Relocating is a sensory experience

Relocating is a sensory experience

During an international relocation, we tend to be aware of the emotional or mental challenges, but not give much thought to what our “instinctive” body is experiencing. 

Relocating is a sensory experience. Whether it is the chill you feel when disembarking from a plane into a completely different climate or the shock of waking up to an unfamiliar ambulance siren – not to mention the assault of scents at the local market – everything feels different in a new place.

Relocating means not only new jobs and languages but also astonishing new sights, smells, sounds, tastes, temperatures and textures. These sensations, which affect our bodies, moods and functioning, are all part of an ongoing and natural adaptation process.

How our senses work for us

The human body experiences the environment through the senses. Information is sent to our brains from receptor cells in the eyes, nose, ears, mouth, skin, muscles, joints and organs. The brain then processes this sensory information. Light entering visual receptors in our eyes becomes images and sounds received by auditory receptors in our ears turn into words.

The sensory system is designed to protect us and to alert the brain of a new and possibly dangerous environmental threat: the sudden heat of a flame felt on your skin will cause you to quickly pull away your hand, and a foul odour coming from the leftovers in the fridge means the food is likely spoiled.

After a while, however, the brain becomes accustomed to sensory input and begins to adapt to it. A startling sound in a quiet room quickly becomes background noise if it continues, yet does not cause harm. We are soon able to tune it out and return our attention to whatever it was we were doing.

This process is called adaptation and habituation. Our brains are trained to detect sudden new sensory input, in case it is threatening. But if the sensory input persists without any harmful consequences, the alarms can be turned off and we carry on with a “new normal”.

Relocating…. a sensational experience

Relocations are challenging in more ways than one. You wake up one day and suddenly there is a different social scene to navigate, unknown cultural norms to trip over, and a new job to figure out. But it is also the physical environment that you need to adjust to when relocating.

With time and repeated exposure, your body and brain adapt and habituate to new surroundings, and there will come a day when you will no longer notice that shrill ambulance siren or the strong scent of the marketplace…

Until then, try to enjoy the novel sensations as much as possible, before they fade into the “new normal”. Remember, it really does take a while to feel at home in a new place.

With thanks to Tamar Amiri, occupational therapist living in the Netherlands, for her contribution to this article.

What are your sensory memories from when you moved to your current location? These may be positive or negative! Which senses suddenly came alive there? Which sensory experiences – a certain smell or taste – remind you of “home”?

Vivian  Chiona


Vivian Chiona

Vivian Chiona is the founder and director of Expat Nest (, which provides emotional support to expats and their families through online counseling services. A bicultural, multilingual expat with family...

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