Culture Shock: A Help Guide
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) is an association for UK-based counselling professionals. It supports practitioners, enabling them to provide a better service.
The term 'culture shock' is often used to describe the temporary overwhelm experienced on the first few days of a vacation to a new country as a traveller adjusts to different etiquette, traditions, and foods. And while this is certainly a kind of short-term culture shock, it is important to understand that there are other, more insidious forms of culture shock that can have more serious implications.
Full blown culture shock is an overwhelming disorientation that a person can experience when they find themselves having to experience either a new way of life, or a new set of beliefs and perspectives then they are used to.While the most common sort of culture shock involves a person moving abroad to a foreign country, culture shock doesn't have to involve travel at all and can occur when a person makes a big change in their social surroundings, such as suddenly moving to a new part of a city. taking on a different job, or joining a new religion. It leaves a sufferer questioning their own values, beliefs, and self identity, and sometimes can lead to things like extreme loneliness, loss of self-esteem, and depression.
Symptoms of culture shock will vary from individual to individual. But here are some of the commonly-reported signs:
- Depression, loneliness, anxiety and homesickness
When these feelings are acute, you may be tempted to withdraw from human contact and social activities, with your mind becoming increasingly dominated by thoughts of home or your previous life.
- Confusion, disorientation and frustration
As a new arrival in an unfamiliar country or community you may feel lost and “at sea”; you may experience difficulties in trusting your surroundings, with even the smallest problems threatening to overwhelm you.
- Health anxieties
Anxieties about falling ill may be linked to the perceived unreliability of your new environment. Alternatively, you may actually suffer from recurrent illnesses (such as colds, flu or headaches) as you somatise your apprehension about being in an alien culture.
- Feelings of incompetence and self-doubt
You may question your decision to have moved to a new habitat as your role and self-identity are thrown into confusion. You may also be overcome by self-doubt about your personal values and morals, which you may find are at odds with those of your host culture.
- Hostility towards the host country
You may notice yourself being excessively critical of your new environment, and even feel contempt for its inhabitants, customs and culture. In more extreme cases, this hostility may lead to overly suspicious concerns about, for example, sanitary conditions or being taken advantage of.
- Idealisation of the home country
It is possible that you may elevate and idealise the country and culture that you have left behind. Your former home and friends can begin to epitomise everything that is good, while your new environment becomes the focus of all your negative feelings.
Culture shock is one version of a process called 'transition shock'. Transition shock, the process of transitioning from one living environment to another, consists of a series of phases the individual goes through before the situation is full blown. You can use these stages as a guide to see if you are experiencing or developing culture shock.
The honeymoon phase - Excitement and fascination with your new surrounds can make you think things are all easy and fine, or even much better then the life/situation you traded in for this new one. You can also assume that you understand the people and ideas you are meeting up with, unable to yet see the possibly subtle (yet powerful) differences that exist because of your enthusiasm.
The negotiation (distress) phase- This is when the romanticism of being in a new situation wears off and you start to notice things that you are unsure of or feel challenging. You might feel frustrated and anxious as you realise things are not quite as easy or welcoming as you assumed. You might start to make constant comparisons, missing the way your life was before. For example, you might suddenly feel tired of foreign food, long to just talk in your own language, and feel homesick and lonely or even angry. This phase is often quoted as happening around the three month mark.
The adjustment (reintegration) phase – Eventually, you begin to find your stride again. You feel more normal, and like you can fit in. It doesn't mean you aren't still frustrated and maybe even hostile with natives of the social situation you are in. By now you will have developed your own set of coping strategies for the challenge the new culture has bought. It's common that this phase takes place between 6 to 12 months after arriving.
The mastery (autonomy) phase - You feel comfortable in your new social setting. This doesn't mean that you are like a local, or even speak the language, it just means you have found a way to be part of things and now this life feels normal for you. You can feel positive again, and there is a sense of belonging.
Moving abroad or taking on an entirely new social environment both entail huge changes in the way you do things as well as in the people you are surrounded by. And your body and mind can react to this by exhibiting signs of shock.
1. It is possibly biological.
Our bodies are thought by evolutionary psychologists to still work to cave man programming, which means they react to change as if it is a danger akin to a wild animal rushing at us. This means we might be more nervous and on edge as our adrenaline levels rise and our bodies go into 'fight or flight' mode. The effect of this can be that things such as dealing with a new culture or environment seem more overwhelming then they already are because our senses become more sensitive.
2. The mind can go into overwhelm.
Being in new environments challenges your beliefs and values. For example, if you have always taken for granted that men and women are equals but go to a country where women aren't allowed to drive, your mind might struggle to make sense of this.
3. New experiences and perspectives can also trigger old unconscious thoughts, causing you more stress.
Perhaps as a child you had an experience where you weren't allowed to play with a child because they were of the opposite sex, and the stress of that experience might also be triggered.
4. Being in a new country, culture, or social environment can also awaken complicated about the land and/or life you have left behind.
You might start to question what you once took for granted, or even feel guilty about the life you led. And such thoughts create even more stress for your psyche, leading to things like questioning your self-identity.
5. Your psyche can process moving away from your familiar world as loss and separation.
When you move abroad or even to a new city you lose a lot of things that were important to you; your friends, your routine, your favorite places. In some ways, feeling upset about this makes sense; as with any other sort of loss, we need to process what is happening to us and generally have to mourn what we no longer have.
