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Culture Shock: How to Handle the Stress of a Cultural Change

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Culture shock, or the processes of adapting to a new culture, is a phenomenon that is likely to occur when someone moves to a new city, country, or region, and begins to realize how its culture differs from their own original culture. Those who experience culture shock usually go through four different stages before fully adapting to the new culture. These stages are exhilaration, disenchantment, adjustment, and effective functioning.

The first stage, exhilaration, is filled with excitement and hopefulness. At this stage, the person becomes almost infatuated with the new language, food, people, and traditions in their new surroundings; feelings toward the cultural change are overwhelmingly positive. Rather than focus on the differences between your host culture and your original culture negatively, you may view them with intrigue and enthusiasm.

The second stage, disenchantment, is where most people begin to recognize the reality of their situation and the difficulties that may come with it. The frustration that comes with not understanding the common gestures or language and having difficulty communicating with others may lead to periods of depression and homesickness. You may become overwhelmed and frustrated with the amount of cultural changes you have to adapt to.

The third stage, adjustment, is when people begin to gain cultural insight about their new surroundings, causing them to make adjustments to their own lifestyle and cultural identity. As they become more comfortable with their new environment, friendships and communities of support are established. The frustration surrounding the cultural differences begins to subside, and you may make more of an effort to learn about your host country's culture in an effort to fit in.

The final stage of culture shock is effective functioning, where the person has a greater understanding of their new culture and feels they are now accepted. At this point, you can communicate with others, you understand the cultural nuances, and the new activities presented by your new culture have become a part of your daily life.

Below are a few important tips for dealing with culture shock while studying abroad:

  • Learn as much as you can about your host country by reading pamphlets, travel guides, news reports, etc. or by talking to someone from the country.

  • Ask the study abroad program coordinators (Megan Bell) for advice and learn about the experiences other students have had while studying in the same country.

  • Write down your experiences as you go. When you're experiencing the first stage of culture shock, keeping a record of everything you love about the culture can be helpful in the frustration of later stages.

  • Talk to others about how you're feeling. If you're traveling with other students, talk to them about strategies used to cope with cultural differences. It is important to remember that you're not alone in your situation.

  • Push yourself to get involved with the community and make local friends. Having people around you who are native to the culture and can answer your questions will make you much more comfortable. Participating in an activity that is similar to something you did in your home country will help make your new country feel more like home.

Although the introduction to a new culture can be emotionally, socially, and physically overwhelming, the experiences you will have and the lessons you will learn while studying abroad will make the transition worth it. By learning the language or about the language of your new culture, being respectful, reaching out to those around you, and learning about the cultural patterns and social traditions of your host culture, you can reduce the intensity of your cultural shock and easily transition into a new culture.

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