will make new friends and you will find a new home. Just don’t give up searching!

If you or a loved one needs help, please call Lifeline Australia on 131 114 or for translation services call TIS on 131 450 and ask to talk to Lifeline on 13 11 14 in the language required. You can also use these resources to find help for yourself, a friend, or a family member.

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