How to deal with settling syndrome
Surfing the highest highs and lowest lows of culture shock
So first, what is ‘Settling Syndrome’? Well, put simply-ish, Settling Syndrome is a bout of hypersensitivity and hyper-openness that occurs when an individual is tossed into a place that he’s never been before, with a language he barely knows and a new family that he has just met (Disclaimer: this is exactly where I was three months ago when I first arrived in Brazil as a Global Citizen Year Fellow).
But in general, Settling Syndrome comes around when you’re starting a new life-chapter somewhere totally different. It comes about because people are usually split about how to treat the future; there’s hope that things will work out but an unreliable, instinctive fear that adapting will be too hard, that we’ll never be comfortable here, wherever here is. We know that friends will most likely be made and great experiences will happen, but there’s this nagging unease that never ceases to bring about lots of unnecessary stress.
In reality, relaxing, “being yourself,” is usually the best option.
When Settling Syndrome kicks in, you become hyperaware of every little action you do. It’s like you’re relearning how to live: Can I touch that plant?? Can I let the dog in now??? Do I put my toilet paper in the trash can or the toilet???? (Yes, in Brazil they put their TP in the trashcan). Little things that in your everyday “normal” life go without a thought become almost apocalyptic.
And in a weird twist of psychology you also become hyper-open to things that suddenly seem new: A guitar in my room, hell yeah I will try that again. A beach? Guess I have got to take up swimming now too. An Afro-Brazilian martial art that was created 400 years ago and disguised as a dance to hide its true motives from slavers? Count me in!
But the best part of Settling Syndrome is the lessons it can teach. For me, I learned that new places are actually new opportunities. They provide us with fertile ground for a refresh and help us better discover who we are. Because in these new situations, we spread ourselves out into as many different directions as possible hoping to eventually toss a hook that catches--trying to build a base within a completely foreign landscape. But finding this base takes time, sometimes lots of it.
And during this period, perseverance is much more important than latching on to the little successes you have.
Our brains sometimes like to self-medicate to keep us happy, but their method of keeping us afloat can be fairly self-destructive. When we are in new environments we latch onto the high moments like a baby on a pacifier because they tend to be so few and far between. No matter what triggers it, our brains will ride the high of accomplishment until the newness of our surroundings rears its ugly head again. The main problem is that the newness will rear, and it will rear with a vengeance. I’m not saying don’t enjoy these highs, just be aware that our brains are overcorrecting.
These spikes of heightened happiness are our brains way of coping with a situation of overwhelming unknown: they get us comfortable with the right now forgetting that the right now doesn't usually last very long and that once that tiny moment of bliss is gone, we will be right back to treading water, back to scrambling for “normality”. Our brains are only trying to help us settle in, but what they don't or maybe can’t understand is that in the beginning, there is not yet any stable ground to set up shop. So we have to make some, slowly.
This insatiable scramble for comfort is our mental arsenal’s best weapon for figuring out new situations, or so we think. There is always the simple yet nearly impossible act of just asking for what we want instead of fishing. But for most kids my age, the amount of courage that requires is way beyond our years. So for teenagers entering new situations: college, jobs, other countries. Be aware of what your brain is trying to do and try to tone it back, just a smidgen. You will begin to see just how much easier your new experiences can be.