Culture shock is the state of disorientation that results from contact with a foreign culture. Most expats experience it to some degree, which is not surprising: if culture is defined as the shared reality of a group of people, then individuals who move abroad literally find themselves in an alternate reality. It’s no wonder they’re shocked!
Culture shock affects the whole person: body, mind and spirit. Being aware of its symptoms and understanding that it’s a natural outcome of an international move are the first steps toward getting over it.
Psychosocial symptoms of culture shock
My buddy Kathryn, a fellow Canadian, was initially excited about moving to Austin, Texas. Soon, however, the novelty of living in a new culture wore off. “I became really depressed,” she told me. “I didn’t have the support network of close friends and family that I had back home. My job was stressful, and it was getting me down. I began to question my desire to move to Texas. Worst of all, I began to question my self worth.”
Kathryn’s experience is not uncommon. Many expats begin to show signs of depression during the first few months of an overseas move. CAMH (The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) lists “major life stress” as a possible cause of clinical depression, and the many challenges of an international relocation — the struggle with culture shock chief among them — certainly qualify.
Interculturalist Young Yun Kim writes that “a healthy psychological state is a dynamic fit between parts of the internal system and external realities — that is, an attainment of internal coherence and meaningful relationship to the outside world.”
It’s the absence of this connection between the self and the new environment that leads to what Kim calls “a serious disequilibrium within the stranger’s psyche.” It can manifest itself in the following symptoms:
- Idealizing the home culture
- Stereotyping host culture nationals
- Dissatisfaction with life in general
- Loss of sense of humour
- Sense of isolation, withdrawal from society
- Overwhelming and irrational fears related to the host country
- Irritability, resentment
- Family conflict
- Loss of identity
- Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
- Negative self-image
- Developing obsessions (health, cleanliness)
- Cognitive fogginess, lack of concentration
Physical Symptoms of Culture Shock
Because culture shock is often considered to be primarily a psychosocial condition, its link to various physical ailments may be overlooked. Yet it’s widely accepted that the mental and emotional exertion needed to make sense of the new culture has a direct effect on the body’s physiological functions.
Cross-cultural business consultant Cornelius Grove has studied the results of stress associated with culture shock. He writes that the constant overstimulation of the endocrine system leads to a decrease in white blood cell production, making expats more susceptible to illness. Meanwhile, the unceasing environmental novelty pushes the brain and sensory organs into a state of constant vigilance, which expends enormous energy and is physically and mentally exhausting. “Physiologically speaking,” Grove writes, “culture shock is precisely this state of debilitation, exhaustion, and susceptibility to disease.”
The physical symptoms of culture shock include:
- Fatigue, malaise
- Generalized aches and pains
- Increase in illness or accidents
- Excessive need for sleep or inability to sleep
- Overeating or lack of appetite/excessive dieting
- Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
Not every physical problem can be attributed to culture shock, of course. Moving abroad can be hard on your health, especially in the early weeks, while your body is still adjusting to the new environment. Jetlag wreaks havoc with sleeping patterns, heat and humidity affect energy levels, and eating unfamiliar foods may trigger gastrointestinal distress. Environmental issues such as unclean water, food shortages, disease-carrying insects, and poor air quality can cause ailments that range in severity from mild to extremely serious.
Culture shock is the bane of many expatriates. Ordinarily competent people are surprised and dismayed to find themselves unable to function in their new cultural environment, without fully understanding why. Working through culture shock isn’t a linear process, and unfortunately, there’s no fixed timeline for getting over it. However, acknowledging its existence and recognizing its many symptoms is a good place to start.