Crushing it in Croatia: Psychotherapist Juan Pablo Kovacevich – Immigrant Syndrome

Man in front of the Split sign
Juan Pablo in Split, Croatia

PUBLISHED: 2.7.2024.

Welcome to Crushing it in Croatia, a series where we feature expats who have moved to Croatia.

In this series, we explore the realities of moving to Croatia, including how long it takes, what drew people here and what they do in their lives, shocks and challenges after moving, how Expat in Croatia’s resources made the transition easier, advice for the next wave, and whether or not it was all worth it in the end.

We spoke to Juan Pablo Kovacevich, a psychotherapist and university professor who lives in Split. He shares his story, including his Croatian roots, moving to Croatia from Argentina, his knowledge and work in the field of Immigrant Syndrome, and why he’d like to stay in Croatia.

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Take it away, Juan Pablo!

Marija: Hey Juan Pablo. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Juan Pablo: Hi Marija, thank you for this interview. I am the youngest child born from a profound love between a descendant of Croatians and Italians and a descendant of Spaniards, something quite common in my country of origin, Argentina.

From a very young age, I have been curious, inquisitive, and analytical. I have always felt a curiosity to understand why people behave the way they do. I am also interested in how our behaviors and thoughts are related to our physical and mental health.

I graduated with honors as Licensed in Psychology (what would be equivalent to master’s in Europe and the USA) from the University of Buenos Aires in 2011. Since then, I have specialized in the treatment of emotional disorders, especially anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and trauma.

I have had the privilege of working in institutions of maximum renown and local and international recognition in the field of mental health, such as the Institute of Cognitive Neurology (INECO) and The Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CEAN), where I still work.

Currently, I not only see patients, but I am also a university professor, and I am dedicated to mental health dissemination and training other professionals through seminars, workshops, courses, and training sessions.

a professor
Juan Pablo holding lectures as a university professor

Marija: When did you move to Croatia, and where do you live?

Juan Pablo: I moved to Croatia in mid-February 2024. I settled on the Dalmatian coast, in the beautiful city of Split.

Marija: What drew you to Croatia? Have you ever lived abroad before besides Croatia? Have you ever been in Croatia before you moved?

Juan Pablo: What specifically brought me to Croatia is the deep love I have always felt for this country. Although I traveled a lot, I had never lived outside of Argentina, nor had I seriously considered it until this experience.

My family, including my paternal grandfather, emigrated from Stari Grad, Hvar, to Santa Fe, Argentina, at the beginning of the 20th century due to economic hardships, but they always kept the family and cultural traditions of Croatia alive.

In 2022, I had the opportunity to come to Croatia for the first time, and I completely fell in love. It felt like a genetic memory was activated in me, an indescribable sense of belonging.

In mid-2023, I won a scholarship to study Croatian language and culture in Split, and this was my gateway. As the days went by, my desire to stay in Croatia became stronger until it turned into a conviction. Fortunately, I already had Croatian citizenship and a Croatian passport, so it was easy to obtain permanent residency.

[Read: How to apply for Croatian citizenship]

Marija: Was there anything about daily life in Argentina you hoped to leave behind?

Juan Pablo: Yes, the unbearable inflation, the constant uncertainty, the insecurity, and the helplessness of living in a country that has everything to become a world power but keeps falling into a bottomless pit over and over again.

Marija: When you decided to move to Croatia, how did you prepare? What did you do first to plan your move?

Juan Pablo: I packed a carry-on and crossed my fingers! Haha.

The preparation wasn’t emotionally easy. I had been in a relationship for two years. I had just bought my apartment in Argentina and was investing money to get it the way I wanted. At the same time, the clinic where I work was resuming in-person patient care.

The first thing was to talk with my girlfriend, which unfortunately didn’t go as expected and added a lot of difficulty to the decision to come. The second thing was ensuring my arrival in Croatia with all the papers and documents in order.

Since I already had Croatian citizenship and a passport and had won the study scholarship, there were few procedures left upon arriving in Croatia – basically registering where I would live and obtaining the ID and permanent residence.

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I took my time to prepare myself mentally, to think about what obstacles might arise and how I would resolve them. I was always comforted by the fact that if things didn’t turn out as expected, I could return.

Then I focused on designing a subsistence plan, based on evaluating how much money I would need for the first months, how I could work while being there, and how I would cover the expenses I would continue to have in Argentina.

The last thing was to have a farewell with all the people I love and knew I would miss a lot.

Marija: How did you find Expat in Croatia? Which of our resources do you use?

Juan Pablo:  I discovered Expat Croatia through Instagram. A fellow scholarship recipient sent me the profile, and I started finding there a lot of information that I really needed and that was very difficult for me to find.

I think the first thing I looked for was how the healthcare system in Croatia works. Then, I searched for information on where to get the ID. Eventually, it became a reference source and a constant read through the newsletter.