6. It's a normal reaction to losing your 'base'.
A school of psychological thought called 'attachment theory' has proven that human beings are happiest when they benefit fro a secure base and strong attachments. The psychologist who created this theory observed that children who are taken away from their mother and home environment often go from being curious about the world and content, to outbursts of anger and crying and further signs of protest before falling into a phase of despair. In addition, they will often withdraw from contact and reject substitute sources of support.
These reactions to separation are reflected in the signs and symptoms of culture shock - a mixture of anger and frustration together with a decline in self-confidence as the sufferer seeks to hide away from his or her new world, convinced that only the home they have left behind can fulfil their needs. In other words, culture shock is really a normal psychological reaction to being unattached from your 'base', the secure environment and relationships you had come to depend upon.
7. It's a response to losing your social status.
In our adult life, our attachments are not just to family, friends and familiar landmarks but also to status, ideas, values and social systems. If we have placed ourselves in an entirely new culture, it is often not just the other culture itself that causes us shock, but what, by contrast, it shows us about our own ideas and sense of self. Who we really are might be questioned, which causes confusion and a sense of powerlesness, especially if you had a strong social status in your previous world that you have now lost by moving somewhere new. This can even be something like being very intelligent and looked up to in your home country, but suddenly, unable to speak the language well in your new home, being seen as not so smart. This sort of situation can also mean you are suddenly needing to depend on other people, instead of being very independent.
Some people adjust to settling in a new country with little hesitation, while others experience varying degrees of culture shock (and note that even if you do settle in easily at first, it's common for culture shock to hit 'out of the blue' at around the three month mark).
The way you do or don't settle in to a new environment such as a new country will be influenced by your motivations for moving overseas. Were you escaping? Did you want to come, or have to come for a new job? It will also be determined by the support you are offered on arrival, and how strange or familiar the environment is for you personally.
Your feelings about your new home, and the ease with which you adapt, are also likely to be influenced by earlier experiences and learnings in your life, including during your formative years. If, for example, one of your parents found any new experience or culture panic inducing, you might have learned the habit of assuming the worst when faced with new things. Or, if as a child a family move caused real upset, you might still carry the fear and trauma of that past experience that is triggered and built upon by your move in the present. But if your family constantly moved and your parents embraced change as great adventure, then you might rarely experience culture shock.
There are many practical steps you can take to facilitate the transition process when moving somewhere new or experiencing a new social environment. Here are a few:
- focus on building new social networks (clubs, churches, sport, etc)
- keep in touch with those back home
- be realistic (remind yourself its a normal process of adjustment)
- talk to others who have gone through it (online forums, expat groups)
- engage in stress relieving activities (exercise, relaxation, mindfulness)
- maintain good health (eat well, watch alcohol intake)
- make an effort to notice positives instead of just negatives
- try not to self-criticise (again, culture shock is normal and takes time to recover from)
- create a routine to give yourself structure (and/or set realistic goals)
- question your assumptions (is everyone unfriendly, or just some people? Is all the food awful, or do you like some?)
- educate yourself on your new situation (try to learn one new thing a day)
- try not to withdraw (schedule in social activities weekly)
- access a counselling service if required
Not everyone requires therapy when experiencing culture shock. But sometimes when we face difficulties in the present it it can also trigger old and painful memories from the past.
If your culture shock has left you feeling consistently depressed, or is going on far longer than seems normal and is causing personality changes you aren't comfortable with, a therapist can help get you manage your moods, get back on on track, and find your inner resources to successfully navigate your new life experience.
But you don't have to feel low to benefit from seeing a therapist when experiencing culture shock. It might be that you are simply frustrated by your own reactions to your new world and want to understand yourself more.
If you are curious about the way you respond to stress and want to know why, or are being very hard on yourself about how you are handling change and can't seem to give yourself a break, or are finding that you have lost your self-esteem and want it back, therapy can help. A counsellor or psychotherapist can give you a fresh perspective on yourself, help you find new coping mechanisms, and support you in finally changing patterns you might have used for years when managing stress.
If you are in a country where you don't speak the language, don't feel you cannot find help. There might be expat therapists practising in many languages in your new country. And nowadays there are many psychotherapists and counsellors who offer psychotherapy sessions over Skype internationally.
In this sense, culture shock can be a gift in that it gives us a window to see parts of ourselves we might not otherwise experience, or just to see ourselves clearly enough we can take the time to decide how we would like to change and work to do so. With patience and perhaps some help, living in a foreign country or a new social environment can increase your self-awareness and lead to greater understanding of others, making you more tolerant of both yourself and those around you.
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Harley Therapy Ltd. “Culture Shock Help Guide by Harley Therapy™”. Harley Therapy, 30 Apr. 2020, https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/culture-shock-help-guide.htm. Accessed 11 Aug. 2022.
Harley Therapy Ltd. (2020, April 30). Culture Shock Help Guide by Harley Therapy™. Retrieved from https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/culture-shock-help-guide.htm
Harley Therapy Ltd. "Culture Shock Help Guide by Harley Therapy™." Last modified April 30, 2020. Accessed August 11, 2022. https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/culture-shock-help-guide.htm.