How Culture Shock Caused Me To Develop An Eating Disorder
You’ve no doubt heard of culture shock; generally considered one of the major struggles of traveling for the first time. My first trip abroad was to Scotland, however – there was hardly any culture shock, no language barrier and, in many ways, it was the easiest, safest place I could have gone for my first solo trip abroad.
Looking back many years later, however, I realise I didn’t actually cope as well as I thought I did at the time. I manifested my panic at how different my life had become very unhealthily – and would hope that this article serves as a heads up to anyone feeling similarly or who is about to study abroad for the first time.
My lifestyle in Scotland was immediately very different. I was in a new, cold, wet area, and didn’t feel as comfortable running by myself. It was dark from 3pm until 9am, so for most daylight hours I was at school, inactive and without much opportunity to lead my normal active lifestyle. On top of this, I was eating very different food – the school served predominantly fried, cheesy meals that I wasn’t used to.
On reflection, I realise that there was really no reason for my panic. I was still very active on weekends, was involved in school sport, and ate normally for someone my age. I didn’t have particularly rapid weight gain, didn’t suffer any traumatic emotional event, and in every other respect had a fulfilling, great experience. There were, in other words, no ‘typical’ reasons for me to get sick. I remember seeing a psychologist back in Australia who was baffled as to how I had developed such a condition.
It was simply that I wasn’t prepared for the sudden lifestyle change. I was naive as to how to deal with such a complete flip in my diet and manifested my uncertainty and panic in an extreme way. I was terrified of going home “fat” and “unfit”, and missed out on some of the benefits of my great trip as a result.
The question, I guess, is what have I learned? I’ve been on several overseas trips, and moved interstate to study since that first study abroad semester in Scotland.
I’ve learnt to go with the flow and accept that before I go. Whenever I embark on a trip, I consider the changes I might have to make and make my peace with them before I leave. I embrace a different lifestyle for a short while, and if I gain a little weight or lose a little muscle, that’s ok.
I’ve also learnt to plan some coping mechanisms or adaptations ahead of time. I look up where I can eat healthily, or how I can incorporate exercise into my daily routine. These are sort of ‘preventative’ measures.
Most importantly, I have learnt that I can always get back to ‘normal’ once I get home. This was the key thing I learnt after Scotland. I got home, my life returned to normal, my fitness returned to normal, and I realised that all my illness had done was detract from my experience abroad. Weight gained can always be lost. Fitness can always be re-attained. Your life at home will still be there when you get back.
Don’t sacrifice your fullest enjoyment of any new experience because of a fear of change.