Woman resting her head on a table
Cognitive immobility happens when you are stuck in a certain place, event or experience - mentally Image Credit: Unsplash/Abenezer Shewaga

Can you recall instances when you felt as though you were physically present in a certain place but mentally somewhere else?

This might have happened a lot when you first moved to a new city.

You tend to feel as if you’ve left something behind – your loved ones, your home, or just a feeling of security. This describes something called ‘cognitive immobility’.

Ezenwa Olumba, a doctoral researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, coined the term this year.

In his study for the academic journal Culture and Psychology, Olumba adopted auto-ethnography – a method in which the author is also the subject of investigation.

As we felt it might be something that resonates with expats a lot, we spoke to Olumba to delve deeper into the concept and understand how one can cope with cognitive immobility.

The feeling of being stuck

In a recent article published by Bristol University Press, Olumba described cognitive immobility as a sensation of being stuck in the past.

The researcher further adds that it is a state where one may become stuck in a previous life experience, such as a location lived or visited in the past or an incident that had occurred.

My mind was trapped between my life in the UK and my past life in Nigeria.

- Ezenwa Olumba, doctoral researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London

“Cognitive immobility is a stressful sense of mental entrapment in a place or multiple places, which results in a conscious or unconscious effort to recreate memories of people, places, events, cultures, and things that someone encountered in a place they lived or visited in the past,” Olumba told Gulf News.

His research on cognitive immobility was based on the thoughts and emotions he experienced when he moved to the UK, leaving behind his ancestral home in Africa.

“My mind was trapped between my life in the UK and my past life in Nigeria,” he said.

This happens when emotional memory is more powerful and long lasting than semantic memory.

The mind then makes a conscious or unconscious effort to recreate past incidents, in one or more locations that you lived or visited.

The mind tries to retrieve what was missed or left behind.

When people move countries due to work or other reasons, they physically move to a new world, but their minds may be left behind – trapped in the previous setting.

Just about everyone suffers from it

According to Olumba’s research, cognitive immobility often occurs in most of our lives. This happens when you feel you don’t belong to a certain location or place.

This ‘mental homelessness’ might be temporary but can last for days, months, or even years.

In the paper published by Culture and Psychology, Olumba stated that cognitive immobility occurs when an individual is unable to stay put in the intended place due to the absence or presence of certain restrictions or circumstances beyond their control.

These restrictions and circumstances may necessitate their physical migration or departure, but not their mental migration or departure.

People might have experienced cognitive immobility when they were stuck in various countries during Covid-19.

- Dr Shaju George, specialist psychiatrist at Dubai Community Health Centre

“When you are emotionally connected to a place, person, or an incident, it might be hard to adjust to a new life. This is because your mind is stuck in your past and is unable to process those emotions.

For example, people might have experienced cognitive immobility when they were stuck in various countries during Covid-19,” said Dr Shaju George, a 49-year-old Indian expat who works as a specialist psychiatrist at Dubai Community Health Centre.

Dr George further added that cognitive immobility could also happen in many other forms.

For instance, when we lose a close friend or a family member due to a degenerative disease, or maybe when we leave an abusive relationship, especially if your move to the next phase is not prepared.

Stages of cognitive immobility

Olumba in his research identified three stages of cognitive immobility – one leading to the other.

Stage 1: Awareness

The first stage is awareness or separation. “The awareness or separation stage occurs when a person becomes aware of the feeling of being stuck in the past, and the stress connected with the separation from that past,” Olumba explained.

This is when we tend to realise that we are out of our comfort zone.

This feeling of ‘I’m not in my hometown anymore’ can be extremely stressful.

Dr Sailaja Menon, an Indian expat who works as a licensed psychologist at Openminds Psychiatry Counseling and Neuroscience Center, Dubai, explained that this feeling might be similar to what we experience when we graduate from college and move into a work environment.

We tend to go back to our college days and realise that working in a corporate workplace is nothing like college.

One might also experience a kind of homesickness, where you begin to yearn for the familiar. In this case, you wish to go back to your college years.

When we move away from our comfort zone, we realise our life has changed forever. We realise that it is no more the home that we lived in, and this can be quite stressful.

- Dr Sailaja Menon, psychologist at Openminds Psychiatry Counseling and Neuroscience Centre, Dubai

“When we move away from our comfort zone, we realise our life has changed forever. We realise that it is no more the home that we lived in, and this can be quite stressful. This yearning makes you feel homesick,” added Dr Menon.

Stage 2: Retrieval

The retrieval stage begins once the loss associated with separation from the ‘past’ has begun. Here, one attempts to halt or decrease that loss by trying to retrieve what was in the past.

