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Successfully Navigating the 5 Phases of Expat Adjustment

Updated: May 16

Embarking on a move abroad promises you new experiences, growth opportunities, and the chance to see life through a different lens. However, it's not just a physical journey, but an emotional one too. As an expat, you're likely to go through several stages of adjustment before you feel at home in your new country. Understanding these stages can be incredibly helpful, even just knowing that the feelings you're experiencing are a normal part of emigrating, you're not alone, and that things will get better. Here’s a look at the common phases you might experience and techniques for thriving during this turbulent time:

The 5 Phases of Expat Adjustment

1. The Honeymoon Phase

Just like the start of any honeymoon, this initial stage is filled with excitement and optimism. Everything is new and intriguing. The differences in culture, language, and environment are fascinating rather than frustrating. You might feel a sense of adventure as you explore your surroundings, try new foods, and meet new people. This phase is characterized by high spirits and a positive outlook on your expat journey. In Dubai, this is especially long lived if you arrive at the start of the winter season - if you're arriving in the depths of summer, your honeymoon phase may come to an end quicker than you expected.

Happy with a Doughnut

2. The Culture Shock Phase

As the novelty wears off and reality sets in, the differences that once charmed you might start to annoy or confuse you. This is the onset of culture shock. It can manifest in feelings of frustration, loneliness, anxiety, or even anger towards the new environment. You might struggle with language barriers, miss family, friends and the familiarity of home, or feel overwhelmed by the bureaucratic challenges of living in a new country. This stage is often the hardest and requires patience and time to navigate. I found this stage so challenging that I began to notice symptoms of depression and feelings of hopelessness and the inability to cope with day to day life. I can't stress how important it is to seek professional help if this sounds like you. It really helped me get through that phase - don't allow it to overwhelm you.

3. The Adjustment Phase

After battling through culture shock, you gradually start to find your footing. This doesn't mean the challenges disappear, but rather that you develop strategies to deal with them. You start to understand and predict the local behaviour, and establish routines. This phase is marked by a sense of accomplishment and a growing comfort with the new culture. It's a turning point where the host country begins to feel more like home. During this phase, you might start to notice things you like about the place - I recommend making a note of these, as it helps you remember them when times are feeling more difficult, and the more you consciously think about positive aspects of your new home, the more contentment you will feel in general. I realised I was in this stage when I wend on holiday, and on returning, I felt like I was coming home.

Relax at Souk Madinat

4. The Adaptation Phase

Reaching this stage is a significant milestone. You not only accept the differences of your new home, but start to embrace them. You feel comfortable navigating the challenges that once seemed insurmountable. Relationships with new acquaintances deepen, and you might find yourself blending your own cultural identity with aspects of the new culture. This phase doesn't imply total conversion or loss of your original identity but signifies a comfortable coexistence of the old and the new. It's at this point that you can start focusing on what's next for you. If you're here supporting your husband or partner, consider how you want to spend your time and what you want your life in your new home to look and feel like. When I reached this stage, I realised how much control I had over not only how I felt about being here in Dubai, but also, the person I wanted to be. It became an opportunity for personal development, learning and reinvention.

5. The Bicultural Stage

Not all expats reach this stage, but those who do find a deep, almost seamless integration into their new society. You feel equally at home in your host country and your country of origin, often blending both cultures in your daily lives. This stage represents a profound understanding and appreciation of both cultures, and you can move between them with ease.

Coping Strategies for Smooth Adjustment

I know from personal experience that navigating these stages isn't easy, but several strategies can help you though some of the more challenging times:

Woman Playing Padel

Keep an Open Mind 

Stay curious and open to learning about your new home. One of my favourite areas of Dubai is Al Quoz - at first glance it's an industrial estate, but it also houses the Dubai Garden Centre, The Courtyard, Alserkal Avenue and a number of places where you can play Padel indoors.

Build a Support Network 

Connect with fellow expats who can relate to your experiences and locals who can introduce you to the nuances of the culture. It might seem strange trying to make friends as an adult, especially if you've come from a tight knit friendship group back home. But I promise, in Dubai almost everyone has been in your shoes and the people here are incredibly welcoming. One extra tip here - once you meet someone new who you feel a connection with, keep in touch with them, it's important to reach out to people to build strong friendships.

Maintain Healthy Routines 

Something that my therapist helped me with was keeping my mind and body well. This means drinking plenty of water (especially important in hot climates), regular exercise, eating well, and find hobbies that make you happy - don't neglect this one, as it can kill many birds, from making new friends to clearing your mind, or just pure enjoyment. Try getting up and going to bed at the same time each day, this was extremely helpful for starting my routine building journey.

Embrace Learning Opportunities

Every challenge you face and every victory you celebrate while living abroad, contributes to your personal development. Whether it's mastering a new language, understanding a different business etiquette, or simply learning how to navigate the local grocery store. If you're here supporting your husband or partner, and have given up your job to come here, use the time as an opportunity to grow your mind. If you've got a particular interest learn more about it, if you've always wanted to learn to paint, or make your own clothes, now's your chance.

Learning and Personal Development

Celebrate Small Victories

In the midst of adjustment, it's crucial to acknowledge and celebrate your progress. Did you finally overcome your social anxiety and make a new friend? Did you find your new favourite place, restaurant or coffee shop? Did you manage to take a walk every morning for an entire week? These small victories are significant milestones in your adjustment journey. They signify not only your adaptability, but your resilience and capacity to thrive in new environments.

Stay Connected

While immersing yourself in a new culture is super important, staying connected to your roots can provide comfort and stability during a time where you need support. Technology makes it easier than ever to keep in touch with family and friends back home. Sharing your experiences and challenges with them can not only help you process your feelings, but also remind you of the support network you have, no matter where in the world you are. Make sure you share your challenges as well as your successes, and tell your family what they can do to support you.

Reflection Is Key

Take time to reflect on your journey regularly. What have you learned about the new culture that fascinates you? How have you changed since you arrived? Reflection can help you appreciate your growth and remind you of the reasons you embarked on this adventure in the first place. It's also a good idea to set yourself goals in different areas of your life, especially if you've moved for specific reasons - don't allow yourself to forget your purpose and track your progress with your husband or partner regularly to make sure you're on the same team.

Recording Success

Final Thoughts

Living abroad is one of the most enriching experiences life can offer. It teaches you about the world, about others, and most importantly, about yourself. The stages of expat adjustment are not just hurdles to overcome, but important phases of your journey that will shape you into a more globally aware and adaptable person. So, embrace each stage with an open heart and mind, and let this adventure mould you into the best version of yourself.

As your expat coach, I'm here to support you through this transformative journey of adjusting to life in your new country. With personalised coaching, we'll tackle the emotional complexities of moving abroad together, equipping you with effective strategies and insights to navigate the various stages of expat adjustment. Whether you're grappling with culture shock, setting personal and professional goals in an unfamiliar environment, or simply seeking a confidential space to voice your challenges, I'm here to listen and guide you. My aim is to not only help you adjust more quickly and successfully, but also to facilitate your growth into a more resilient, adaptable, and globally-minded individual. By choosing to incorporate coaching into your expatriate experience, you're not just surviving this transformation; you're thriving. Unlock your full potential, and turn this challenge into an empowering chapter of your life.


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