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 and this may lead to rejection of the new culture and/or feeling rejected by the new culture.
Culture shock typically presents as anxiety, depression and/or hostility to the host country
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
Travellers undertaking travel that could result in culture shock, should discuss their plans with a Travel Advisor or a representative of their sending agency. This would allow time to discuss psychological issues that may occur during their time overseas. Researching the culture, laws and customs of intended destinations will enable travellers to best prepare themselves in advance of travel.
Travellers should be aware that:
- Adaptating 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 usually a gradual process, experiencing culture shock shock is not unusual.
Deterioration in mental health is usually gradual and travellers should seek help if they 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.
Travellers may be less aware of the possibility of ‘reverse culture shock’. This is 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 Commonwealth Office mental health information leaflet for travellers includes contacts for mental health organisations.