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Not Just a Language Barrier: Anxiety and Stress in Immigrants

July 27th, 2022


Acculturative stress stems from adapting to a new culture. Immigrants in the US often experience acculturative stress, which can be linked to anxiety and mood disorders. However, there are some factors that make some immigrants more likely to experience anxiety and depression than others.

For example, immigrants that have prior knowledge of English, come from more affluent backgrounds, and have more social support are less at risk to develop anxiety or mood disorders.

Still, there are issues that all immigrants encounter that can impact their mental health and daily functioning. In this blog, I will outline some of the factors that can increase anxiety for immigrants, as well as how therapy can be beneficial for immigrants to reduce their anxiety and stress.

Factors that Increase Anxiety and Stress

Language Barrier

1. Language Barrier

Research shows that immigrants who come to the US with a more proficient ability to speak English experience mood and anxiety disorders at a lower rate than immigrants who do not speak English. Additionally, studies indicate that immigrants who come to the US at a younger age experience less acculturative stress than immigrants who immigrate later in life.

One explanation is that immigrants who are older often have more established social connections and cultural identities in their country of origin, while younger immigrants have more time to adapt to their new culture, make new friends, and learn the English language.

Now, this is not to say that the children of immigrants or young immigrants do not experience acculturative stress. The children of immigrants whose parents do not speak English often experience parentification, which means the roles between child and parent are reversed. For instance, some children may be expected to translate for their parents at medical appointments, meetings with teachers, or when their parents are paying bills.

In addition, some immigrants may experience acculturative stress and social anxiety due to their accents. Immigrants may fear being judged by others for their accent or how they speak English in work or social settings. I’ve had clients who are immigrants share that they hold back in work meetings because they worry their peers will not understand them or will ask them to repeat themselves. Other clients indicated that they feel stressed when writing emails in English at work because they worry about appearing stupid or incompetent. Additionally, immigrants may feel excluded when people at work or in social situations bring up pop culture references or use idioms that they do not know.

2. Immigration Status

Living as an undocumented immigrant can be anxiety-provoking for several reasons. Fear of deportation, whether for themselves or their family members, is one significant source of stress and anxiety. Prior research also has identified financial insecurity as well as a sense of not belonging as other triggers for anxiety for undocumented immigrants. In addition, finding social support can be challenging because some fear that they will expose themselves to adverse consequences if they share their undocumented status with others.

However, documented immigrants can also experience anxiety related to the type of visa they have. In some cases, immigrants on a work visa, or H1-B visa, have their legal status in the US directly tied to their ability to maintain employment. Some clients that I’ve worked with who have an H1-B visa explained that they feel pressured to perform at work because they fear being fired and having to uproot the lives they established in the US.

Similarly, international students who come to the US on a student visa and want to remain in the US have a limited amount of time after graduation to find a job in order to maintain their legal status. This can be especially challenging for students who come from countries with fewer employment opportunities.

Lastly, long wait times for permanent resident applications can create frustration and uncertainty for people wanting to immigrate into the US, as well as family members or partners who may already be living here. All of these examples highlight that both documented and undocumented immigrants encounter uncertainty and stress related to their immigration status that can impact their mental health in negative ways.

Social Isolation and Culture Shock

3. Social Isolation and Culture Shock

Social isolation and limited support networks are also linked to adverse mental health concerns for immigrants. This is especially true when immigrants are dealing with family separation. On the other hand, immigrants experience less anxiety when they have social support within their new community, whether that is extended family, neighbors, or co-workers.

In addition, immigrants may experience stress due to the cultural norms in the country they moved to differ from their country of origin. Pressure to assimilate and adapt to the new customs may be difficult and create tension. This is amplified when immigrants do not have a strong support network of people. Immigrants, especially immigrants of color, may be marginalized or experience discrimination, which also negatively impacts mental health.

The Benefits of Culturally Competent Therapy

The Benefits of Culturally Competent Therapy

Immigrants benefit immensely from working with a therapist to learn coping skills to manage their anxiety as well as to simply have a place to process their experiences in a warm and non-judgmental environment.

In addition, people in therapy also gain awareness of negative core beliefs about themselves related to past discrimination or external pressure to fit in and can begin to challenge those past negative thoughts. This helps people move closer to self-acceptance and being comfortable with their authentic selves. Moreover, therapists can help clients identify ways to increase their social support networks, which has been shown to be a protective factor for immigrants in the US.

Some people may feel more comfortable working with a therapist who shares the same racial or ethnic identity as them. While it's not necessary for people to work with a therapist from the same cultural background as them to benefit from therapy, it is important to find a therapist who is culturally competent, meaning that the therapist recognizes and acknowledges the systemic issues and external factors that are impacting clients who are immigrants.

Culturally competent therapists explore how their clients’ culture influences their experiences and beliefs and validate the real external factors that cause their clients’ distress. At Clarity Clinic, there are therapists who speak multiple languages as well as therapists who are immigrants themselves, the children of immigrants, or have partners who are immigrants. Similarly, all therapists are offered training in cultural competency in order to gain more awareness of people from different backgrounds than themselves.

Written By: Sam Donham, LCPC, MEd, NCC.

Clarity Clinic

At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic at (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.

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