5 Ways Moving Affects your Mental Health
Updated: Apr 4
Unpacking more than your boxes
People decide to move for all kinds of reasons. Some of them can be exciting, like moving to pursue a new career or life opportunity, but it always involves a loss of some kind. Sometimes relocating can affect us in unexpected ways or the thoughts and feelings can come with such a large life change can be difficult to pinpoint. Many people have trouble understanding the paradox that comes with moving to a new location. There might be good aspects of the move and difficult ones at the same time. Often people feel guilty for having one emotion over another.
This can be particularly true in the context of families. When a family moves to a new place together. Each family member experiences it differently. That experience is also going to affect the family as they go through this change together. There is an old saying that say’s “You are only as happy as your most unhappy child”. As a parent it’s hard to see your children struggle. Conversely, it’s difficult for children to understand everything that a parent is going through and it’s often confusing to watch them struggle.
I’ve moved a lot, but there was a period when my family moved 5 times in 4 years between 3 different countries. My children were young at the time, but even though they were little, the changes affected each of us in different, but significant, ways. One morning, a year after settling down in Colorado Springs, one of my boys said, “Dad I wish we lived in a different house. When are we going to move again?” At first, I was offended. Didn’t he realize how much work it took to move and how proud and happy his parenere with our new home? When I asked my son what he meant, it slowly became clear that what he wanted was the excitement he first felt when we moved into a new house; how fun it was to explore and play in the spacious empty rooms until we filled them with furniture. Kindergarteners don’t have the same perspective that grownups do. There are things about our lives in Colorado that he can’t understand, but he was still very aware and sensitive to the changes.
Moving involves activities that we don’t typically engage. The list of things “to do” can grow longer and longer. I have a “junk drawer” in the kitchen that contains everything from bread ties and rubber bands, to batteries and small screwdrivers. I don’t usually take an inventory of everything I could find in there, but once it’s time to move, I’m amazed at all that I’ve managed to collect. Moving is a huge amount of work and it involves downsizing, closing utility accounts, collecting boxes, reserving trucks, and asking friends for help in moving your stuff. All these things involve hundreds of decisions that are not part of your daily life. That’s a lot of physical and mental energy!
New locations and rhythms of life are full of uncertainties, and it often takes much longer than we expect to settle into new ones. What’s the weather like in this new state? How bad is traffic? What do my new neighbors think of me? This continues even after you arrive in your new location. Every time I’ve moved, I would inevitably go through a period when even simple errands required quite a bit of research to settle in. Where is the closest grocery store? How late are they open? How long will it take me to drive there? Do they carry the product/brand that I’m looking for? Is that a fair price for milk here? Do I need their rewards card? Will I ever come back here again?
Our brains work best within some kind of structure, and when dependable structures have been taken away, it tends to create anxiety. Even people who love to explore and might travel frequently have structures in place that help them confidently navigate a new location. I used to work for an international hotel chain that utilized a signature smell in all their locations, so that guests could connect their experiences in a new place to safe and hospitable places they had visited before. Customers who been to a hotel in the chain before, recognized subconsciously that the familiar smell meant security, because they associated it with a previous positive hotel experience.
The circumstances around your move might be positive but moving always involves loss and sometimes we don’t know what we have until it’s gone. Every place we’ve lived and every community we’ve been a part of, has shaped us in some way, even when we don’t realize it. Working through grief takes time and isn’t comfortable. However, taking the time to fully and accurately grieve the losses that have been left behind can help you to be open and confident in the face of new experiences.
Whenever we’ve moved my family tries to consciously say good-bye to the places, activities, and people that we loved. We try to affirm the things that are special to us and share those thoughts with each other.
“I’ve always loved our front porch. It’s got great shade and we’ve enjoyed a lot of summer evenings out here. I’ll miss this at our new house. Let’s make sure we plan some time to enjoy it before we leave.”
“I’m going to miss the annual Christmas Market in our town. We always did that with our friends, and it turned into a tradition. I doubt they have something similar where we’re moving, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be the same.”
Leaving friends behind is particularly difficult. People can’t be replaced, and no two people are the same. Naming the things that we love and appreciate about the people we're leaving behind is a good practice because it does several things. First, it is a way of affirming the relationship. It’s a gift to the other person being left behind, who is often hurting as well. Affirming the relationship can help you to “release” the friendship because you don’t have any “unfinished business”, everything that you need to say has been said.
Moving makes you Lonely
For a period, arriving in a new place means making new friends and building a new community, which also means that, for a period, it doesn’t exist. No one likes to be lonely and it’s an emotion that is easy to run from. Many people try to distract themselves from their loneliness by taking on new household projects or even trying to remain in contact with friends from their old home. While neither of these are bad activities, they can easily prevent us from taking the steps that we need to take to build community in our current location.
I once moved several time zones away from my friends and family, but we were thankful for the ability to use technology to FaceTime and text them as much as we wanted. The downside to being able to easily connect with them was that it was easier to call them than it was to meet new people. After a few months I remember thinking “If I got a flat tire, who would I call?” The friends and family that I talked to the most didn’t live in my town. As time went on, we had to be more and more intentional about engaging with others who lived in my community and would interact with me day-to-day.
Moving is an Adjustment
Any change is difficult and takes a lot of effort. These changes take large amounts of psychological energy and can leave us feeling tired or discouraged. In these moments it’s important to have perspective and to consider our expectations of ourselves and others. Moving can involve an array of different challenges and often those challenges can be more significant that we want to admit. Many people find that they can react to change immediately but that after a period, when they expect life to “return to normal” they begin to experience distress.
My wife and I moved back to the United States after almost a decade of living overseas. We knew that moving back would be an adjustment, but we secretly expected the transition to be easier than our overseas moves because we had lived here before. What we didn’t expect was all the changes that had happened in the United States in 10 years. The places we had left behind were different than we remembered them. We had also changed a lot in 10 years, we had different expectations of ourselves, our interests had changed, and our needs had changed.
I remember being surprised at myself when my wife and I went to one of our old favorite restaurants and we didn’t enjoy it as much as we expected. Our tastes had changed and the ways that we enjoyed spending time together had changed. We had wonderful memories at this restaurant from when we were younger and in some ways wished that we could recreate them. This was disappointing, but we knew that we would have to find new ways of spending time together and even though that would take time, it was exciting.
How can a therapist help me start unpacking?
Talking with a counselor can be a great help in understanding the ways that moving might be affecting you and your family. Talking about your family’s relocation might be a way to help you better understand how stress affects you and what your strategies are for coping with exceptional amounts of stress. If feelings of anxiety are disrupting your plans or straining your relationships with your family members, talking with a counselor might help you manage your thoughts and feelings as you tackle the onslaught of inevitable change that comes with moving to a new place. Counselors can also help you navigate the process of grief, and help you understand what was so special about the friends and community you left behind, so that you can feel confident seeking new friendship and entering a new community, even if it feels lonely sometimes. Large adjustments like moving can bring up fears and desires that we never noticed before. Talking with a therapist can be helpful in helping you better understand yourself and the kind of life you want to live.