The sneaky symptoms of culture shock

The sneaky symptoms of culture shockCulture 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:

  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Homesickness
  • 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
  • Depression

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.

This article originally appeared on on April 19, 2010 © Maria Foley.

About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
This entry was posted in Adjustment, Culture Shock and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The sneaky symptoms of culture shock

  1. Heather NW says:

    Well said! I experienced culture shock when I moved from TX to DC. And I knew to expect it too and it still surprised me!

    PS did you see my email about NEWS & THANKS? 😉 It may be in your spam folder….

  2. Fascinating article. I would never have realised all these things could be put down to culture shock. I thought I was pretty well organised and prepared for anything when we emigrated but I guess I was wrong. I just never thought you could experience culture shock moving between relatively similar cultures. Thank you for opening my eyes.

    • Maria says:

      I have a post coming up about the realities of moving to a “similar” culture (which coincidentally, is about UK/Canada expats — I’m sure you’ll be able to relate.) Thanks for commenting.

  3. Sine says:

    Hi Maria – I had to think of you and reverse culture shock when I read this blog post: Very entertaining way to sum it up. Have you read Unbravegirl before? It’s always a good read.

  4. Jenny says:

    I wish I had read this before I moved abroad. I’m stuck in Denmark for the foreseeable future. I can’t eat and feel totally incompetent and fearful. Last month, at home, I felt I could conquer the world. Emigration should come with a health warning.
    Thanks for the article.

    • Maria says:

      You can still conquer the world, but it’ll take time. When things get overwhelming, try just taking baby steps: say hello to someone in Danish, or try one new food. And don’t be too hard on yourself — we all go through it. Good luck!

  5. lannabynight says:

    Hi Maria. I’m glad I came across this article – it’s not often I find one like this, and I read about expat life a lot online! I just wrote a post on the same topic:

    I would love to know what your thoughts are. I found I’ve experienced a lot of what you mentioned above, although I struggled with these issues long before I moved abroad.

    Thanks again for a helpful read.

    • Maria says:

      Beautifully written. I think we’ve had very similar experiences with depression, loneliness, and social anxiety. These are ongoing struggles for me, but as you mention, making a real connection with another person can chase them all away for a time. Also, you have incredibly beautiful friends!

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