Psychologists say ‘all immigrants overcome cultural shock’

Written by a journalist Laima Karaliūtė

Adapting and integrating in a new society is not as easy of a process as you may think. Most immigrants face psychological challenges. If you’re feeling tense, in fear, alone, lost or anxious about the future, know that it’s natural for someone who’s just arrived. Specialists say that the most important thing is to talk about it and not be afraid of seeking help from a psychologist. Today we’re interviewing the clinical psychologist, MANTAS JERSOVAS.

What are the main psychological challenges that immigrants face when they arrive in a new country? 
We are speaking about very diverse groups of people – from businessmen, workers, students and family members to asylum seekers. Challenges they face are partly similar but they vary from individual to individual too. The kind of challenges we face depend on the arrival motives, the country they come from  (whether it’s culturally similar or different), the arrival goal (work or family purposes, for study or in search of asylum). Regardless of  all that, in the beginning, everyone experiences cultural shock to some extent. Later on the person starts to either integrate on a social and cultural level or to self-isolate. Research shows that integrating is better for your psychological health. Isolation is related to more anxiety, depression and feelings of low self-worth.  

Collage. Tomas Terekas

What’s the best advice on living through the adaptation period when in a new country?
There is no golden advice. If there were any, every immigrant would feel good right away. Most often, when people arrive, they realize how big of a difference changing countries actually is. It’s absolutely normal to have a reaction to that change and to have many questions. It’s important to self-support. For example, telling yourself, ‘Little by little, I’m managing this new situation’, ‘I have come here from a totally different cultural background and I’m gradually getting used to a new one’, ‘This is a harder time period but I’m putting in effort, so that it would be different, and it will with time’. It’s very important to talk, not to let it pile up, but to tell your friends and family how you’re feeling. Then the tension lessens.  

The main challenges for immigrants are the foreign language, foreign culture and an  absence of friends. How not to feel alienated and lonely? 
Friends do not appear out of nowhere. You can make friends by participating somewhere or doing something, whether that would be in person or remotely. For example, there are groups on Facebook, such as Foreigners in LithuaniaForeigners in Vilnius. That’s a good place to look and maybe find someone to start a conversation with. Consider taking language courses, as it’s one of the ways of finding friends. If that’s not for you – try doing what you did at home. That could be sports, hobbies, relationships that you explore and find friends in the meantime. When you arrive, sign up  for activities that you like, if you’re also working, ask your colleagues out for lunch. For mental help, you can follow the Vilnius City Municipal Public Health Bureau’s (in Lithuanian, Vilniaus visuomenės sveikatos biuras)  Facebook page. On that page, the bureau posts about activities related to mental health, and many people participate in those activities.

How to deal with suspicious stares and remarks from the locals about the fact that you look differently or you confess a different religion?
Discrimination, of course, causes lots of negative feelings. Unfortunately, both Lithuanians and foreigners face discrimination. Comments on your foreignness or stares cause anger and hostility. People facing discrimination feel more stress, fear and anxiety, and that’s normal. Every one of us react to such situations differently. Often our automatic response is to react emotionally. That’s understandable but rarely effective. In  such moments, it’s important to pause and pay attention to how your body is reacting, then to slowly take several deep breaths. This will help to calm yourself down a little and to make decisions more rationally. You must remember and tell yourself, ‘not all Lithuanians don’t like foreigners’, ‘I just happened to meet someone who is rude’. Some find it helpful to tell themselves, ‘ Some people are intolerant. What they did to me, they would also do to anyone else’. Finally, it’s important to talk about such situations, to speak to someone who will understand. If you find yourself in a situation where someone is being very hostile and your physical safety is in danger, it’s best not to escalate the situation. It’s recommended to inform the police by calling the general emergency phone number 112. The police will know what needs to be done in that situation.

Should you try proving to the locals that you’re not dangerous simply because of a difference in religion or manners? 
People form their opinions over a long time, so on-the-spot conversations don’t usually work. The philosopher Hannah Arendt once said that there’s no better way to prevent anger than to try and see the world through their eyes. That’s the only way to feel oneness instead of separation.   

Is it worth reaching out to a psychologist if you feel that you have issues? Would a local psychologist understand the issues of a foreigner?
I think it’s worth consulting a specialist if you notice that you’re having difficulties dealing with some feeling or a situation on your own. Especially so, if you notice that such situations are repeating themselves, they keep throwing you off balance, they’re too hard to live through, you’re experiencing extreme feelings and don’t have someone to talk about it. I understand that seeking help can be difficult. For example, for people from culturally different backgrounds, such as Syria or Afghanistan, especially women, it’s hard to cross that trust barrier and open up enough to seek or accept help. The men from that region are usually more open and courageous, and tend to search for men psychologists to talk to. People from Eastern countries tend to be afraid of the word ‘psychologist’, it usually reminds them of the word ‘psycho’, with medication and coercion. Psychologists help through conversation to understand what you’re feeling more easily and how to deal with it. Of course, some situations call for medication. Then specialist refers you somewhere where you you can get such help. I think it’s worth a try  – consulting a specialist will definitely not make matters worse. If you don’t find the consultations useful, you can simply stop attending it – at least by then you will have tried one of the options for help. It’s important not to stay alone with your pain.

WHERE YOU CAN SEEK FREE PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP

International Organization for Migration Vilnius office is running the project I Choose Lithuania. It involves a psychologist who gives free remote and confidential consultations in Lithuanian, Russian and English to those coming back or arriving to live in Lithuania.
More information: https://www.renkuosilietuva.lt/lt/psichologas/  
You can register for a consultation by sending an email to psichologas@iom.int    
Foreigner Integration Centre in Vilnius https://vilnius.caritas.lt/prieglobscio-ieskantiems-uzsienieciams/