Culture shock and how to use it to your benefit


What is culture shock? Anyone can experience it, regardless of cultural background, amount of time spent in the new and foreign place, or one’s perceived level of preparedness. Unfortunately, no one is immune to this uncomfortable feeling. But what is culture shock anyways? And why does it happen?

Culture shock and how to use it to your benefit

Culture shock can be uncomfortable. Like a sense of bewilderment, or disorientation associated to being a foreigner in an unfamiliar land. Being cast into a different culture can leave us feeling unsettled, and these unwelcome feelings may leave us feeling, well, rather unwelcome... This article will highlight the main features and stages of culture shock, to hopefully deepen your understanding of it so you can be more able to recognize it when it happens, and help get you through it, unscathed!

Why does it happen?

It shouldn’t be any surprise that changing our surroundings, routines, and meeting people with different ways of thinking, customs, or general attitudes can be daunting. We may feel out of place, uncomfortable, with a sense of loneliness that can become overwhelming. Being somewhere new and inexperienced can also challenge our self-perception and preconceived view of the world. We grow up understanding the world one way, we have our beliefs and follow deeply embedded norms, which are for the most part, shared with our community. These can be flipped upside down when we visit or live in different parts of the globe and experience diverse cultures for the first time. The massive realization that things as we know them, are not definite nor universal, can kind of shake our world and generate a sense of shock.

4 Stages of Culture Shock

Honeymoon Phase - Upon arrival, the newness of the foreign land is exciting, it can even feel endearing to some. The potentially challenging situations are all around us, yet we are just too taken aback to be conscious of them. Basically, we are distracted. We experience the adrenaline peak exploration brings, and from a psychological standpoint, it can trigger an increased dopamine release and feel almost euphoric. Then stage two creeps up. Anxiety/Agitation Stage - All those similarities you were noticing will quickly seem less apparent, and microscopic in comparison to the ever-growing number of differences. Suddenly those silly quirks about your new surroundings become irritating, and you may find yourself experiencing feelings of agitation and anxiety. Whether it be struggling with the language barriers, getting lost in your own neighborhood, or you guiltily, simply, just wish you had a Starbucks nearby (or whatever your hometown comfort may be). Feelings of regret are also common at this stage, where you’re reconsidering your decision and secretly wishing for the familiarity of home.

Adjustment Stage - As humans are extremely adaptable creatures, it is no surprise that with time, and gradual understanding, we adjust. We develop routines and make the unfamiliar a regular part of our lives. A deeper acceptance of how things are and why they are as such, allows us to tolerate the once daunting differences, and possibly grow to appreciate them. Depending on how open the mindset, we may even start to have new ‘favorite’ meals or activities replacing the old ones we were sorrowfully missing.

Mastery Stage - Eventually, it all falls into place. With time, we learn enough about our surroundings to be able to navigate with ease, and most of the frustrations that were fostering the culture shock anxiety will fade and disappear. The adaptation cycle has come full circle (or almost), and we can reap the joys and benefits of becoming integrated into a new culture and lifestyle.

Ways to cope with, and alleviate Culture Shock The good news is culture shock is ultimately temporary. As with many other things, time heals. Eventually, the new and scary place becomes the usual and familiar, so one rather ‘harsh’ piece of advice is to just hold on and push through! Of course, there are things we can do to speed up the early stages of CS or avoid them altogether. For instance, research illustrates a positive correlation between the level of engagement/integration, and the severity of culture shock. The more actively an Expat attempts to integrate into the new culture, the less culture shock symptoms are said to be experienced. Familiarizing yourself with the local language and customs can make things feel less intimidating. Other things like taking a language course, speaking more with locals, and being an active participant in your new lifestyle can help considerably and increase feelings of integration. Be curious, explore, and learn as much as you can to overcome culture shock more quickly! If you have not overcome the above-mentioned culture shock symptoms, even after months of being in your new surroundings, there is a possibility that it’s more than just a rocky adjustment period.

Is it ‘just’ Culture Shock? Recognizing Depression/Anxiety

If your feelings of discomfort and anxiety are not improving with time, it may be a deeper issue that needs some attention. Depression and anxiety after moving abroad are not uncommon, so it is important to recognize and differentiate this from the temporary affliction of culture shock. You may feel guilty that you’re not fully immersed and loving your new expat lifestyle, and feel it is hard to complain. Or perhaps you have been experiencing some depression or anxiety symptoms for a while and being abroad has amplified/allowed them to re-surface. If your feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and discomfort are considerably affecting your daily life, it may be best to talk about it and seek some professional help. Prague has some wonderful resources and newly launched wellness projects, both for natives and expats alike. Check our (link to our MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES) for a list of available services that can help alleviate culture shock symptoms and improve your overall well-being!

Author: Trinity Reda