Travel stress or “culture shock” is a normal developmental phase of adjustment to a new cultural environment. It occurs when one’s values and typical ways of viewing the world clash with the values and viewpoints of the new culture.
Typical reactions to culture shock include feeling helpless, out of control, vulnerable, fearful, anxious, confused or sad.
10 Tips for Cultural Adjustment
- Take care of yourself physically. This includes getting regular and sufficient amounts of sleep and food, even if it is difficult re-establishing a consistent schedule because of jetlag. See section on Staying Healthy Abroad for more information.
- Give yourself permission to feel bad. Negative feelings are normal, and you should process these emotions, rather than just pushing them away and failing to address the issue.
- Don’t make any big life changes while abroad. It will take time to figuring out how your new life experiences fit into your previous culture and life experience.
- Be open-minded and curious. Adjusting to a new culture doesn't’t mean that you have to change your own values and worldview, but it’s important to allow yourself to be curious about the way things are perceived and done in the new environment. When you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, try to think of it as a new adventure and tolerate the ambiguity of not knowing.
- Use your observation skills. Since you will be exposed to many new and unfamiliar customs and norms, observing how others are behaving in situations can help you understand what is expected of you and how you could connect with others. Pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues of others, in order to get a more complete picture of what is going on.
- Recognize that culture is relative. When you are exposed to new customs and ideals, try to avoid labeling them as “good” or “bad” according to what you are used to. Remember that there may be parts of a culture that you disagree or dislike, but these are part of a broader social system.
- Find cultural allies and ask questions. Make friends with locals and they could be great consultant on cultural expectations. Asking for help when you need it.
- Give yourself (and others) permission to make mistakes. Everyone inevitably make mistakes as they explore a new cultural environment. Try to find humor in these situations and others will likely respond to you with friendliness and support. Keep in mind that others will probably make mistakes, too. When someone makes an inaccurate assumption or generalized belief about your culture, it may be due to a lack of information. If you are comfortable with doing so, it could be an opportunity to share information about yourself and your culture
- Be patient – don’t expect yourself to understand everything immediately. The process of cultural adjustment requires time and most of the time it’s a cyclical process. Try to remind yourself to be patient with the new experience, encouraging yourself to stretch your comfort level, and avoid being overly critical of yourself.
- Finally, try to establish new friendships with host country residents who can help explain the reason behind some of the customs/behaviors you might find uncomfortable. This will help you make healthy adjustments abroad. Working through culture shock can be a valuable growth experience – one that strengthens identity and intercultural competence.
Additional Support While Abroad
If you are currently working with a therapist/psychiatrist, discuss this before you go. Some signs to look for that may indicate the need for professional support include, but are not limited to:
- Heavy alcohol or drug use
- Not getting out of bed
- Staying in a room alone
- Changes in eating habits such as eating excessively or very little
- Avoiding friends
- Not attending classes or marked decrease in academic performance
Keep in mind that any high stress situation can cause unusually strong emotional reactions and can interfere with effective functioning. Such feelings can also exacerbate previous symptom or stir up deeper emotional issues. It is extremely important that you share your reactions with others and seek support immediately.
Remember, you know yourself best and should seek out assistance when needed.
Anytime you are in a crisis situation abroad, or feel your health and/or safety is at risk, first reach out to the local contact identified by the unit supporting your travel, or a local emergency services. Note that 911 only works in the U.S. Review a U.S. Department of State resource titled “911 Abroad” for a list of equivalent numbers around the world.
To arrange for non-emergency mental health resources while abroad through our international medical assistance provider, review the instructions for accessing care while abroad.
You can also contact Northwestern for any emergency abroad.
Sometimes people overlook the fact that similar adjustments are necessary when returning home. New ideas, friendships, and experiences gained overseas will change, and you will return home with a variety of new perspectives. While you have probably made some progress in integrating these changes into your life while studying abroad, you now have a new task of determining how to integrate these changes into your life at home. Read more about reverse culture shock and re-entry strategies on the Undergraduate Learning Abroad website.
Many returning students seek services from CAPS to facilitate their integration process such as group or individual counseling, but many students also benefit from services provided by the Stress Management Clinic. Students – you are not alone. Contact CAPS for an appointment at your convenience.