[Read: Healthcare and health insurance in Croatia]

My gratitude to Expat Croatia is immense, as one feels very vulnerable and confused when emigrating. The resources available there are of immeasurable help.

Marija: Thank you, Juan Pablo, I sincerely appreciate your thoughts. EIC is always happy to help with anything we can. Once you settled in Croatia, what were the biggest shocks or challenges you experienced? How did you overcome them?

Juan Pablo: The biggest shock was definitely the language. Arriving in a place where the language is so completely different is a bit disconcerting.

I still remember the first time I went to the supermarket and couldn’t understand what anything was. I didn’t know what exactly I was buying. That first experience was intense. The first way I dealt with it was by downloading Google Translator and starting to scan the labels to at least know what I was buying.

The next step was to start the Croatian language course. This was not only useful in terms of beginning to understand the language but also because I made friends there with other people from Latin America, with doubts, obstacles, and aspirations similar to mine.

[Read: How you can apply for Croatian residence based on language study]

Being able to create a network of trusted people, share fears, doubts, and collaborate with each other is of invaluable help when you are in such a different environment.

man in front of the computer
Juan Pablo learning Croatian

Marija: Can you compare Croatians and Argentinians? What are the main cultural differences between these two nations? Are there any similarities?

Juan Pablo: Although Argentinians have a lot of European blood because a large part of our population is descended from Europeans, mainly Italians and Spaniards, we are predominantly Latin. We tend to be more demonstrative, extroverted, and express our emotions in a very direct way. This can be strange and uncomfortable for Croats at first.

I think Croats tend to be more pragmatic. They communicate what’s necessary and lose patience more easily if the information isn’t clear. Argentinians tend to be more verbose and talk a lot.

Another significant difference is that in Argentina, as in several other South American countries, tobacco consumption has drastically decreased. Smokers are no longer seen as cool. Smokers are excluded in bars and restaurants, having to go outside to smoke alone. In Croatia, it is almost an eccentricity not to be a smoker. And if a bar allows smoking indoors, they can’t sell food, so there are many places to drink but fewer to eat and drink.

There are many similarities! Croatians and Argentinians are very passionate. We love football, wine, barbecued meat, coffee, and spending time with friends. Both of us are people used to fighting to get ahead.

[Read: How to understand Croatian culture]

Marija: How did you become a university professor in the field of anxiety, stress management, and emotional regulation? Did your personal background have any influence when you were picking your field of work?

Juan Pablo: When I was very young, my mother began to suffer from a severe mental illness. This caused great upheaval and instability in my family. I think this laid the foundation for my desire to understand how the mind and brain work.

My passion for understanding the relationship between the body and mind also stems from this background. As a teenager, I greatly enjoyed reading about philosophy, questioning everything, and engaging in every debate I could.

During my university years, I was confirmed that both chronic stress and anxiety greatly influenced the risk of developing various diseases, as well as the chances of recovering from them.

I began teaching courses on relaxation, stress management, and emotional regulation as soon as I finished my university education in 2011.

Later, in 2015, I started working as a Psychotherapist at the Anxiety and Trauma Clinic at the Institute of Cognitive Neurology. From then on, I dedicated myself to researching and treating mood disorders, anxiety, and complex trauma, and teaching Psychopathology in the Psychology program at Favaloro University.

I love both teaching and learning, so I devote a lot of time to both.

Marija: Please tell us more about your field of work and what you specifically do.

Juan Pablo: I’ve been specializing for many years in everything related to emotional disorders. That means symptoms that affect our mood and are relevant enough to mess with our quality of life. This includes various anxiety disorders and mood disorders like depression. I also specialized in post-traumatic stress and different types of trauma, such as complex trauma, developmental trauma, and generational trauma.

In recent years, I’ve become particularly interested in a specific situation that often causes many of these symptoms: the migration process. The rate of people who experience various symptoms after emigrating is so high that a specific category was created, with its own literature and research, called Ulysses Syndrome or Immigrant Syndrome.

Before coming to Croatia, I focused more on the large population of people who had serious trouble adapting to their new reality outside their home country. It’s very painful when, after finally making the decision to emigrate and even achieving good economic conditions, a person still can’t feel emotionally well. I started working virtually with expats who showed symptoms characteristic of immigrant syndrome.

Nowadays, I continue to work with people experiencing various emotional issues or adaptation difficulties after their migration process. I also give courses and seminars aimed at providing tools that enhance adaptation skills and counteract the negative effects of migration grief.

Marija: What exactly is the Immigrant Syndrome? What do people suffering from it struggle with? What are the symptoms?

Juan Pablo: Immigrant Syndrome refers to a wide range of feelings and symptoms that many people experience after moving to a new country. Everyone’s journey is unique, so not all people show the same symptoms or migrate under the same conditions, nor do they all find the same stability when they arrive in a new place.

