The Complete Guide to Culture Shock for Students Abroad

Posted on August 31, 2011


Culture shock. These are two words many students heading abroad might hear from parents, supervisors or professors, but very few might understand that the negative feelings they’re going through in their first few weeks abroad are a natural reaction. This article can explain the basics of culture shock, address the stages involved, and suggest ways to recognize and deal with common symptoms of culture shock while abroad.

By Kristen Sandstrom

So you’ve said goodbye to friends and family, packed your entire life into a single suitcase, and survived the overnight layover in Frankfurt. Now what? It’s time to deal with the shock of thrusting yourself head over heals into a new country and culture.

Culture shock is the temporary anxiety an individual feels from relocating to a new cultural environment. Most people know about this phenomenon but few understand it and are aware of how it impacts them.

When you begin living in a new country you will be surrounded by people with different ideas, beliefs and lifestyles. Finding simple things such as notebooks or your favorite food may seem impossible due to language barriers and plan unavailability Normal situations have the potential to become much more difficult and the important people in your life won’t be around to help. This means you’re on your own to prepare.


There are 4 stages that take place within each individual in a new country, as follows:

Stage 1- Excitement

This stage is characterized by feelings of excitement, enjoyment and euphoria. Typically described as the ‘honey moon’ phase, the individual feels extremely happy to be in a new place and they are in love with their surroundings. In this stage the differences are exciting, not frustrating.

Stage 2- Withdrawal

Individuals will start to feel homesick and miss family and friends. The exciting and exotic aspects (language and customs) become frustrating, and symptoms such as irritability, loss of appetite and insomnia may occur. Criticism of the local people and way of life may occur and the major cultural differences are no longer fun.  Frustration begins to occur when using the new language.

Stage 3 – Adjustment

In this stage the individual finally begins to feel as though they are settled in. At this point, a daily routine has developed and they become more comfortable with their surroundings and speaking a new language.

Stage 4 – Enthusiasm

Individuals finally feel a sense of belonging.  They have made several friends in their new environment and feel at home. They begin to appreciate the culture and even adopt some behaviors.

It’s important that you prepare for culture shock so you will be able to deal with it:

  • Know your stressors and remedies. If going to the gym is your go-to for stress relief, then get a gym membership or find an alternative form of exercise like jogging. If you talk to friends when stressed, stay connected through Skype, email and Facebook.
  • Expect culture shock. No one, no matter how well traveled, is immune to culture shock. It’s one of the essential and enjoyable aspects of travel. Accepting that you will most likely experience it at some point, even if it’s very mild, will make the transition more bearable. One common occurrence is experiencing culture shock upon returning to your home country, since you aren’t expecting to be shocked by a place you were once so familiar with.
  • Use your resources. Know who to contact if you’re sick or need someone to talk to. Staying involved with lots of activities will keep your mind at ease, so ask your student life coordinator to help you out. That’s what they are there for!
  • Keep a positive mindset. Don’t lose your sense of humor and don’t sacrifice your health. Eat well, drink water and get enough sleep so you will be in good shape for adjusting to your host country.  This will help alleviate any stress you may feel.
  • Surround yourself with good people. For some reason we find solace in knowing other people are in the same boat as us. Connect with friends in your program who are going through the same process. You will likely have many shocking yet funny shared experiences to laugh about. Instead of getting frustrated, take a casual attitude and try to learn why you are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Accept the differences and be humble. There will be things that you like about your host country and things that you don’t. Learning how to take the positives from your experiences and apply them to your life is an irreplaceable skill to have.

Once you get settled into a routine abroad, you might wake up on the wrong side of the bed, feel ill or get homesick. Just remember that you will adjust and your experiences will be well worth the small bits of anxiety that you may encounter.  Stay positive and good things will surely come your way. Always be aware of the way you feel and try to understand the source of your stress or anxiety. Taking this approach will ensure you learn about why you react the way you do to new cultures and will give you a greater appreciation for what you have back home.

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