What is it like to spend winter holidays as a migrant during the pandemic? How does being unable to return to one’s country of origin affect their mental health and well-being? I share my own experience along with that of our readers.

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Image credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF/Getty Images

I first moved to the United Kingdom about 10 years ago. Originally from Bucharest, Romania, I have never missed a Christmas and have diligently spent a fortune on plane tickets over the years, every year, to make sure I never miss the opportunity to decorate my Christmas tree with my family.

But this year has been different. To avoid putting in unnecessary peril my mother, who has a high risk of developing severe COVID-19 if she contracts the virus, I have decided not to go back this year.

Although I consider both Romania and the U.K. to be my “home countries,” not being able to go back to the former has had a strange effect on my well-being.

Almost as if I had a “migrant biological clock” that has been tampered with, I have been feeling strangely out of place and emotionally and socially “jet-lagged.”

Normally, at this time of year, I would be somewhere else, speaking another language, bonding with people over different things in a slightly different time zone and in a significantly different culture.

To me, there is also a fundamental, deeper kind of rest that, in my experience as a migrant, only family and one’s country of origin can provide and that I would normally benefit from during this time.

Perhaps the reason for this is that one’s country of origin can provide shelter from the daily challenges of being on your own in another country, away from minor or more serious discrimination, away from the exhausting and alienating question “Where are you from?”

Jet lag is a palpable phenomenon with very real physiological consequences. It impacts on a person’s physical and mental health. Disrupting the work-rest rhythms of our bodies puts us at risk of mood disorders and makes us feel sadder and even more lonely.

Routine disruption is known to negatively affect people’s mental health, which is part of the main reason this pandemic has been so challenging for many.

Along similar lines, I wondered how the disruption of the yearly, restful routine of going back to one’s country of origin for the winter holidays would affect the mental health and well-being of other migrants such as myself. And what are some of the things people do to cope?

To find out, MNT spoke to some of our readers who are in similar situations.

Most people that MNT spoke to have either had their winter holiday plans disrupted by the pandemic, or planned in advance on the assumption that they would not be able to go see their family this winter.

“Back in September, I had already booked return flights to Italy, excited about the idea to be able to spend Christmas in my hometown, with family and friends,” said Michele, 35, who is originally from Italy but lives in the U.K.

“Sadly, that plan did not last for long. In light of recent events, and also because I have both elderly relatives and a father in a high risk category, I was forced to cancel my plans and try to make new ones.”

“This is the first winter when I’m spending the holidays away from my family,” said Adina, 32, originally from Romania, also living in the U.K.

“I’m avoiding traveling abroad to see them since they’re in a high risk group for COVID-19, and the thought that I might increase their risk makes me really anxious.”

“I wasn’t planning to spend Christmas back in Poland, and that’s not only because of the pandemic — I would not want to put my mom, who is over 60 and has asthma, in danger — but also because of Brexit and whether I would be allowed back in the U.K. after New Year’s,” said Lena, 36, who is originally from Poland but now lives in the U.K.

For some, plans were cancelled several times.

“I ended up making other plans with a few Italian friends: a lunch together, each one cooking something different and doing our best to forget that we all are stuck in London. The Italian Christmas atmosphere is, after all, sharing food and coming together,” said Michele.

“But just when we were about to go through with it, [t]he U.K. government made the shock announcement of Christmas effectively being cancelled for millions in England. After seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, the vaccine being rolled out in the country, we were brought back to reality.”

The negative emotional impacts of these disrupted plans did not fail to appear. MNT readers have talked to us about how the migrant experience and the fact that they cannot visit their relatives this winter brought about or amplified feelings of guilt, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and isolation.

“It has been really painful to accept it. The lack of social interaction is unbearable for me, my family, and friends,” said Michele.

“I believe that social interaction is deeply interlinked with psychological well-being, social opportunities, and, to a certain extent, employment; the restrictions put in place by governments, especially in Europe, seem to be profoundly distressing to those experiencing them — me included.”

She added, “All around me, I feel widespread fear, loneliness, and a growing sense of misery and loss.”

“This is especially true for migrants like me — although I consider myself a privileged one — who do not have the same resources as the natives. It is not only about money but also about your social circles, the people you can gather with, and how you deal with unexpected situations.”

“I find myself spending more time at home, both for work and leisure, which makes me even more frustrated and homesick.”

“It feels unreal and utterly depressing,” said Adina. “Add to this the fact that I live on my own, and you get a full picture of just how isolating this winter holiday is starting to feel…”

“Watching as other people get to see their families — that live locally, for instance, or within driving distance — also emphasizes just how different my situation is as a migrant.”

“At this time, I don’t really feel connected to my local community. Despite the restrictions, most of the people around me do get to celebrate in small groups. For me, it will be just more of the same…”

Feelings of anxiety and depression are already very prevalent in the migrant population, and the pandemic has only heightened these challenges.

Pandemic exacerbates the already existing mental health challenges

A World Health Organization (WHO) report concerning the health impacts of COVID-19 on migrants and refugees found that over 50% of those interviewed reported “greater feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness and increased worries” as a result of the pandemic. One in five respondents also reported higher drug and alcohol use.

Despite many studies lumping all migrants together, it is worth noting that different subgroups of migrants have different challenges.

So, the chronic stressors experienced by refugees and asylum seekers are very different from those encountered by people who have chosen to live in another country to pursue higher education, for example.

For those who have left their country of origin either willingly or as a result of external circumstances, several factors can cause anxiety and worries. These can range from economic instability to discrimination, food insecurity, lack of access to medical care, and even homelessness.

