Any traveller can experience psychological problems (culture shock) adjusting to a new culture and environment, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. Travellers may have difficulty understanding the values, customs and social behaviours of unfamiliar cultures, this may lead to a sense of loss, confusion in role expectations and self-identity, a feeling of being rejected by members of the new culture, anxiety, and feelings of impotence due to not being able to cope with the new environment.
The following factors may contribute to experiencing culture shock:
- tiredness and jet lag
- unfamiliar environment, threats to health and safety, food and drink, or toilet/bathing facilities
- language barrier leading to frustration and social isolation
- separation from familiar social supports (friends, family, colleagues)
- difficulty adapting to absence of familiar comforts and possessions
- coping with ill health such as travellers’ diarrhoea
- witnessing social deprivation and poverty
- crowded roads and dangerous public transport
- excessive alcohol, nicotine and/or caffeine intake may worsen stress
- limited previous experience of unfamiliar cultures
- more common in long-term travellers and those with mental health issues
If you are undertaking travel that could result in culture shock, you should discuss your plans with a travel adviser or a representative of your sending agency. This would allow time to discuss psychological issues that may occur during your time overseas. Researching the culture, laws and customs of intended destinations will enable you to be well prepared in advance of travel.
You should be aware that:
- adapting to a new culture takes time; try to have realistic expectations
- adequate rest is essential, emotional vulnerability and susceptibility to stress increases when tired
- maintaining regular contact with familiar social supports can help (friends, family, colleagues)
- recording thoughts and feelings in a journal, letters or emails may improve physical and emotional wellbeing
- stress may lead to an increase in risky behaviour e.g. excessive alcohol intake, drug use and/or sexual experimentation
Adjusting to a new culture is a gradual process, experiencing culture shock is not unusual.
Deterioration in mental health is usually gradual and you should seek help if you experience prolonged or unmanageable feelings of irritability, frustration, disorientation, confusion, anxiety, panic attacks, depression and/or hostility towards the unfamiliar culture.
Referral to a psychologist may be necessary for those struggling to adjust.
The term ‘reverse culture shock’ refers to the psychological problems returning travellers may experience when readjusting to life at home. This may be even more stressful than culture shock.
Experience of reverse culture shock is usually more common in long-term travellers and those with pre-existing mental health issues.
Referral to a psychologist may be necessary for those struggling to readjust. Counselling can help returning travellers integrate their experiences into their life, interpret their experiences in a meaningful way and help create a sense of closure.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has useful information regarding mental health for travellers: