Stages of Culture Shock: How to Beat the Study Abroad Slump

September 25, 2019

Whether you visit a new place for a week or a year, you will likely experience at least a little bit of culture shock. Most people are familiar with the crisis stage, which is typically considered to be the most difficult period of time during a relocation. The lesser-known stages are the ones before and after your crisis or culture shock: distress/frustration and reintegration. Usually, to live out the full journey of culture shock, you would have to stay in a place for a long time, going from entry, to culture shock, adjustment, and then full adaptation. If you are studying abroad for one semester as opposed to a full year, you may only get partway through the cycle. The stages of culture shock you’re more likely to experience are between the honeymoon phase and the crisis.

Most people who decide to study abroad are aware of culture shock, and expect to experience it to some degree. Part of culture shock you may not be prepared for, however, is the slump in between the honeymoon phase and the crisis phases. For me, the honeymoon phase was strong and steady for quite a long time…then I found myself in the slump. This is what I call the period in which your initial excitement wears off, and nothing really seems new anymore. You’ll feel a little bit lonely and disconnected from your family and friends back home. You might start to get annoyed or frustrated by some of the cultural differences.

For example, in my native culture, foot traffic flows to the right. You can almost always stick to the right side of the sidewalk, staircase, etc. and you probably won’t bump into anybody. In Milan, my host city, I never know which way people are going to go. I’ve been here for 3 months and I still have no idea. I go right and they go left. I go left and they go right. People change direction with seemingly no visual cues (I probably just can’t notice them). Different areas have their own patterns, and you figure them out the hard way. It’s stupid right? I mean, who cares which way people walk on a sidewalk. It’s not a big deal at all in the scheme of life. But these little things that you’d never even anticipate add up over time. Around halfway through the semester, these things started getting to me. I felt like I had fallen into a routine. I felt uninspired, and easily annoyed by little things. Here are some strategies I used to lift myself of this funk.

Hang out with some different people.

It’s human nature to find a group you feel comfortable in and stick to it. It’s our instinctual way to ease the discomfort of a new place. The first thing we try to do, usually subconsciously, is find other people from our culture or who speak our native language. This is a great way to establish friendships abroad. However, if you never spend time with people from your host culture, you can start to see them as the “other”. It’s easy to judge a culture from the outside. Getting to know someone who is a part of that culture is not only a wonderful opportunity to meet someone new, but it can give you a better perspective of the culture. You don’t have to treat someone like a spokesperson for an entire culture or anything like that. Just be kind and open to interacting with locals even if they don’t speak your language. It may enlighten you on some things that have been annoying you.

Go see something new, or do something different.

Studying abroad is a good chance to travel, but frequent travel to other places can keep you disconnected from your host culture. You may be in a slump because your host culture is now just the place you come back to after an exciting trip somewhere else. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. This means you’ve successfully made a home base in your host culture. You don’t have to cancel any trips. Rather, add some. Keep checking other countries off your bucket list if you want, but make plans to see something new in your host city too! Even if it’s something simple like a restaurant or public park you haven’t been to yet. Exploring something new can reignite your excitement and curiosity about your host culture. Better yet, sign up for something you’ve never tried before - a dance class, a museum tour, tickets to a soccer game, whatever sounds interesting. Switching up your routine can reinvigorate your day-to-day life in your host country.

Practice mindfulness.

This is the simplest one, and the most difficult. Try to take some time, just a minute every day, to fully absorb your surroundings. Look around and observe as many details as you can. Recite to yourself the time and the place. I’m on the subway in Milan, Italy. It’s 6 p.m. and I’m heading to class. This serves several purposes. First of all, when you’re feeling annoyed or overwhelmed, this can help you center yourself and put the situation in context. Second, it’s like a little pinch to remind you where you really are. No, you’re not just in some classroom. You’re in a classroom in university in a different country, one that you worked very hard to land in! No, it doesn’t cancel out all the frustrating things you have to deal with. But exercising small moments of gratitude daily will help, whether you’re acknowledging your own hard work, mentally thanking a professor who wrote your recommendation letter, remembering a nice student who gave you directions, or whatever else is on your mind. And, lastly, these mindful moments will stick in your memory. You’d be surprised. Someday, you’ll be grateful to remember even some of the more mundane moments. They’re all a part of your time studying abroad.

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