It’s hard to avoid setting expectations for yourself when you’re planning to live abroad. You’ve probably found yourself daydreaming about what your life is going to be like, who you’ll meet, and how free you’ll feel. But no matter how excited you are or how much you want to travel, culture shock will inevitably hit, and it may impact you in ways you never expected.
Defined by the dictionary, culture shock is a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that affects people exposed to a foreign culture or environment without adequate preparation.
Now, you might be thinking, “That’s not me! I did everything I could to prepare. I read books, talked to people, and researched everything. I’m going to be fine.” That may be true, but nothing really compares to physically being in a new country. Isn’t that the point of traveling?
Most people don’t anticipate culture shock, and yet it’s something everyone goes through when moving to a new country. That’s because culture shock rarely feels like you would expect, which is why lots of travelers have a hard time identifying it within themselves.
It’s important to be able to recognize the signs of culture shock in order to take the necessary steps to get through it.
Although you might feel completely overwhelmed, remind yourself that these feelings are temporary and very common. To put it into perspective, one week a relatively short amount of time if your program lasts six months.
It’s normal to miss home, but if you start thinking that everything in your culture is superior, this can send you into a terrible headspace really fast.
Take some time to remember why you wanted to travel in the first place. You made this decision for a reason, so you owe it to yourself to follow through.
For some people, a great way of dealing with culture shock is through reflection and downtime. For others, culture shock can worsen during isolation. Pick a relaxing activity like a walk to get coffee or journaling in a park, then make a point to assess where you’re at mentally.
Sleeping in your room or scrolling through social media might be the only thing you want to do, but chances are that it will only make you feel worse.
Give yourself a sense of control by planning out your week. You may already have a schedule set for you, but find where you have free time and figure out how you’re going to spend it. This will keep you focused on the short-term future, and not the following months that might seem daunting.
Missing your family and friends is normal, but if you’re finding that you feel worse after talking to them, we suggest cutting back on the communication to a simple check-in once in a while until things get better.
Cutting ties also means putting a pause on social media. People joke about FOMO, but seeing pictures of your friends having fun without you can make you feel even lonelier if you’re already in a bad place. If you want to post your own images, that’s fine, but keeps your eyes on your profile only.
We cannot stress this enough but talk to your host family or local staff if something is wrong.
A common symptom of culture shock is becoming closed off and quiet, so when something inevitably gets on your nerves, you bottle it up instead of expressing how you feel. This can lead to messy confrontations with your those around you where it’s the first time they are hearing your concerns. We urge you to push yourself to communicate effectively, even if it’s difficult.