Reverse Culture Shock and Its Effect On Health
I, an American, expected the culture shock most said I would experience when I moved to Ireland and adjusted to the new culture. But honestly, I didn’t consider the experience to be too ground-shaking as I was in a country that spoke English and had the clothing, food, and social atmospheres that were more similar than different to my own.
However, I didn’t expect to feel like a foreigner back in America at the end of my time abroad. How can a place to which I have been so accustomed to for my whole life suddenly feel so unfamiliar?
Reverse culture shock is not a foreign concept and it is a normal part of re-adapting to one’s home country. But what they tell you about reverse culture shock before you leave your foreign home is never enough to prepare or fully understand until you experience it. Even the U.S. Department of State published an article about reverse culture shock and went into great detail about its effects.
There are separate phases that may be present when a person experiences reverse culture shock which typically occur in a roller-coaster-like manner. It must be noted that each person re-adapts to their home country in a variety of ways. The intensity of reverse culture shock which a person may experience can depend on where a person may have traveled or lived, how long they were gone, and the details of their personal background and state of home life.
In this article, I’d like to address a few challenges that may come with reverse culture shock. Some of these examples come from personal experience. Others come from answers received from a questionnaire I sent out to a handful of people who have returned home after living abroad for various periods of time.
I will focus on four major categories of health and well-being which are typically impacted:
- Emotional Health
After the excitement of being back home fades and the logistics of life begin to settle in, people may feel frustrated, irritable, angry, or depressed. Often people report feeling frustrated, angry, or confused by the way their home country “runs things” or how small-minded other people at home may seem. Some feel trapped or stressed as they reenter their normal routine which doesn’t involve exciting people or places. Depression is very common, as returnees miss places and/or people who became special to them during their time abroad. Some may even compare this experience to a breakup – you are separated from people, places, and stories that you may never see again – and grief is a common emotion.
- Mental Health
When a person returns home from a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it can cause confusion and they may mentally withdraw, especially when they don’t feel they can relate to anyone or that no one wants to listen to their stories. Being distracted and caught up in daydreams about their past abroad experiences can impact a person’s mental health. This may be mild or extreme, and may even disrupt a person’s relationships or productivity levels at work or school. Motivation to participate in one’s “old” life may be slim to none. Some people may also be so overwhelmed with the thoughts of how different their home country is compared to the one they studied abroad at that they may refuse to do things the way everyone else might back home.
- Physical Health
Changing routines in even the slightest way can upset anyone’s physical health. Regarding returning from abroad, physical health can be impacted not only through the travel itself, but also by the state of a person’s mental and emotional well-being long after travelling home. Jet lag is temporary, but readjusting to the diet and personal fitness routines at home can be challenging. Others may report feeling more motivated when they return home to get back into routine. Some women may notice irregularities in their menstrual cycle. Some people may become depressed or stressed in a way that causes them to cease eating healthy foods or sleep unsoundly, leading to exhaustion. Sickness or even disease may be something a person must battle when they return home.
This category may not be something a doctor checks for on a regular basis, but it is an aspect of health that is a culmination of the other three listed here. Life is all about self-development and awareness, but experiencing time abroad can cause drastic changes to a person.
Some people question big life decisions including the path of their college career, their job or future career, or their location of living. Some people pursue brand new hobbies. Some people report feeling open to things and ideas that had never dawned on them before. Some people report being confused about how to reconnect with their pre-abroad self. Some people report feeling like they don’t identify with their own nationality anymore and agree that living in foreign places is “for them”.
How a person is recognized and identified changes as well, as some returnees remembered people telling them they seemed more confident, free, open-minded, adventurous.
Amidst all these symptoms or signs of reverse culture shock it is important to remember that it is a process that is unique to every individual. It may be harder or easier for some to find ways to integrate their abroad life with their hometown life. If you are readying yourself to come home, be aware of these effects but do not let these effects keep you from being excited to bring home stories and a new worldview. On the flip side, if you or someone you know is experiencing reverse culture shock or has already overcome it, give yourself or them time to process, journal, or speak about it.