Immigrant Syndrome is deeply connected to a sense of loss, the loss of what is left behind: family, friends, one’s own language – more than just the words, the special ways of communicating from the home country – social status, culture, and its unique nuances, the landscapes, the climate, and everything that feels important to the migrant.

The most common symptoms include sadness, difficulty adjusting to the new reality, longing for what has been left behind, anxiety and confusion, and overwhelming uncertainty about what the future holds. In some cases, clear signs of anxiety disorders or depressive symptoms can appear. There’s a general feeling of stress and emotional distress that can interfere with daily life and a sense of well-being. Often, people also struggle to find a satisfying social integration.

The personal resources each migrant has are crucial: their ability to cope with uncertainty and attachment, as well as their financial and work resources. It’s one thing to arrive in a place that offers work and social integration, and quite another to arrive without a secure job or to face exclusion or, in the worst cases, discrimination.

man in front of stone house
Juan Pablo in front of his grandparents’ house in Stari Grad, the island of Hvar

Marija: Can you teach us the basics about multigenerational trauma (in correlation with immigration)? Do you have any advice on how to deal with it?

Juan Pablo: When someone goes through experiences that challenge their ability to process them, traumatic situations, these experiences leave marks on their identity: how they see themselves, how they see others, and how they perceive and navigate the world. These marks can affect how a person feels and interacts with themselves and with others. This means it could impact the type and quality of relationships they form, even with family members.

In our efforts to survive, we develop coping mechanisms to adapt to our environment, but these aren’t always healthy in the long run. The concept of generational trauma involves understanding that certain situations can affect us so deeply that this impact then shows up in the relationships we form with our loved ones. If left unaddressed, this can continue to affect future generations.

A possible example is a child who, after emigrating to another country, starts to experience a lot of rejection, discrimination, and hostility. One way to cope with this distress might be by building a kind of emotional armor, forming colder, more superficial connections, and disconnecting from deep emotions. If this isn’t identified and worked on, it could later lead to an aggressive, less nurturing, emotionally unavailable parenting style. As a result, this person’s children might experience emotional deficiencies that would repeat in their future relationships.

Generational trauma is called so because the traumas experienced by one person affect their ability to create healthy relationships, which can then be passed down to the next generations. One way to address generational trauma is by recognizing dysfunctional relational patterns that cause distress and working specifically on them. There are different psychotherapeutic treatments aimed at dealing with this kind of trauma.

Common characteristics include building unsatisfactory interpersonal relationships, a chronic feeling of emptiness, anxiety or depression symptoms that seem to come from nowhere, a strong fear of rejection, emotional dependency, and substance abuse. These problems can vary in severity, and sometimes, the best course of action is to consult a specialist.

Marija: What are the most common psychological symptoms of people who immigrated from Croatia and their families? What do they miss about Croatia the most?

Juan Pablo: Croats are often deeply attached to their homeland, customs, and culture. They have fought for centuries to defend their lands, language, and traditions. When they emigrate, they often feel a strong sense of nostalgia for everything they leave behind. This leads them to seek out geographical areas that resemble their place of origin, as well as to form communities where they can revive their traditions, folklore, cuisine, music, and more with other Croats.

I see this a lot in Buenos Aires, where there are numerous Croatian centers where traditional food is cooked, Croatian songs are sung, and people gather to feel the company and support of fellow compatriots. While this phenomenon is not exclusive to Croatians, it is strongly observed in this migratory group due to their strong sense of belonging and fervent love for their homeland.

Things that Croats tend to miss the most include the Adriatic Sea, their lands and landscapes, their cuisine, rakija, and their cultural and folklore traditions. This is why they strive to replicate these things wherever they go.

[Read: Understanding folklore in Croatia]

Marija: You are a descendant of a Croatian immigrant and also an immigrant from Argentina, which gives you an interesting background. What was the most challenging part for you after you moved to Croatia?

Juan Pablo: In my personal experience, I would say that the most challenging aspect has been the language and, consequently, communication. But communication in its entirety, not just in terms of shopping or holding a conversation.

Through language, we can understand how others think, get to know them, delve into their beliefs, but also let ourselves be known, and establish deeper and more intimate connections with other people. One of the biggest barriers when settling in another region, sometimes even within the same country, is, precisely, the language.

Finding the Croatian language so difficult to understand made it hard for me to casually approach locals for conversations. Because of this, I initially gravitated towards groups of Latin Americans in Croatia. This was beneficial in creating a greater sense of mutual understanding but also posed an obstacle in advancing my comprehension of the Croatian language and seeking friendship with locals.

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Marija: How can immigration syndrome and similar conditions be treated? Can they be cured? How do you personally fight it?

