Culture Shock

Culture Shock

What exactly is meant by the term "culture shock?" It is the loss of emotional equilibrium suffered when one relocates from one culture to an entirely different environment. It can occur immediately upon entry to a new country, but it more usually occurs after the honeymoon period wears off and a sense of loss of one's old home replaces the initial excitement of the move. Because so many things are different, the brain receives messages that produce stress hormones as the person adapts to unfamiliar foods and customs, and also sometimes to new demands in work and social arenas. The abrupt loss of all that is familiar can create physical symptoms of distress, such as sleep difficulties, heart palpitations, headaches, stomach upset, and emotional difficulties such as irritability and a temporary loss of a sense of identity. Language, transportation, food, and health troubles may strain the humor of even the most adaptable individuals as countless issues require problem-solving, without one's usual support systems in place. A feeling of not really belonging can occur when one has lost one's family and friends and community from home. It takes awhile for new relationships to afford the closeness of support that one is used to from home.

People experiencing culture shock may find everything wrong about their new home and new customs, or they may over-identify with everything new in an effort to deal with their loss. Fortunately, culture shock will pass with time, at which point a good balance of appreciation of everything old and new is achieved and emotional balance thus restored. To speed this process along, you can come in and talk with someone at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). This type of service is common in this country. It can help to have guidance from professionals who have seen many students going through a similar experience.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you are adjusting to your new life:

  • It is not unusual to take a few months or more to adjust.

  • Don't avoid new situations or isolate yourself, as this often makes things worse.

  • We all tend to be most comfortable in places familiar to us. Nevertheless, try to find little things about your new environment that you might still explore or appreciate.

  • You are gaining new perspectives and strengths everyday from this powerful experience; list some of the new life skills you are learning.

  • Try to incorporate some relaxing activities into your routine.

  • Though it can be challenging to socialize, it will help you in the long run, so try not to avoid it. Accept invitations and try to initiate some as well. Inviting American friends over for a meal, for example, can help others learn more about you and your customs.

  • It will be helpful to make friends at first with others from your country, but you may adapt better as time goes on if you make a variety of friends.

  • It is not uncommon to criticize the new environment, especially in the company of others from your home country. Try not to engage in this; while it may make you feel better in the short run, it may make your transition more difficult in the long run.

  • Set some basic goals for yourself, like learning ten new phrases each week.

  • Sign up for a non-academic activity to foster self-care, or recreation to help your mood, such as an exercise class.

  • Inch your way toward a new flexibility that can retain old identities, yet form new ones as you integrate all of these changes into your life.

Aleta Johnson, MSW