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- Cognitive immobility may happen after leaving your birthplace, losing a loved one, or facing trauma.
- Feeling trapped between “life before” and “life now” can lead to emotional distress and overwhelm.
- A profession, community, self-care, and time to reflect can help you find a new sense of belonging.
Have you ever felt as though your body and your mind were divided between two different places?
Perhaps you keep turning the wrong way toward the grocery store, because in your old town the shop was on the left instead of the right. Or maybe on dates, you can’t stop thinking of your ex and comparing them to your new partners.
If this limbo state sounds familiar, you may have experienced a type of cognitive immobility. Ezenwa Olumba, a doctoral researcher at the University of London, coined the term in 2022. He used it as a way to describe his experience immigrating, in which his mind felt trapped between the United Kingdom and his ancestral home in Nigeria.
While movies and songs like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” have touched on this ambivalence, Olumba is one of the first to bring it under scientific scrutiny and identify its impact on mental health.
Read on to learn how cognitive immobility develops and how to deal with it in your own life.
How it might play out in everyday life
Olumba describes cognitive immobility as a kind of “mental homelessness.” In short, you can’t fully feel at home in one place or another — your heart and mind always feel split in two.
But he also emphasizes that it relates to various life experiences, not just migration.
For instance, it can appear in situations like:
Whatever the cause, it typically follows three stages, according to Olumba.
In this first stage, you begin to realize your life has changed, possibly forever. This “We’re not in Kansas anymore” period can be quite stressful.
For example, imagine you’ve just graduated college and transitioned to an office job. During the first week, it starts to sink in that the corporate world is nothing like school: no grades, no syllabi, no open office hours.
Absolutely, you might experience some homesickness, or yearning for your school days. But those states are mostly feelings. To contrast, you can think of cognitive immobility as the nagging mental voice that pulls you out of the present with constant reminders of “how things used to be.”
In this second stage, you might consciously take steps to try and relive the past. Maybe you comfort yourself by wearing memorabilia from your alma mater or scrolling through old photos from school.
A trip down memory lane can be helpful, but it doesn’t make a good permanent residence. If you spend too long ruminating on the past, you may have less mental energy to devote to your life in the present.
In short, you may find yourself stuck in “school” mode, which can affect time management and overall productivity. Maybe you approach each task like a short-term, temporary assignment rather than an ongoing project, or neglect daily office tasks because they seem less important than bigger responsibilities.
In this final stage, you may find some resolution as your identity gradually shifts out of limbo.
You may not be exactly the same person as you were before. Even so, you hold on to the parts of you that matter, using the values, knowledge, and skills you built in the past to grow into your current circumstances.
At work, you may start following — even seeking out — advice from your coworkers and get a better sense of corporate rhythms. You realize the organization and research skills you used in school still help — you just have to apply them a little more flexibly.
Why does cognitive immobility happen?
The idea of cognitive immobility was developed in response to the theory of cognitive migration, which explores the mental “travel” you might do before moving to a new place.
Cognitive migration has you mentally hold two places in your mind to compare and contrast them, similar to cognitive immobility. It plays an important part in the process of deciding whether to move.
During the cognitive migration process, you might:
- Chart out the trip
- Imagine the kind of life you can expect
- Daydream about better opportunities
- Worry about keeping in touch with loved ones from a distance
But if your cognitive migration didn’t accurately predict the circumstances you end up in, that dissonance can contribute to cognitive immobility.
“People are prone to imagine more positive futures than what might be reasonable to expect, and the clash between what migrants think they will encounter versus the reality of often quite difficult conditions can be a serious source of distress,” says Saara Koikkalainen, senior researcher at the University of Eastern Finland and one of the original developers of cognitive migration theory.
In a more general context, cognitive immobility is your mind’s way of processing contradictory feelings.
On one hand, you may miss a past relationship dearly and long to recapture the love lost. You might “relive the glory days,” since memories often provide a sense of familiarity and comfort during stressful adjustment periods.
However, you may have had a very good reason for ending that relationship — betrayal, incompatibility, or even your safety. So, even as you feel drawn to the past, you may have an equally strong urge to stay in the present.
Your imagination, then, steps in to help fill your subconscious desire to be in two places at once by reconstructing a version of your old life as a substitute. Of course, this mental imagery may be more of a rosy replica than a realistic portrayal.
What’s the impact?
Cognitive immobility can exhaust you emotionally and harm your mental health during the transition:
Until cognitive immobility is resolved, you may also feel uneasy and out of place in your new life.
How to handle it
Often, you have to take steps to build a sense of “home” or belonging for yourself after a major transition.
“Cognitive immobility could be mitigated by having and maintaining the following four essential elements: a profession, a community or family, time for reflection, and good health,” says Olumba.
In a nutshell, your profession is one of the main ways you interact with the world around you, and it can offer a valuable sense of purpose in your new life. Profession can mean a career, parenthood, or volunteer work in the community.
Community is a collection of people with shared values who have each other’s backs, such as family, friends, or neighbors. If you’ve lost touch with your old community — for whatever reason — social support is a vital part of adjusting to a new life.
Research on migrants who’ve experienced trauma emphasizes social integration, or connecting with others in a new society, as one of the most important parts of maintaining mental health after relocation.
Writing about both thoughts and emotions after a stressful event can benefit you, Olumba says, while writing only about your emotions can have a negative impact on your state of mind.
Your physical health and mental health are closely linked. If you feel exhausted, hungry, or in pain, your brain may dissociate from those unpleasant feelings, further disconnecting you from your current life.
But when you take care of your basic needs, your mind may connect more easily to your body in the present.
Cognitive immobility pushes your mind to continuously recreate past events even as you try to live in the present. This concept is often used in the context of migration, but it can apply to many other situations.
In short, cognitive immobility can make it harder to adjust to changes in your life. But you can work through this issue by engaging with the world around you and reconnecting with your own mind and body.
Just know that sometimes, the mind needs extra support to break out of a trapped, frozen state. If stress and sorrow seem to stay with you no matter what you do, consider connecting with a mental health professional for more support.