This results in the continuous reliving of past events, life experiences, or locations left behind.

People at times find ways to reminisce about their past life and experiences by wearing a certain dress from a past incident, visiting the same location, cooking a dish from the past, or simply scrolling through pictures from the past.

However, this kind of retrieval will only bring temporary comfort as explained by Olumba.

Ruminating on the past will prevent you from moving or thinking ahead, making it difficult to adjust or accept the present scenario, said Dr Menon.

Man in a white cap holding his face
Ruminating on the past will make it difficult for you to accept the present scenario Image Credit: Unsplash/Paaz-PG

Stage 3: Stabilisation

The final stage involves acceptance, where you begin to shift out of the stage of limbo. This is when you accept your present-day situation and try to make small yet meaningful changes to fit in.

Olumba explained that the stabilisation stage takes effect when both the preceding stages have taken their toll on the individual.

Such a person has cognitively grown enough not to participate in the continual reconstruction of the past. Instead, the person builds values and processes for making peace with the past.

“At this stage, we begin to embrace the present. At work, we might reach out to colleagues and apply some lessons we learned in school – maybe with a little flexibility.

Those who’ve moved countries and miss home might video call often to check on their friends and family, so you don’t feel left out, make new friends in the community, and get familiar with the city,” explained Dr Menon.

The connection with homesickness

Homesickness is yet another aspect that Olumba explored in his research about cognitive immobility. He felt that these are two very different concepts, and that one cannot lead to the other.

“Cognitive immobility is not homesickness. Homesickness is the longing for your home, whereas cognitive immobility is the mental entrapment in the past,” Olumba clarified.

However, other experts differed as they felt that cognitive immobility is associated with homesickness.

Cognitive immobility, as Dr George explains, can be more intense.

Homesickness can be a component of cognitive immobility.

- Dr Nikita Barretto, a clinical psychologist in Dubai

“Homesickness can be a component of cognitive immobility. In the case of homesickness, memories come in episodes, and you tend to move on faster.

Whereas, when a person feels cognitively immobile, they tend to reimagine episodes in the hope to be back in the same place or situation,” Dr Nikita Barretto Barretto, 34-year-old Indian expat, who works as a clinical psychologist in Dubai told Gulf News.

Dr Menon explained that most expats are often torn between financial and emotional responsibilities. They tend to feel homesick and keep going back to memories from their hometown.

Every time I miss home, I try to cook dishes that take me back home or just chit-chat with my family over a video call...

- Vanessa Bayma, Brazilian expat in the UAE

“I moved to Dubai 12 years ago from Saudi. I terribly miss the people and the experiences I left behind. I sometimes miss the feeling of familiarity, the smell of my home in Brazil and the sense of security that it brings.

Every time I miss home, I try to cook dishes that take me back home or just chit-chat with my family over a video call, and we reminisce some memorable instances,” said Vanessa Bayma, a 38-year-old Brazilian expat in the UAE.

Coping with cognitive immobility

In a blog post, Olumba published on cognitiveimmobility.com, he outlined the four elements one should strive to develop and maintain. This includes – a craft, a community, time for reflection, and good health.

“These four factors will aid in increasing our focus on the moment and decreasing our forays into the realm of illusion,” Olumba added.

Besides, here are a few other ways in which you can deal with cognitive immobility.

1. Prepare before the transition

According to Dr George, preparing before a transition.

“Before you move to a new city, it's best to do some research. Finding out neighbourhoods that will suit you, or trying to make friends in the city via social channels will help ease the feeling of the unknown and unfamiliar.”

2. Have a goal

Have a goal and concentrate on goal-directed behaviours, said Dr Barretto. This will help you navigate your way in your new life.

“Finding a new hobby or continuing an existing one in the new place will keep the mind occupied and will also project the new life in a favourable light. Increased social interactions will also help you come out of the shell.”

3. Maintain a healthy routine

Dr Barretto explained that having a routine would give structure and purpose to the new life.

Self-care, such as eating and sleeping well, along with exercise will also help normalise newer experiences and create a sense of normalcy, she added.

4. Practise mindfulness

While it is perfectly normal for you to go back to your past, it is important to be in the moment. “Even while thinking about the past, you can snap out of it quickly if you are aware of it.

Transition into the past will lead to clouding of thoughts,” said Dr Barretto.

5. Ask for support

Lastly, it is important to reach out and ask for support when you need it. Taking therapy or speaking to people about it will let them know you’re struggling and will make you feel light.

“Joining groups which have a common interest will help you associate with a like-minded person and share your thoughts,” concluded Dr Barretto.