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Navigating culture shock between disorientation and adaptation

Culture shock is a feeling, an experience, and a need for adjustment. According to the Oxford dictionary, culture shock is “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” It is an inevitable step when moving abroad. In today’s episode, we look at this phenomenon in relation to our mental health, with some tips on how we can move forward. 

It affects all of us, no matter the number of experiences of living abroad/travelling we have under our belt. We can’t avoid it, but we can find ways forward. 

If you are curious and want to learn more, I recorded an episode on my podcast We are here, too, and I have included a detailed blog post about culture shock below.

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Understanding and recognising the symptoms of culture shock

Culture shock can manifest in a variety of symptoms that can have an impact on both our physical and mental health. Although there are commonalities in the experiences of those who move abroad, the way our bodies and mind react to a new culture is very personal. Furthermore, migrating is a very complex phenomenon. These symptoms may also be related to other factors, such as homesickness or a general sense of loneliness and isolation, rather than culture shock. 

Read more: Exploring the emotional toll of moving abroad: what does it look like?

Fatigue

Culture shock can take a lot of mental and emotional energy, leading to feelings of exhaustion and fatigue. This is due to emotional and mental strain in navigating and adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings, customs and beliefs. Thinking in a different language, if you are not used to it, can be a very tiring pursuit. I remember when I first moved to Cyprus, in 2010, four years after my experience in Wales. English at the time wasn’t my vehicular language. When I found myself in a new reality, the only Italian person in my environment, I had to use all my energies to make myself understood.

Culture shock can also disrupt sleep patterns. This is because the environment changes, and you try to adapt to new customs and possibly a new time zone that may have a different pace than your home country. Sometimes, this can lead to insomnia.

Headaches

Stress and anxiety related to cultural adjustments can cause headaches and migraines. This is due to sensory overload from being in a new environment and trying to absorb different information. 

Being constantly on the get-go, trying to sort out basically your life (housing, banking, job, social network, transport!), and changing of eating habits and times you hydrate (I don’t know about you, but I forget to hydrate when I am particularly busy) may lead to headaches. 

Digestive Issues

Culture shock can happen in relation to a newfound cuisine.

Changes in diet, food availability and eating habits can cause digestive problems (upset stomach, constipation, or diarrhoea). Furthermore, water quality (such as the mineral content, water treatment and different bacteria presence) can cause issues to the digestive system (and also change the taste of the food we eat!).

Stress is also a greater contributor to affecting your digestive system.

Weakness or Dizziness

The physical symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, and muscle tension, can cause feelings of weakness or dizziness. It is a known fact that moving is stressful and tiring, it can compromise our eating habits while our body is trying to adapt to a different climate and routine.  

Skin Breakouts

Stress can also cause skin breakouts or worsening of existing skin conditions. Culture shock also means not being able to find products you used to use for your skin routine, eating different foods that may impact your digestive system and hormones, and being in an environment with a different level of pollution can all lead to skin breakouts. 

Read more: I need help with my mental health: what do I do?

What helped me survive the culture shock

Anxiety and depression are a reality among people who migrate. Moving abroad and settling into a new society is stressful even when we choose and are excited about it. Ultimately, we are uprooting ourselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean that migration is the cause of all our troubles in the new country, but the stress that comes with it may affect our immune system. We may experience aches and pains as a reaction to these increased stress levels if we don’t know how to work with them.

For sure, if I had to migrate again, I would do a few things now to support my mental health a bit better from the offset. In my experience of moving and living abroad, travelling and going through culture shock at different stages of my migration story, I gathered up a series of observations on what helped and hindered this process.

Structure

Knowing about where I would stay and what I would do for a living helped me immensely. It helped me feel grounded and have a purpose while making sense of different habits and ways of being.

Information

Learning about the place where I was going to live prepared me to welcome cultural differences more openly. It also allowed me to dig into the new culture and understand its nuances better. 

Time

Sometimes, it helps to have a deadline for an experience to make it more digestible. Whether this deadline is set by an institution (a university or employer) or by yourself (“I’ll give it a go for a year” type of thoughts) makes the experience less daunting. 

Community

We can’t live in isolation, and moving to a different country will uproot us. We would need to start creating a support system that can emotionally sustain us. It takes energy to find your people, but it’s not impossible. Communities can be created from a class, a common interest, an experience. Be curious and explore what your city has to offer to connect people. This will also help to put less strain on any single relationship you may have formed (like a partner or a close friend).

Money

Whether it is a paid internship, a scholarship, contracted work or savings, moving to a different country with some money to spare (and not just to survive) can help to do all those activities that would allow you to cope with culture shock a bit better.

How to deal with culture shock while abroad

Following, I compiled a list of things I would do if I had to migrate again.

1. First and foremost, I would admit that migrating is stressful and impacts me in one way or another.

2. I would nourish your old relationships: social media and new technology allow us to stay in contact, so let’s make the most out of it.

3. I would take up a class or join a group of people to learn the local language. In this way, I connect to people who are in my same position, and who understand what it means to be new to a place and possibly become a support network. And I will also remember that it takes time to have trust and intimacy with new people. Just trust the process!

4. I would definitely create a routine, even if it’s just deciding when I wake up and go to bed AND I would nourish my body in a way that shows love rather than hatred (and this can look like cooking my favourite meal, taking a long shower or a bath, moving my body frequently and consistently, so it doesn’t stagnate and feels stuck).

5. I would try and be a tourist in the new city when I have time to spare, using local recommendations, travel blogs and social media for inspiration and planning.  

6. I would make time to have fun! Only because this process is stressful and taxing, I still need to create the space for enjoyment.

Need support to navigate culture shock? I can help! 

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