Understanding Culture Shock and How to Get Through It

Understanding Culture Shock and How to Get Through It

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.

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 every traveler goes through when moving to a new country. That’s because culture shock rarely feels like you would expect, which is why many people 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.  

You Might Be Experiencing Culture Shock If You: 

  • Are easily irritated by people around you  
  • Are defensive regarding your own culture and how you were raised 
  • Have lost interest in interacting with others
  • Experience extreme homesickness 
  • Withdrawal from social activities 
  • Have unexplained physical pain 
  • Engage in self-destructive behavior 
  • Have lost all motivation 

Here’s what you can do:

Understand That It Will Pass 

Although you might feel completely overwhelmed, remind yourself that these feelings are temporary and very common. To put it into perspective, one week is a relatively short amount of time if your program lasts six months.

Don’t Romanticize Home 

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.  

Take Some Time for Yourself, But Not Too Much 

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.  

Make a Schedule and Follow Through 

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. 

Cut Ties Temporarily 

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.  

Communicate with the People Around You

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.

Have tips for coping with culture shock? Leave them in the comments!

2 thoughts on "Understanding Culture Shock and How to Get Through It"

  1. Jane Farrow says:

    It is impossible to be completely ready for this new experience only after reading books or articles. It is simply impossible to imagine what life will be like in another country until you are in that country. So it’s normal to experience culture shock.
    If we talk about European countries or the USA, the way of life is not so different. But Asia is very different, I think. And it just has to be accepted. After all, it will not last forever, as you said, and everyone will adapt to new conditions if he or she is open to new experiences!
    Thank you, it’s good to know everyone who’s going to go to another country.

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