As researchers have noted, “Because migration is such a complex process, it often brings with it stress, strain, and [mental health] risk factors, such as […] separation of family and children, as well as other relatives […] xenophobic attacks, poor education.”

“Furthermore, social factors, including cultural bereavement, culture shock, social defeat, as well as a discrepancy between expectations and achievement, and acceptance by the new nation can all affect adjustment.”

Worries over family’s health at the forefront of migrants’ minds

For MNT readers who have to spend their winter holidays in another country as a result of the pandemic, one worry in particular has taken center stage — worrying over the health of their family.

“I’m anxious because I know they’re getting on in age, and I feel I should be spending more quality time with them, make more memories, and share important moments. So not being able to connect with them in person at this time is really frustrating,” Adina told us.

“People that we know are dying,” said Selin, 34, originally from Turkey. “[My] mom’s not leaving home, not seeing anyone […] I’m worried that she’s on her own, everyone has COVID[-19], and she has low immune system.”

“It is a strange feeling knowing that I chose to be here and put myself in this situation,” said Courtney, 32, originally from Australia.

“I knew when I left home that there were risks associated with being so far away. A family member becoming very ill or having an accident, and [me] not being there, the time it would take for me to travel back. I did not anticipate a situation quite like this, however.”

Feelings of guilt are amplified

For some, the separation and lack of control over the situation bring about feelings of guilt in addition to anxiety. While it is worth noting that guilt is a prevalent and documented feeling among migrants — particularly guilt at leaving parents behind — the pandemic has exacerbated this feeling for some.

“I felt far away before the pandemic, but it continued to be a choice. The longing for home and my family was easier to bear when I felt I had some control over my circumstances,” adds Courtney, who now lives in the U.K.

“I put a lot of thought into the presents I sent to my family [this Christmas],” said Courtney. “It’s my way of trying to be there, in some way, and to have some kind of connection with them. To try and show them that they are loved.”

“But, for all the thought into their presents, they just didn’t seem to be enough. I feel a sense of guilt for not being there, I chose to be here.”

A couple of MNT readers who self-identified as introverts confessed to not feeling very affected by the pandemic during the holidays, or by the pandemic overall. For Jonathan, 33, who is originally from the U.K. but now lives in the United States, the fact that Christmas family dinner was cancelled did not come at great expense to his emotional well-being.

“As an introvert, the pandemic has actually not been difficult for me at all. […] I understand that I’m probably an outlier, but I truly have had no problem with the personal effect of this pandemic.”

Jonathan is not an outlier. Selin also identified as a “massive introvert,” adding that not spending winter holidays with her relatives may actually be better for her mental health. “Away from all the family drama and gifts that we don’t really need — I am really enjoying the quiet, cozy time at home.”

A similar sentiment is shared by Kiaria, 32, who is originally from the U.S. but lives in Hungary.

“While Covid[-19] totally did mess up our Christmas plans (we were planning on coming back to the U.K.), I’m very lucky to say that my health and well-being have not been too impacted by it […] The excitement of living in a new place that is so beautiful has not worn off.”

While some articles and opinion pieces have suggested that introverts may find it easier to cope with the pandemic, not many existing scientific studies have backed this up. In fact, a small study suggests that being introverted may actually pose higher risks for mental health.

That said, people’s ability to adjust may have more to do with emotion regulation — that is, their ability to adjust to new circumstances — than anything else.

According to a larger analysis, it is not so much introversion or extraversion that can dampen or exacerbate the effects of the pandemic as emotion regulation.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that introverts who also had good adaptive emotion-regulating strategies were less lonely and most resilient against the mental health effects of the pandemic.

By comparison, extraverts fared less well, but that was because they had a tendency to suppress their emotions.

Suppression seems to be a fairly common coping strategy among our readers, as many have confessed they prefer not to think about their situation.

“I think that the most painful thing, apart from the cancelled Christmas, is to realize that the pandemic is far from over,” said Michele. “This is something I do not want to think about on a daily basis.”

“The way I manage it, if you can call it that, is to try not to think about it,” said Courtney.

“I have become quite accustomed to feeling this way. Sometimes, though, I do let myself feel the sadness, but it’s not something I want to think about too often, for fear of self-pity and wallowing. It’s just not helpful. There’s not a lot I can do about the situation, but I also know it’s not healthy to bottle it up.”

Others have found comfort in technology, cooking traditional meals from their country of origin, and the fact that we are in this pandemic together.

“I think that knowing that so many other people are in the same situation as I am has probably cushioned what in normal circumstances would have been a blow,” said Lena.

Also, she added: “The ubiquity of technology in our lives makes it much easier to grin and bear this, because I can grin at my nearest and dearest while on my phone or computer. I’m also up for making some traditional Polish dishes (vegan style, of course). That will have to make up for not enjoying my mom’s cooking, which I love.”

Others have found solace in the empathy and support they receive from fellow migrants, who understand the experience best. Adina said:

“[M]any of my close friends — most of whom are also migrants — have made coping with this sense of isolation a lot easier. They check in on me very frequently (and I on them), we’ve been sending each other care parcels… Our relationship has strengthened throughout the pandemic, and the shared frustration at being unable to be with family right now has brought us closer.”

“Still, as we all live in different parts of the country, it’s been usually impossible to meet in person over the past few months,” she continued.

While not being able to interact socially in person can be frustrating for many of us, it is important to remember that spending these winter holidays in a physically distanced manner will benefit us all in the long run.

“I’m not sure how I would deal with another lockdown,” said Adina. “The impact on mental health is becoming increasingly difficult to counteract. I’m keeping all of my fingers and toes crossed for an efficient vaccination program in the new year!”