The Psychology of Moving

By Lauren Herber, Editor-in-Chief

Chicago, here I come. Courtesy Crain's Chicago Business
Chicago, here I come. Courtesy Crain’s Chicago Business

It’s March 30th. How did we get here so quickly? If I push away the fog of disbelief and confusion, I can vaguely remember a semester full of trials, triumphs, new experiences, laughter, and course work. I know it happened, but it feels like I just started my final semester here at Thunderbird a mere matter of weeks ago. The end of March means graduation is upon myself and my class. It means that in less than 6 weeks I’ll be packing up my life and saying goodbye to a place that has become inextricably linked with my sense of self. It means that in just over two months I’ll be moving to a new city, Chicago, and will have to start all over again.

As T-birds, packing up our lives and moving to new places is not a new concept. Most of us have lived in many different places and would like to explore many more. Moving isn’t something that scares us; we see moving as an adventure, an exciting new start, a chance to experience the world and make it better. For T-birds, moving is fun and exciting, and this willingness to embrace uncertainty forms part of the bond that we all share. But for all its adventure, moving can also be difficult. It can be stressful, frightening, and heartbreaking. I’ve lived in four different places over the course of my life so far, and every time I move somewhere new, I leave a piece of my heart in the place that I’m leaving. As I prepare to move to Chicago and build a new life there, I’ve been pondering the psychology behind moving, and how and when a new place starts to feel like home.

We move for many reasons: employment opportunities, loved ones, economic motives, a desire for a fresh start. Sometimes moving is a choice, and sometimes it is a requirement. But regardless of the where, when, and why of a move, moving has certain psychological implications that can impact our mental, emotional, and even physical health.

I’ll use my current situation as an example. When I think about moving to a new city and getting to explore a new place, culture, and people, I’m thrilled. But then I start to think about other aspects of moving—trying to pack up everything I own and transport it almost 2,000 miles across the country, finding a new home, building new relationships, and leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of a place that I love filled with people that I love. Before long, despite all the excitement I feel about moving, I also start to feel very overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and lonely. And this phenomenon isn’t unique to me: a recent research study demonstrated that when participants were primed with an imaginary situation of high residential mobility, they were more likely to generate words associated with anxiety and loneliness than the control group.

Just one of the many chain restaurants available for your dining pleasure on Bell Road. Courtesy Olive Garden
Just one of the many chain restaurants available for your dining pleasure on Bell Road. Courtesy Olive Garden

The tendency to experience feelings of loneliness and anxiety when moving are due, in part, to a psychological phenomenon called the exposure effect. Basically, we have a tendency to like things that we are familiar with, simply because we are more familiar with them. When we move, we’re entering a new realm that is very unfamiliar and lacks the comfort of our favorite coffee shop, the grocery store whose layout we know by heart, and streets that we can navigate sans GPS. Take Phoenix as a case study. Less than half of Arizona residents are native to the state, which means that a lot of people have moved here from other places. And what’s one thing that we have in spades here in Phoenix? Chains. Chain stores, chain restaurants, you name it, we’ve got it. But it makes sense: Phoenix is chock-full of people who have moved here from other places and are seeking the familiarity of comforts from home. Of course chains thrive here. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about with regards to the overabundance of chain establishments here in the Valley, then apparently you’ve never driven on the stretch of the 17 that runs between Glendale and Central Phoenix or down Bell Road.

Moving also impacts our relationships. Building quality relationships takes time and effort, and maintaining those relationships long-distance is even tougher. Think about it: how many of your “best friends” from college are still your best friends? Despite our best intentions, careers, relationships, and general busyness make building and maintaining relationships difficult—and all of these aspects are compounded by physical distance. A move to a new place, away from current friends and family, can thus feel very lonely and emotionally isolating. Not surprisingly, the same study I referenced earlier also found that adults who move frequently tend to report fewer high-quality social relationships than adults who move infrequently.

The effects of moving are highly individualized and can vary depending on certain factors, such as personality traits or whether you moved around frequently as a child. For example, people who are more introverted may find moving to be more stressful than extroverts since introverts often find social interactions and making new friends to be more taxing. More frequent moving has also been linked to higher degrees of willingness to take risks.

Make time to reflect. Courtesy YLDist.com
Make time to reflect. Courtesy YLDist.com

The good news is that no matter who you are and why you’re moving, there are ways to reduce the amount of moving-induced stress and anxiety so that you can focus on getting excited about starting a new part of your life. Psychologist Elizabeth Stirling recommends establishing a strong support network, embracing change instead of rejecting it, and using the experience as an opportunity for self-reflection. Make sure you have the emotional support you’ll need by evaluating which friends have been there for you through tough times in the past and enlist their help—just be sure to return the favor and put forth the effort necessary to maintain the relationship after the move. You can also build a support network in your new community by pursuing your hobbies and meeting people who are interested in the same things as you, such as joining a book club, recreational sport club, or taking a class.

You can embrace the change in your life instead of resisting it by reflecting on what kind of life you want to have and how you can build that life. A good place to start is by considering which lifestyle habits in the past have made you happy and which have not. For example, in the last two places I’ve lived, having a bookshop that I visit frequently has really helped me to adjust. After enough visits, it started feeling like my place where I could reconnect with myself. That will be one of my first priorities when I move to Chicago, and other places that I move to in the future.

Treat your move as an opportunity for self-reflection, as well. Let’s be honest: we’re T-birds, so there’s a pretty high likelihood that we’ll find ourselves moving around quite a bit over the course of our lives. Knowing yourself and how moving affects you early on can help you to prepare for future moves. For example, I know that I have a tendency to delay processing a move until after the move has already occurred, and I’m all alone in an unfamiliar place. In times like these, it’s helpful to have a journal to look back on that reminds me of who I am, why I moved in the first place, and all the things that I have to look forward to in the future.

Moving is a part of life. Treat it as an opportunity to grow, learn, and improve, and make your next move the best one yet.

Lauren Herber

Lauren Herber

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