What is culture shock and how to cope when studying abroad

StudyLink International Study Advice

Culture shock is the name given to the feeling and experience of entering into an environment that is different from your own. In technical terms (as defined by Kalervo Oberg in 1954), it can be broken down into four stages: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and adaptation. Depending on how far away from home you have moved, and if this is your first time away, you could encounter different levels of shock.

It is extremely common for international students to experience some extent of culture shock when they start studying abroad. This can be due to a variety of factors; the fact that you have probably moved far away from your home country and your family and friends being the most prevalent reason. You might be facing a language barrier, feel like you are not on the same academic level as other students, or be lonely without your home friends around you each day. All of these feeling are completely normal when immersing yourself in a new and unfamiliar environment, and there is no real way to stop culture shock altogether, but there are ways in which you can help yourself and others to cope.

Understand your feelings

When you are struggling with something, it can be really easy to become very introspective and forget that others might be experiencing similar feelings. It is important to understand that most people who have chosen to move to a new country and enter into a new culture will go through cultural shock. You aren’t alone in your feelings, and sometimes knowing this can be helpful. Speaking to other international students about how you are feeling might be useful to help you cope, but try to avoid being too negative about your situation, as that could be more detrimental.

If you enjoy journaling, try writing about your feelings. Some people find it really helpful to get their thoughts down on paper, as they find it easier to process them when they are out of their head. Another great thing about recording your feelings is that when you are feeling more settled, you can look back on how you felt when you first arrived and see how far you have come. That can serve as a real confidence boost!

Keep in touch with your family and friends

Whilst you might find it somewhat painful to think about your homelife too much, it is important to not neglect your relationships, as these are the people who know you best. Keeping in touch with your family and friends back home can really help keep your mood up if you are feeling low. You don’t need to forget your old life in order to cope with your culture shock. It might also be nice for you to organise a firm date when you can travel home to see your family. However, if travelling is not possible for you, try scheduling in a regular time to have a video call with your family and friends.

Create a routine

Establishing a routine can really help you to cope with your feelings of culture shock. If you are keeping busy and being productive, you have less time to sit around and feel lonely or homesick. If you used to enjoy going for a morning walk to get coffee, ask around to see if there is a nice park nearby to continue your routine. If you like to do some yoga before bed, make time to practice in your new space. Integrating old habits into your new daily routine can be helpful with your adaptation into the new environment. 

It is also important that you don’t overwork yourself and ignore your feelings completely. Whilst not sitting by yourself and feeling sad is a good thing, sometimes it is helpful to honour how you are feeling, but then get right back into your great new routine!

Try to embrace the positive aspects of your new culture

It can be difficult to cope if your new home has a very different culture to your old home. Routines can seem strange, and people might do things that seem weird to your. Sometimes this can make it harder to adapt. If you are feeling this way, it might help to think about the positive aspects of this new culture. Focusing on the positives can really help you to think about things from a different perspective, and enjoy your new surroundings more.

Make an effort to participate in social activities

It might feel hard to be social when you are struggling with feelings of sadness and homesickness, but it can really help to create new friendships and enjoy an activity. If you used to have a hobby at home, find out if there is a club or society that does this activity at your university. If there is, get involved! If there isn’t you could consider starting one, there are probably other people who would enjoy it too. There will be so many new students at your new university, embrace the opportunity to get involved!

The offerings of societies and activities at universities are wide and varied. You might choose to join a sports team, a faith based society, or a hobby society. Your university might even have a society specifically for international students, who will all have experienced some level of culture shock.

Speak to someone

If you are really struggling, you should consider speaking to someone about your feelings. Chat to a friend, fellow international student, lecturer or international officer. There will be lots of people who want to help you, and universities are very much used to helping people who are feeling homesick or sad. Your university might be able to offer to buddy you up with someone, or have a free counselling service you can take advantage of.

It is extremely important that you don’t suffer in silence, and try not to make any decisions – such as wanting to leave and go home – without discussing it with others.

For more information about studying abroad as an international student, take a look at our other advice articles.

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