Moving to a foreign country may be one of the greatest adventures you ever pursue. Yet the excitement and planning of your international adventure can mask a much darker side of your move abroad — the emotional toll of culture shock.
What is culture shock and why does it occur?
Culture shock refers to the confusion and distress you feel when you’re suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign culture. It further encompasses the feelings of loss and grief for the people, places and activities you love and miss from the culture left behind.
Who experiences culture shock and how does it affect you?
All expats eventually feel sadness over losing the life they had before — even if the move abroad was very much desired.
Specific symptoms may present themselves emotionally, socially and physically. Your individual experience of these symptoms will be unique and specific to you.
Personality differences, life history and the circumstances behind your move all play a role in your transition process.
What can you do to overcome culture shock?
Successful adaptation demands you process the loss you’re experiencing before it degrades to anxiety, depression or other mental health problems.
Balance is key. The aim is not to detach from your former culture, nor forget about loved ones and favorite places you’ve left behind. Rather, you integrate who you were before with the new you opened up by your foreign experiences.
Express your emotions
Talking about the negative emotions you’re experiencing is key to releasing them. Express everything you are feeling — the nostalgia, the sadness, the disappointment and the fear.
If relying on a friend or family member makes you feel too vulnerable, seek out a qualified therapist.
Get to know new people
Developing relationships in your new country is critical. Find ways to pursue activities you enjoyed in your former life to start cultivating new social circles.
Consider seeking out expat communities in your area. Connecting with others from your home country might make you feel less alone, and those individuals will likely understand what you’re going through.
Create a positive outlook
When feeling down, try to remember your strengths and the reasons you made the decision to move abroad.
Focus on the benefits of your new place of residence — the things you can do in your new country that you maybe can’t at home. Look for similarities between the old life and the new so that you’re not obsessing about the differences.
Turn uniqueness into opportunity
Sometimes being a foreigner has its advantages. Is there a skill you have that might open up a job opportunity? A business idea you can bring from your home culture that locals might be interested in?
Finding ways to offer something to your new community will help you feel better about being there and open doors to new personal connections.
Focus on the present
Invest your time and thoughts into making a life in the place where you are now. It’s one thing to acknowledge what you love and miss about your home country. It’s another to obsess over what you no longer have.
Pursue the sports and recreational activities you enjoyed before. Enroll in a gym. Go for a run. Create a routine for yourself.
Blend the things that make you “you,” while mixing in a few cultural events or opportunities unique to your new home.
Remember all your experiences add up in life
A foreign relocation is a huge step outside your comfort zone. Stepping out of your comfort zone is an opportunity to grow. Living in a foreign country presents many opportunities to learn something new, to expand your perspective about life, to see the world through new eyes.
The emotions you’re experiencing are an opportunity for you to realize you are stronger, more resilient and more capable than you thought you were. Learn to reframe hardships into learning experiences. Shifting perspectives will help you take pride in yourself for what you’re accomplishing.
Culture shock can’t necessarily be avoided, but you can prepare yourself and your family members for the potential sadness to come. Consciously being clear with yourself about you’re leaving behind before you actually leave will help you more quickly process the loss and accept the new situation.
Create realistic expectations about what you expect to do in your new country. Think about things that will be different that you expect to enjoy, but also take time to note the things you know you’ll miss.
Family, friends, favorite foods, hobbies or sports that won’t be available… Often just the awareness of the sadness and symptoms of culture shock is enough to help ease through the changes.
Do any of your family members already struggle with mental health issues like depression or anxiety? Find a counselor immediately on arrival, or even consider starting therapy before you go. The whole journey will feel that much more supported.
When to seek professional support
The experience of some or all of the symptoms of cultural adaption at some point in your transition is completely normal. But grief from culture shock left untreated can lead to more severe emotional states such as depression or anxiety.
If you find yourself with increasingly worsening symptoms that persist for more than two months, you should seek out help. A qualified therapist will work with you to create solutions and strategies to deal with your feelings and come to a place of acceptance and happiness in your new life.
Irene Paola Garza Del Valle ~ Integrative Psychotherapy ~ Specializing in expats and multicultural couples and families.
Born and raised in Mexico and now living in Seville, Spain, I have counseled people from 11 countries and 5 continents both in person and virtually. I want people to know you will stop feeling afraid when you realize the answers lie inside you. It doesn’t matter where you are living or where you are from. Your home, your safe place, is yourself.