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Culture Shock

Introduction

The term 'culture shock' refers to adjusting to a new culture and environment. It can happen when you travel abroad and experience cultures that are different to the one you have known. Although culture shock is more common in long-term travellers and individuals with mental health issues, it can affect anyone that travels.

Culture shock can make you feel:

  • homesick
  • lonely or isolated
  • irritated with the new culture
  • anxious
  • depressed
  • tired and lethargic

Contributing Factors

The following factors may contribute to experiencing culture shock:

  • tiredness and jet lag
  • unfamiliar surroundings
  • unusual food and smells
  • not understanding the local language
  • separation from family and friends
  • missing familiar comforts and possessions
  • coping with health issues such as travellers’ diarrhoea (especially when different toilet facilities) or mosquito bites
  • witnessing poverty
  • crowded roads and dangerous public transport
  • limited previous experience of unfamiliar cultures

Advice for Travellers

Experiencing culture shock is normal. With time and adjustment to the new culture you are living in, the feelings you experience should pass. The following tips can help you to cope with culture shock:

  • Before you travel, find out about the culture, laws and customs of the country you are going to.
  • Consider learning some of the language – even knowing a few words can make you feel less isolated.
  • Try to get adequate sleep, regular exercise and eat well.
  • If you can, contact family and friends even if this is just by text or email.
  • Excessive alcohol, nicotine and drug taking can make feelings of stress worse.

Seeking Help

Remember that experiencing culture shock is not unusual and that adjusting to a new culture is a gradual process that takes time. Whilst you are away from home, you may need to get advice from a doctor if you continue to experience:

  • anxiety
  • panic attacks
  • depression
  • feeling hostile or irritated by the new culture

Returning Travellers

Reverse culture shock is when you return from travelling and experience difficulties re-adjusting to life at home. This may be even more stressful than culture shock. Reverse culture shock is usually more common if you have travelled for a long period of time or if you have pre-existing mental health issues.

Referral to a health professional experienced in dealing with culture shock may be necessary if you are struggling to readjust to life back at home. Information on mental wellbeing is available on NHS Inform.

Resources

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has useful travel guidance for individuals with mental health needs:

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