How Making Aliyah / Moving Abroad Can Take A Toll On Your Mental Health And What You Can Do About It.

July 8, 2018 - 16 minutes read

How Making Aliyah (or moving abroad) Can Take A Toll On Your Mental Health And What You Can Do About It.

Packing up and moving across the world is no small feat. When you decide to immigrate to a new country you are signing up for a couple of years in a fog, as you quickly try to adjust to your new culture. You are basically starting all over again, as you learn to navigate new bureaucratic systems, language, customs, food, weather, transportation, and more. The process is hard but you are here, in your new country, so how can you make the best of this decision?

Although this blog will focus on the very unique experience of aliya – Jews immigrating to Israel – many of the things I discuss here will also apply to living abroad anywhere.

The Aliyah Dream vs Reality

So you took the plunge and made aliyah. You remember falling in love with Israel and the excitement you felt when you first arrived. Everything was new and exciting, like a new relationship. You expected that feeling to last but as time has gone on you have found yourself struggling. When you talk to people back home they praise you for your choice and talk of how proud they are of you. They express envy that you packed up and made your dreams come true. It’s flattering on the one hand, but also leaves you feeling quite alone in your own experience of feeling down.You see, many people have big dreams but they never follow through on them. Usually due to their own fears and anxieties, people often don’t take the risk to follow their heart and move abroad. They truly are proud of you for doing something they can’t, but this can be hard to hear when you’re currently in the aliyah struggle.

Eventually you find that you’re in a place of feeling defeated, exhausted, and lonely. You are feeling torn between wanting to continue to live out your dream and wanting to go back to what’s comfortable and familiar. The truth is that what you are experiencing is completely normal and many olim (immigrants) struggle with similar feelings. It’s ok that you begin to question whether you made the right choice to make aliyah, and you don’t need to defend your choices to anyone.

It’s true that making aliyah impacts your mental health in ways that you may not have experienced in the past and thus you haven’t been prepared for. However, there is hope that you can get through this struggle on the other side, feeling good and happy.

Depression: The All Consuming Yet Hidden Beast

One of the things that surprises many olim that no one really talks about is feeling depressed. Depression can happen to anyone, any time any place. This may be shocking for those of you who have never experienced depression before, but living in a new environment can definitely trigger depression. Feelings of inadequacy and loneliness are the hallmark of feeling depression so its not surprising that many new olim struggle with experiencing depression.

When you’re in a new country and you make a few friends you find yourself becoming dependent  on them for the smallest things. Whether that’s asking them for help reading your mail or trying to get help at one of the numerous government offices, you’re constantly relying on others for help. This can leave you feeling like you are constantly bothering others so when you begin to feel depressed you can’t imagine turning to one of your friends or loved ones, and “bothering” them with one more thing. This just compounds your feelings of depression.

Let me also not discount the impact of not working in a career or profession that you are passionate about. I’ve found this experience to be almost uniquely American, where going to college and having a career (specifically one that you’re passionate about) is a huge part of who you are. For many they must say goodbye to their chosen career when they make aliyah, mostly due to language issues, but also because the pay difference is so vast. This is something that people tell you about but the experience of not being able to work and do what you’re passionate about can feel like a huge loss of who you are. The loss of identity. Thus, it’s another contributing factor developing depression.

For many olim the result of constant feelings of depression lead them to packing up their things and returning back to their home country where they do not feel so alone, and where they have a chance to shine.

Making Your Mental Health A Priority

This is where I share with you the importance of making your mental health a priority, especially as a new olim. Again, for many folks coming from the US it’s not unheard of to address your mental health needs and you have an idea of what to do or who to ask when you are struggling. But in Israel, the culture is a little bit different when it comes to mental health. It’s not talked about so much, unless the person is dealing with acute or pervasive issues such as Autism or Bipolar Disorder. And even so, it has been my experience that most Israelis don’t openly talk about mental health needs. So this could lead you to minimizing your own feelings and experiences in hopes that they will resolve on their own.

This is a mistake!

