Cognitive Immobility: Being Mentally Trapped in the Past

Cognitive immobility frequently appears in those who are forced to migrate. Leaving their country of origin for work reasons or due to threatening events often causes them to not be able to stop thinking about their home and their country.
Cognitive Immobility: Being Mentally Trapped in the Past
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 10 April, 2023

Cognitive immobility is a mental trap. It’s a really stressful mechanism that makes people repeatedly recreate moments from their past. More specifically, a particular place, an emotionally significant scenario that, as a rule, is the home itself. This psychological phenomenon is extremely common among those who, for whatever reason, are forced to leave their country of origin.

Although it’s true that migratory processes are common in our world, it should be noted that in recent years they’ve intensified. Just think of all the young people who have to move to other cities and countries to get the kind of job they’ve trained for. Or, the refugees who cross the sea in search of a better life.

Migration isn’t an easy experience for anyone. In many cases, it means uprooting everything that’s familiar, safe, and comforting to move to another area, another way of life, language, and culture. In fact, although heaven remains the same for all of us, the migrant’s brain remains invisibly linked to the home they left behind.

Longing for their home of origin often means that they never consider the house in which they live in the new country as their own.

Sad teenager looking in the mirror symbolizing Cognitive Immobility
Sometimes, missing our countries of origin, we become blocked and mentally immobilized.

Cognitive immobility

Cognitive immobility is a recent concept. Culture & Psychology magazine published an article in June 2022 written by Ezenwa E Olumba, who analyzed his own experience. He’s from Igboland, Africa, and found himself longing for his home when living thousands of miles away in the UK and Germany.

In this article, he mentioned that the emotional experiences he was going through were identical to those of thousands of people who’d been forced to migrate. Like the Syrian students, who, although living in Turkey, claimed to be mentally and spiritually still in their original home, in a Syria hit by war and famine.

Many of those who, due to study, work, or other reasons, have been forced to leave their city or country of origin, will undoubtedly find themselves in tune with this psychological process. Cognitive immobility is a trap in the mind that constantly places them in places from their past. In effect, it prevents them from connecting positively with the here and now.

Cognitive immobility goes beyond nostalgia

Nostalgia differs from cognitive immobility in one respect. It doesn’t block us, trap us, or hijack our attention. Indeed, many of us feel nostalgic when remembering moments from yesterday. We find ourselves looking back and experiencing feelings that tend to waver between happiness and melancholy.

However, those who suffer from cognitive immobility, revert to their past as consolation and remain attached to those mental images. Their attention and thoughts are anchored in their country of origin, or in a place that’s significant to them. Meanwhile, the present fades away. It’s a process that’s often unconscious and automatic.

For example, they might be working and, suddenly, their mind escapes and flees toward the past. This makes it extremely difficult for them to have a decent quality of life.

Their minds are trapped in memories that comfort and offer refuge

The memory isn’t exact. It’s not like a Polaroid camera that perfectly captures the present moment and stores it in an album in the brain. In reality, memory is creative. It reconstructs data and makes use of the imagination. Another phenomenon that appears in cognitive immobility is seeing the past as far better than it really was.

Often, an individual who experiences cognitive immobility will, in the midst of their daily routine in their new country, find that their mind flees and recreates an episode from yesterday. Furthermore, they apply an even brighter filter to it, altering the events to make the memory more cathartic, beautiful, and welcoming. In effect, they create a fictional wonderland where they remain, trapped and disconnected from the present.

Cognitive immobility often prevents the individual from being able to relate and connect more positively in a new country. If they assume that their own city or land of origin will always be better than the place where they now find themselves, they’ll lose the opportunity to adapt, find special people to connect with, and allow themselves to be happy.

Mind with a man inside symbolizing Cognitive Immobility
To free their minds from the constant memories of their country of origin, migrants must make an effort to connect with the present and set goals for the future.

Dealing with a mind that’s trapped in yesterday

When a mind is embedded in the past, in what went before, or in a physical space that’s far away, it suffers and reduces its functionality. No one can give their best in these conditions. Work, studies, and even social life will be affected. In fact, those who suffer from cognitive immobility will experience problems in integrating and will be unable to carve out a happy future.

So, what can be done in these circumstances? Here’s some advice, if you should find yourself in this kind of situation.

Manage the stress associated with change

When you leave behind what’s familiar and safe, it’s common to experience anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. That’s because your mind is seeking refuge in your memories that are anchored in the past.

In this situation, you must employ adequate strategies to deal with stress in the face of each daily difficulty. For example, problems with the language, culture shock, etc.

Find support groups from your place of origin

It’s always helpful to have a group of friends of the same nationality who understand what you’re going through. It’s a way of staying in contact with your roots, reinforcing your need for belonging that, as humans, we all share. You shouldn’t ever let go of who you are and where you come from. Therefore, it’s really cathartic to have friends or family to support you on a daily basis.

Meet new people and set yourself future goals

A really good way of integrating is to meet new people. For this reason, connecting with people from your new location, in which you’re working or studying, and charting your future is a positive and necessary step to take.

Your trapped mind needs to move its attention from the inside to the outside. To do this, there’s nothing better than looking for new motivators, goals, and essential meanings.

The regret you feel about leaving home will never completely fade. However, you’ll eventually learn to live with it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Olumba EE. The homeless mind in a mobile world: An autoethnographic approach on cognitive immobility in international migration. Culture & Psychology. June 2022. doi:10.1177/1354067X221111456

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.