Moving house is a difficult thing, something I’ve been reminded of many times recently. There’s a reason moving is near the top of those lists of stressful life events (at number two apparently, topped only by bereavement) and my own recent experiences got me thinking about why this process can be particularly challenging for those of us who are LGBTQ+, have a trauma history, are neurodivergent or HSP (and any combination of the above). The second part of this post focuses on if there’s anything we can do to make the whole thing suck a little less.
Home as a safe haven
For many of us, the experience of the wider world brings micro aggressions, prejudice and abuse and so often in response our homes are spaces and environments we have carefully crafted to be a place of safety and refuge*. Even in the best of circumstances, where the move is by choice, not involving a relationship breakdown or a negative change of economic situation, moving is massively disruptive to this safe base and as such is often incredibly destabilising.
The build up
Often we think of the day of the move as the stressful bit, but it usually comes after a prolonged period of uncertainty and expense, with plans which change last minute, and circumstances which are out of our control – something which can be particularly difficult for those of us who are neurodivergent and/or have trauma histories. We might struggle with organisation, becoming hyper-fixated on alphabetically organizing our book collection whilst packing up the kitchen remains unfinished. Then there’s making phone calls (seriously though, does anyone actually enjoy this?!) and the ‘interesting’ way many solicitors communicate. This is important because we need to remember we’re not coming at moving day fresh, we’re often already tired/overloaded by the time we get to this point.
Uncertainty, sensory overload and minority stress
For some of us, uncertainty and sensory overload isn’t just a mild annoyance, it can be totally incapacitating. Moving day itself involves a bombardment of noise and new and stressful stimulus to react to. Once in your new space, a new home means new noises, appliances, smells, neighbours and neighbourhoods.
For LGBTQ+ folks moving brings particular challenges beyond the usual ‘will this be a good place to live and will I get on with my neighbours’, with minority stress in the form of additional concerns over experiencing homophobia and acceptance or worries about tradespeople and movers coming into you home. This can all put us into survival mode, and we’ll often find ourselves in a fight, flight or freeze response.
So, is there anything we can do about all this?
I took some time to outline the specific challenges of moving, not to scare you if you have a forthcoming move on the horizon, or to make you say ‘I’m never moving again’ if you don’t. I wanted to emphasise how moving can be really challenging and that anyone would feel stressed in these circumstances. Often when we’re going through something difficult there can be a temptation to view our responses as a personal failing. But moving is hard, and we’re not alone in experiencing difficulties in relation to it. A central part of practicing self-compassion is recognising our common humanity, realising that suffering is part of the shared human experience. When we believe we are broken or wrong for our experiences of stress and overwhelm, we’re highly likely to isolate ourselves, cutting ourselves off from potential support which can be one of the most helpful things us when we are navigating difficulties (you can read more on common humanity and self-compassion here).
Knowing how you react to stress
When it comes to navigating our stress responses, knowledge is power. Knowing how you normally respond to difficulties, means that you can anticipate this and plan accordingly for times when stress and disruption inevitably lands. For those who go into a fight response, this may mean finding other healthy ways to express anger, for freeze it may be experimenting with grounding tools and for flight it could be allowing yourself to leave for a while, getting outside and moving. Depending on where we are attachment-style wise, we may find asking for help or realising that we’re more capable than we give ourselves credit for, to be challenging. Again, self-knowledge can help us predict and pivot accordingly. A lot will be happening outside of your control, but are there things you can plan in or make time for that will ease the stress? Prioritising the basics like food and sleep can make a big difference, as can scheduling in even small breaks away from everything to allow your system to come down.
Knowing how the people you are moving with react to stress and building communication skills.
We often don’t move solo, and as helpful as it can be to know our own stress response patterns, knowing how our nearest and dearest respond in a tight spot can be similarly beneficial. How do your stress responses interact with each other and is there anything you can do to mediate clashes? In terms of communicating around this I strongly recommend having these conversations before/after stressful periods rather than in the moment of tension/conflict, when everyone is dysregulated and more likely to fall into old patterns and unhelpful responses.
Wax on Wax off
I once heard the work we do in therapy (particularly trauma therapy/working with the nervous system) compared to the ‘wax on, wax off’ sequence in Karate Kid, where Daniel spends weeks doing seemingly unrelated domestic tasks that are building the skills/techniques which form the basis of his martial arts training. Although I’d hope there would be a bit more explanation of why we do the work we do in therapy/how it all works though (and less racial stereotypes)! Early experiences of trauma and ongoing experiences of marginalisation can significantly narrow our ‘window of tolerance’ , meaning that we can have bigger responses to difficulties than others who don’t. However, we can also use therapy (amongst other things) to ‘widen our windows’, i.e build our capacity to deal with difficult situations, increasing our self-knowledge, creating new, more beneficial coping strategies and allowing us to spend more time in a regulated, ventral vagal state. That doesn’t mean that difficulties will never come, or that major life stressors like moving won’t impact us, just that we’ll be a bit more tooled up to handle them when they do.
*This should be something that’s available to everyone, but sadly isn’t.