Juan Pablo: In these cases, we don’t talk about a cure since it is not what is traditionally understood as a “disease,” which generally follows the medical model of infections, injuries, tumors, etc. Instead, these are emotional experiences and patterns of thoughts and behaviors that influence how we feel and manage our lives.

First and foremost, it’s essential to get to know the person suffering from this syndrome: what they are going through, what symptoms they are experiencing, how their migration process has been, what their situation was like before migrating, and how it is now after the migration; and what social network they have. Every treatment must be personalized and designed according to the specific needs of each individual.

Once we have a clear understanding of the symptoms that are most affecting the person, a treatment plan is established that directly addresses their needs. For example, if someone has developed depressive symptoms that make it difficult for them to get out of bed and look for work, one of the initial interventions would be aimed at addressing these symptoms. An approach that has strong evidence for these cases is Value-Based Behavioral Activation. In more severe cases, specific medication prescribed by a psychiatrist might be necessary.

Once the mood symptoms are stabilized, we could work on problem-solving strategies aimed at finding a job, improving interpersonal relationships, and learning social skills that increase the chances of integration in the new place. We could use cognitive-behavioral tools to address negative intrusive thoughts or the tendency for constant worry.

It might also be helpful to incorporate other strategies, such as meditation, mindfulness, and physical activity. Fortunately, we have many tools at our disposal. In some cases, it is simply a matter of accompanying, listening, providing support, and creating a safe space and environment while the person adapts to their new reality.

[Read: Crushing it in Croatia: Rebecca’s mindfulness and meditation journey]

In my own case, as it is evolving in a natural, uncomplicated way. I pay great attention to social factors, trying to build good relationships with locals and make friends here. I also pay a lot of attention to my friends in Argentina, trying to be connected to them as much as I can.

Learning the Croatian language and culture is of great importance to me, so I take these language lessons as well as I try to read newspapers and watch Croatian movies with subtitles. When all of these things don’t seem to be good enough, a good swim in the Adriatic could do a fine job.

[Read: Where you can get Croatian news]

Man on a boat
Juan Pablo chilling on a boat at the Adriatic Sea

Marija: Where in Croatia can people get help related to this topic? Are there any workshops or events? Is there enough support available?

Juan Pablo: The truth is, I haven’t yet had the chance to discover other places that address these types of issues. It’s likely that they exist, but since I’ve been here for only a short time, I still don’t know where they are or which ones they might be.

It’s quite common for many localities to have groups or communities of expatriates that provide various types of support to their fellow countrymen. There are also other therapists who are trained and specialized in immigration psychology, and they can be of great help in these situations.

[Read: How to get psychological help in Croatia]

Marija: How can Croatian emigrants deal with the Immigrant Syndrome?

Juan Pablo: As I mentioned before, it will all depend on each person’s particular situation and the severity of their symptoms. However, a healthy recommendation is to get in touch with Croatian groups or communities that provide assistance for any doubts and fears a migrant may have – ones that offer support, a sense of belonging, and where there are others to share both fears and concerns, as well as cherished memories and traditions.

In cases where symptoms may interfere with quality of life, it’s ideal to seek help from a qualified mental health professional.

Marija: Are you happy with your life in Croatia so far? What are your plans, and how long do you plan to stay?

Juan Pablo: I’m very happy. I can say that, so far, my experience is much better than I imagined. Croatia is a beautiful country, full of wonderful people. It offers the most stunning landscapes one can imagine. The level of safety allows you to feel calm wherever you go. The food is delicious, as well as the coffee and wine.

[Read: Is Croatia a safe country?]

Right now, I’m putting most of my effort into establishing myself professionally, bringing to life the projects I have related to mental health, quality of life, and well-being, and continuing to learn about the Croatian language and culture.

I haven’t decided how long I’ll stay. I like to think about the possibility of spending as much time as possible here, and also a few months a year in Argentina. That’s my dream; we’ll see how things unfold.

Marija: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to move to Croatia in the future?

Juan Pablo: I would advise them to familiarize themselves with central aspects of Croatian culture, history, and ideology. Croatia is a country with a rich history, and it’s important to have an understanding of where you are going and what the customs and traditions of the place are. In Croatia, a person can be fined for things that may be considered normal behavior in some other countries, such as walking shirtless in public places.

I recommend having at least a basic understanding of the Croatian language. Not everyone in Croatia speaks English, and some may even be offended if they don’t see any effort from the person to at least try speaking some Croatian. I believe it’s always polite to be able to greet and know a few words in the language of the country you are visiting.

[Read: All the ways to say “Hi” and “Bye“ in Croatian]

Lastly, but not less important, it’s crucial to know about requirements and legal matters such as documents, permits, etc. And, also important, prepare to visit a country that captivates with its beauty at every turn.

View Juan Pablo’s pages:

View our other crushing-it-in-Croatia articles

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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