Let’s talk about relocation and the brain!  

During the past 15 years, I’ve often wondered how my life abroad was changing, crafting, and moulding me?  And with every passing year, I felt strongly that I was becoming something/someone else.

I’ve always loved change. I left my hometown, Genoa, when I was 23, immediately after I got my BA in Education Sciences and I moved to Milan. And I never regretted it.  Because even if I deeply love my hometown, I always felt it wasn’t the right place to fulfil my dreams and projects! 

I remember when all of this ‘life on the move started’.  It was 2006, and my husband had just told me he had received a job offer to move to London.  My initial reaction was strange, strange in the sense that it was not what I was expecting from myself.  I felt I wasn’t ready.

I’m a quick decision-maker; I jump into new things without thinking too much or overthinking things.  But the news about moving to London sounded ‘too adventurous for me’ for some reason.

To be fair, I’d just had my first baby, Emma, and she was only three months old.  I knew nothing about babies, and on top of it,  I had just found out I was expecting my second baby boy, Filippo.  So, yeah, my hormones were all over the place and probably had something to do with it!

How much do we really Change?

So, how much did I change from that moment in 2006 when I was about to move to London, full of doubts and uncertainties, until now, 15 years later?  And for the record, this is eight moves later. There have been London, Italy, Delhi, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Chennai, Pune, and Delhi.

The answer is quite straightforward:  A lot.  But why?

Understanding our ‘Black box’, our brain

In order to understand and try to figure out what was happening inside my own skull, inside my ‘black box’, I ventured into studying neuroscience.  I became pretty nerdy about the whys; I wanted to know the nitty-gritty reasons about the brain and change.

Of course, Neuroscience is an immense field, and I’m a coach, not a physician, but after some years of studying, I know substantially more about it.

We are live wired and born like open boxes with tons of wires we connect throughout our lives.  It’s happening all the time, even when we are unaware of it.  Honestly, it’s happening in every situation, even right now, while you are reading my story.

Our brain works on predictions. This is to say, we experience, read and feel the world around us through our past experiences. Every moment of every day, our brain stamps an emotion onto everything we experience and do.  This emotion, also called a somatic marker, helps us project the future and decide what to do when we reencounter a similar situation.

The expat brain SUPERPOWER

And this is where our Expat brain reveals its superpower as it’s constantly wiring and rewiring itself through experiences.  Getting faster, getting more efficient with each new rewiring and experience we have.

However, a key ingredient in this process is awareness.  For example, even Spiderman and Superman weren’t fully themselves until they figured out they had superpowers…right?

This rewiring superpower requires awareness, intention and effort to truly master* it.

The more I live in different places, learning, unlearning and then relearning, the more my brain is developing its neuroplasticity, and at quite a speed, I might add.

But there is a catch: neuroplasticity requires exposure.  That is to say, intentional exposure to where we live, the people, the culture, the food, the language, all without too much judgment involved. And let’s be honest, that’s not an easy job! But hey, as they say, ‘no pain, no gain’!

A lesson learnt, isolating and refusing to change never works.

For example, when we moved to India, where we have spent almost ten years now living in 3 different cities, I lived in a total psychological nightmare for the first six months.

Admittedly, I was doing everything written in the manual of ‘Never Adapt’ (if there was one), going vicariously through each and every chapter in it.

I was angry and judgmental, I was not believing in my ability to change, I was living in the past, I isolated myself, not sharing, I was feeling trapped inside my armoury of invincibility. And I pushed myself so hard against the current that I almost broke!

Suddenly, one day, I decided to wake up from the nightmare!  I kicked my ass out of the dark castle of “feeling sorry for myself” and pushed myself out the front door…

Undoubtedly, it was a hard lesson but a necessary one!

When/How does relocation change the brain?

Rewiring our brains through life always requires a hefty daily dose of self-compassion, intention, and effort!  And all three combined make another potent magic sauce!

When our brain (and its amygdala) are exposed to novelty, the first thing it does is compare what is happening with what it already knows.  And, if it doesn’t find a good fit, we suffer, panic, and get tired and disoriented.  However, this is also precisely when the magic happens when new synapses are created and we rewire.

Where our attention goes, energy flows; it’s science!

Eat, Sleep, Experience, REPEAT

But energy alone is not enough.  It requires repetition and practice (and patience)!  As with any sport and every muscle, it needs practice to master and repetition to build.  You don’t run a marathon on day one or bench press 800 pounds; if you try, you may break.  So…don’t.

Small amounts of progress are still progress, and new habits are created an inch at a time!

Reach out to others

Please realise that we are co-regulated systems.  Meaning you don’t have to do it alone, we learn from each other.  We calm down or hyp up with the influence of others.  Our brains secretly work with other brains; change requires connection. Learn from me, and don’t make the mistake I made when I first moved to India.  REACH OUT; your brain will love it, and thank you for it!

To summarise, there is plenty of good news here my fellow expat brains!

Our brain supports us well through change; it moulds and evolves, and we can be 100% sure of that.  However, remember, to add more wiring, we need to let go of what is not serving us any longer.   Release it with self-compassion, intention and repetition, and then it all becomes easier!

So, in a nutshell, this is what I’ve learned about relocation, my brain and change so far!  And as I’ve said before, remember we are all ‘works in progress’ and that each step we take is an opportunity!

Happy REWIRING to you all!

*to be precise, if you are under 25 years old, then you are still damn lucky because rewiring occurred with minimal effort

Monica Scillieri

Monica is British/Italian (Born in Genoa, but Sicilian by heart), the mom of 3 (ages 14, 13 and 7) and has been living and working abroad for the past 15 years. She is the founder of Expatminded a consultancy firm that supports Expats wellbeing around the world.
Monica is a ICF PCC Certified Coach, Intercultural Trainer and is NeuroScience Academy accredited