What is Culture Shock? How Do I Cope?

Our big beautiful planet is becoming smaller and more accessible.  And it provides lots of exciting opportunities for personal and professional growth.  Besides travel, more and more people spend extended time abroad on work, study, language-immersion, and volunteer-related activities.  Both short and extended stays in another culture come with certain challenges, including culture and reverse culture (re-entry) shock, which can afflict newbies and seasoned expats alike. 

Culture shock is defined as the emotional reaction to living, studying, or working in a new culture.  It is often described as feeling a lack of grounding after losing familiar signs and symbols of the daily life that we're used to.  There are the obvious adjustments - such as a different language, climate, and food.  But what makes culture shock often so tricky is an accumulation of several smaller losses, such as different accessibility of goods, services, and comforts, and new norms for social interactions.  All this can take an emotional toll.  Subtle cultural difference also should not be underestimated (eg, the US vs. Canada), because they can have a cumulative effect. 

People who experience culture shock often report the following:

  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawing from other people
  • Sleep Disturbance
  • Frequent Crying and Sadness
  • Irritability, having a shorter fuse
  • Increased focus on ordering and cleaning one's immediate environment
  • Aches and pains, feeling sick 

For most people, culture shock resolves after a few days or weeks as the mind and body adapt to the new conditions.  For those struggling longer, or those who'd like to help themselves along in the adjustment process, here are some tried and true strategies:

  • Make new friends, share your thoughts and ideas with others. Meet locals and ask them about their culture. It’s normal to feel shy when meeting new people, but with practice you will be more relaxed. Remember that lasting friendships develop gradually, if you keep trying.
  • Read and learn about the new culture with an open mind.  Openness and learning are important skills that help people adapt to their environment.
  • Keep active and be curious about your new surroundings. Stake out museums, theaters, restaurants, and neighborhoods. 
  • Look for opportunities to participate in community activities. For example, join a sports team or volunteer group.  Joining others with similar interests helps with social adjustment around the globe, regardless of language or background.
  • Keep working on language skills (if applicable) 
  • Keep a sense of humor. A sense of humor is important because in another culture there are many things which lead one to weep, get angry, be annoyed, embarrassed, or discouraged. The ability to laugh off things will help guard against despair.  Everyone makes mistakes in a new situation, and it's part of adapting and learning.
  • The ability to respond to or tolerate the ambiguity of new situations is very important to intercultural success. Keeping options open and judgmental behavior to a minimum describes an adaptable or flexible person.
  • Keep your expectations realistic and positive.
  • Be patient with yourself and take care of yourself.
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Living and learning in a new culture which may have different beliefs and values can be difficult. During this process, it is important to be in contact with the new culture. Yet, it is also important to take your time in this process of learning and adapting.  There is some evidence that participation in more than one culture can actually lead to healthy adjustment. When we learn other ways to think and behave, we can develop adaptive strengths and flexibility, which can help in daily life.

If adapting to a new culture takes longer than expected, or if culture shock is interfering with your daily ability to work, study, and socialize, consider consulting with a licensed mental health professional.

Finding Yourself High and Dry? Navigating Stress During a Financial Crisis

The financial crisis is back on everybody’s mind as we have been watching the news.  Money worry is familiar to most of us.  And it doesn’t help to see this issue illuminated from all angles on our news networks.  No matter what your employment status or how far away you are from retirement.




People deal with financial stress in different ways.  Some take the “head in the sand” (aka ostrich) approach by avoiding thinking or talking about the topic.  This can often backfire – the more we suppress certain thoughts, the more likely they are to pop back up in sneaky ways in our minds (research backs this up).  This approach can also leave us in the dark when we may need to make important decisions. 

Other people become obsessed with the topic and find themselves glued to the TV screen, analyzing each minute detail.  This too can be unhealthy, as it takes away important mental resources from our daily lives and may not help us solve the problem. 

In this, as with many other issues, balance is key when we try to cope.   Here are some things to keep in mind:

Be News Savvy.  While it’s important to stay in the know, don’t get caught up in the media hype prophesizing doom and gloom.  Try to limit your news intake to a certain amount of time per day - for example 15-20 minutes from a trusted news source.  Avoid these news first thing in the morning or right before bedtime.

Take Inventory.  It is important to assess what in life we are in control of, as opposed to what we are not.  All too often we grip onto and waste our energy on things that will run their course.  If you are immediately affected and/or have lost your job, create a written outline on how you and your family can manage expenses and finances differently and more efficiently.  Reaching out to credit counseling services and financial planners can help alleviate anxiety.  Talk to your bank, utility companies, and credit card companies about payment options.  Research options for continuing education to make yourself more marketable.

Notice How You Deal With Stress.  Stress can be sneaky – before we know it, we can turn to food, inactivity, smoking, alcohol, or other substances to somehow manage it.   We may withdraw from family and friends and lose sight of what’s important.

Identify Healthy Choices.  Take a walk with a loved one, try a new recipe at home, call a friend.  Be proactive while taking care of yourself.  Reach out for support.  Make sure to eat right and make some room for exercise and socializing – again, things you can control. 

Be Patient.  Uncertain times leave us with more questions than answers.  It takes courage and tenacity to weather these types of storms.  Having question marks in our lives can help us reflect on what’s important.  And this can leave us richer in the long run.

If you continue to be overwhelmed by the stress, it can be useful to seek professional support.  A career counselor can help you create a concrete vision and goals if you are in a job transition.  A psychologist can help you address the emotions and meanings behind your worries and teach new skills to manage stress.  I am a Houston psychologist – to learn more about my services, visit DrGortner.com.