Cultures are shared attitudes, norms, role definitions, values, and beliefs. Individuals base their sense of self on the shared belief systems, traditions, and behaviors within their culture. Normally, we don’t notice the important role that culture plays in our daily lives until we’re among those who behave and think differently than we do. Culture shock is a normal process that occurs when someone is adapting to an unfamiliar culture. Understanding the signs and learning how to cope with culture shock makes the transition easier.

01When it occurs

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People experience culture shock in a variety of situations. Going to school, working, or traveling abroad thrusts a person into a new culture, one that differs in every way from the social cues and patterns they’ve grown up with. Culture shock is strongest shortly after an individual arrives in an unfamiliar destination. Sometimes it lasts only a few days, but depending on the individual and the locale, it could last for much longer. While landing in a new place can be thrilling in the beginning, the transition can be also difficult, and at times, overwhelming.

02The four phases of culture shock

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Both experienced and inexperienced travelers can encounter culture shock. Most go through four distinct phases.

  • The Honeymoon Phase: a sense of euphoria and excitement. The individual finds similarities and differences between the new culture and their own to be both stimulating and enriching.
  • The Crisis Phase: when reality sets in. Communication difficulties and an inability to perform basic tasks become frustrating, leading to irritation and depression.
  • The Recovery Phase: when the individual learns to interpret social cues, develops a routine, and becomes more comfortable in the new surroundings.
  • The Adjustment Phase: the feeling of being a “foreigner” starts to diminish. Communication and navigation in the new surroundings become less complicated.

03Recognizing the initial signs of culture shock

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Feeling sad, lonely, or homesick is normal for those who’ve begun a new phase of their life in a new locale with unfamiliar daily routines, foods, and customs. Most people relocating or traveling to a new country see the experience as an exciting opportunity. However, once the individual arrives in the new land, the frustration they feel towards this new culture may surprise them. Many realize that the things they found intriguing when they first arrived are now the things that irritate them.

04Extreme irritability is common

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Underlying irritability is one of the most recognizable symptoms of culture shock. The individual focuses on the negative feelings they’re experiencing, blaming the new culture or environment for their sense of frustration. The pace may be too slow or too fast for their liking. They avoid adapting to the new culture, and instead, blame their problems on what they see as the new land’s shortcomings. This can lead to behaviors they’d never do in their usual interactions, such as angry outbursts.

05Fatigue is a symptom

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Culture shock often leads to an overwhelming sense of fatigue. The individual may initially chalk it up to jet lag or time differences even though no amount of sleep or exercise seems to help. Some people experience fatigue gradually, while others endure a sudden and substantial onset that makes getting out of bed every day a challenge. Solutions to the smallest problems can seem impossible and there is an unrelenting feeling of weariness that affects the person’s concentration and motivation.

06Depression and anxiety

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It’s common for those with culture shock to feel anxious or depressed. These feelings may begin with a sense of dread. Individuals who normally see themselves as confident, capable people, start to feel lost and vulnerable. Their sense of identity wanes. Many second-guess their decision to undergo this life-changing step and their overall anxiety levels increase. These anxieties may surface as an inability to complete tasks or extreme boredom. Some individuals become preoccupied with the safety of the food they’re eating, while others suspect that locals are cheating them or making fun of them.

07Physical symptoms of culture shock

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There are additional symptoms of culture shock that aren’t psychological issues but physical ailments. Physicians sometimes attribute these physical symptoms to the stress of culture shock. The individual may experience a wide range of aches and pains, including headaches, stomach issues, or major sleep disturbances. People with ongoing, chronic health issues who don’t normally experience major problems may notice returning symptoms.

08When to seek support

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Although people experience varying degrees of culture shock, coping with the symptoms can be overwhelming. They may not recognize the symptoms themselves, but others can easily see the individual is having problems coping. If their symptoms do not subside, mental health professionals say it’s a good idea to reach out to therapists, counselors, advisors, or someone they trust to discuss the issues.

09Coping with culture shock

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The best way for a person to overcome culture shock is to give themselves time to adjust to the changes. Learning more about the culture, socializing with locals, and talking about the confusion they’re feeling helps. While it’s normal to be homesick, the individual shouldn’t allow their thoughts of home to bog them down. Sharing cultural backgrounds with local residents in the new land and understanding each other's differences can help build relationships, make the transition shorter, and ease the symptoms of culture shock.

10Reverse culture shock is a thing

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Culture shock can also occur when an individual returns home after being away. They may experience reverse homesickness and miss the routines they adapted while on their travels. Many people find that the idealized vision of their home is not what they found they returned. The home environment, along with the attitudes and availability of friends and family members, may have changed. People can prepare for reverse culture shock by staying informed about their home country while they are away and being open to the changes they observe on their return.