The biggest downside of not making your mental health a priority is that you will remain stuck. You will continue to struggle, and increasingly your beliefs about yourself and others will turn increasingly negative. This will leads to continued inactivity or poor choices that can negatively impact your sense of happiness.

Although you’re struggling with depression related to your immigrant experience you don’t need to continue to feel like this. This is where therapy can really help, especially working with someone who is an oleh like yourself. Someone who understands the unique experiences that you are having and have made it through. When you choose to make your mental health a priority you will find a sense of freedom, as if a weight has been lifted off your shoulders.

The 3 Feelings that Come Up As An Oleh That No One Told You About, How It Affects Your Mental Health and What You Can Do About It.

Below are the top 3 things no on really shares about being a new oleh and how this impacts your mental health and keeps you stuck:

1. Feeling Incompetent/inadequate: 

One of the reasons you struggle with feeling incompetent/inadequate is because you’re in a foreign country. Yes your home, with your fellow Jews, and it’s nice to not be the minority any more, but the culture of Israel is more than Judaism. This can be a culture shock, especially for those who made aliyah and felt they were religious back in their home country. Your also learning Hebrew and trying to get by with a limited amount of Hebrew but this can take a toll on you.

One of the things you can do is to focus on building your community. Especially as a single person. Making friends, whether they are native Israelis or they are Anglos like yourself, having someone around who knows how things go can really ease your anxiety. Your community can also be finding your religious community and people with similar values, beliefs and practices like yourself. If your feeling particularly brave you can even reach out to people who have very little in common with you religiously and use the learning experience as a method for connecting. Either way the goal is to build relationships. Find a place and have a sense of belonging.

2. Feeling Depressed or Anxious:

Even with a  community you may be surprised that you feel depressed and/or anxious. Depression can be expressed by feeling tired much of the time, general low energy, feeling sadness most of the day, questioning your worth or value, and trouble with sleeping. This can be a result of not working, or being in a job that is unfulfilling. Missing your friends and family back home, and the intimacy you created with those relationships. Feelings of anxiety can feel like worry, trouble sleeping, difficulty making decisions or taking actions. Again this can be a result of just being out of your comfort zone and not sure what is and isn’t right for you.

It may surprise you that there are things you can do to address your depression and anxiety for the better. You can begin a daily meditation or prayer practice which includes affirmations which focus on your strengths. You say these daily, multiple times a day if need be. By doing this daily you begin to retrain your brain to focus on the positives not your negatives and you’ll be surprised when your mood begins to improve. Incorporating a daily exercise routine can also help reduce depression and anxiety. Science has been studying the effects of exercise on mental health and has shown it’s benefits. I won’t go into details here, but it works so give it a try. Walking, running, jogging, yoga, taking up a sport like tennis are all examples of exercises you can incorporate into your routine.

3. Feeling Lonely: 

This is very common both for single olim but also for those who come with partners and/or families. For most folks there is no replacement for the bonds they have with the loved ones they have back home.  People who get them on a very deep level and who can read those signs when something isn’t right even if you never say anything. It’s an intense feeling to be seen and loved, it’s part of belonging, so it’s no coincidence that in the absence of this your mental health takes a dive.

This is where having consistent contact with loved ones back home can give you a much needed boost. Yes you will miss them and miss the things in your old home (activities you did together, food, etc) but having that support is essential. I highly recommend at the minimum a monthly FaceTime/skype date with friends and family back home. Folks who really get you and be open with them. Share you ups and downs, don’t hide them. It’s the secrets that make us sick, so take the mask off, and be vulnerable with the people who you know love all of you. If you don’t have this, then make it a priority to get people like this in your life.

These are just a few tips you can begin using today to improve your mental health and get back on track. 

If you’re an English speaking Oleh who is struggling with your adjustment, feeling depressed, anxious, and/or lonely and wanting to change this and don’t know how, then consider working with a skilled professional therapist. As an Olah Chadasha, I know firsthand how tough it can be adjusting to your new home. Moreover, it has been my experience that many olim operate in survivor mode most of the time and this takes a toll on the body and mind. This can change and you can start to feel more like your old self, happy and at peace. Contact me to schedule your free 15 minute session to learn more about my practice.