Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock

As my study abroad experience in Costa Rica comes to an end, I have decided to write this article for those who may be going through Reverse Culture Shock. I initially experienced Reverse Culture Shock when I came home from my first mission trip in Zambia. It would have been helpful if I was a little more prepared for when I returned home. My goal with this article is to help those who are having trouble adjusting back to their society after coming home from their time abroad.

You have just finished your wild, crazy, fun study abroad experience. You are sad that you are leaving all the friends you just made, but are excited to see your old friends and family. When you get off the plane and are greeted by everyone you are full of excitement because you get to tell others about your experience abroad. They listen with interest at first, engaging and soaking up every detail that you speak, but after a while they lose interest. They haven’t experienced the same thing and are getting tired of hearing, “When I studied abroad…” You start to feel upset that not everyone wants to share and understand this awesome experience you’ve had. Frustration builds up when you hear others complaining about little things like not getting what they want for Christmas or how their food was not cooked exactly the way they wanted it to be. You just ate rice and beans 3 times a day for 4 months, half the time you picked ants out of your drinks and food, and they feel like they are entitled to have their hamburger made a tiny bit rarer? Those hopelessly skinny kids selling bags of chips and candy on the streets would have been ecstatic to sink their teeth into any juicy burger. Que feo! At this point you step back and realize you are going through Reverse Culture Shock.

Reverse culture shock is the process of re-integrating yourself into your society at home after a foreign experience. Your experience does not have to be long-term in order to go through this process. There are four stages of culture shock:

  1. Disengagement: This first phase is before you leave the country you are in. You start preparing yourself to go home, by saying goodbye to all your new friends and host family. During this phase you may feel sad and reluctant to be leaving so soon. The last days may fly by so fast that you don’t even have time to process your experiences and state of being at that time.
  2. Initial Euphoria: The second stage begins shortly after departing the country you were in. You may feel excited and anxious to see you friends and family from home. It may feel like you are in a dream. Meeting your friends and family at first is great. They listen to your stories, but after a while they lose their interest. You may feel disappointed that they do not have the same interest in the country you were just in or your experiences.
  3. Irritability and Hostility: The second stage transitions into the third stage. Here you may feel angry, frustrated, lonely, helpless, and a variety of other emotions without knowing why. Friends and family can’t relate to you. You may find yourself getting frustrated with your original culture. Feeling like a stranger at home and longing to go back to your abroad country are both normal as well.
  4. Readjustment and Adaption: Eventually these negative emotions lead into the fourth stage where you start letting these emotions go and start to get back to your normal life at home. You may swing into old routines, but your outlook on life is different. You are not the same person you were when you first arrived at the new abroad country. Different experiences have made you into a new person. The importance of this stage is to integrate your new beliefs, habits, and goals into your life at home. Take the positive aspects of your experience and apply them to where you are now.

These are the stages of Reverse Culture Shock. Reverse Culture Shock can be challenging, but there are several ways to cope.

Journaling, vloging, taking photos, and creating, in general, are all good ways to deal with Reverse Culture Shock. Sometimes getting the emotions you are feeling out if front of you to see is a way to start dealing with them. This will allow you to channel everything you are going through if you do not have anyone to talk to at that point in time.

Meet with your friends from abroad after returning home. This can be done in person, over Skype, phone calls, or other ways of communication. Your friends are probably going through the same thing you are. Talking to others who have had the same experience can help you process what you are going through. They are your support system and you are theirs as well.

It’s impossible to not get frustrated at people from home while trying to explain what you are going through. They have not had the same experience and cannot relate. Nevertheless, it is important to talk to the people you care for at home and try to explain what you are feeling. Shutting people out does not help the situation, but by letting other in can bring insight to your state of being and why you feel this way.

You will have many people come up and ask you “How was Costa Rica (or any other place you visited)?” At this point in time you may realize that there is no possible way to fully answer this question. How can you define your experiences in a sentence or two? One way to answer this question is to have a specific story in mind that outlines your overall time abroad. By telling a story the person can often relate easier. Another way is to print out your pictures and put short descriptions on the back explaining what occurred in the photo. This way people have a visual to what you are trying to explain.

In my opinion, one of the hardest ideas to accept when going through Reverse Culture Shock is the fact that you are the one who changed, not everyone else. Society has been going on normally without you while you were changing into this new person. Your friends and family may not understand your new beliefs or how you are now living your life. You may find yourself getting angry at people complaining over little things that you may feel blessed to have. Do not get angry at them because they have not seen what you have seen. Accept that you are the one who has changed, but you can still make a difference with what you have learned.

Guilt. Often times you may feel guilty for how privileged you are at home. If you were with people who live in poverty while abroad this typically is even more prevalent. You may find yourself getting angry when people waste food or feel guilty that you have all these possessions that the people you met abroad could only dream for. It’s hard not to feel guilty when you live in a nice place, with plenty of resources, while there are people you met who are struggling to get a full meal every day. You must realize that you were put in this situation for a reason. You can use your place in society and your resources to make a difference in the lives of others.

This brings me to my next way of coping. Channel your knowledge and emotions to do something positive. If you feel passionate about something, advocate, get others involved, and share your story. Encourage people to go to the place you went so they can do the awesome things you experienced. Finally, if you feel like you want to continue your involvement further, consider incorporating your passion into your career.

Reverse Culture Shock can be scary and confusing. It won’t be easy, but these are all ways to turn your challenging experience into a positive one.

What about you? Have you ever experienced Reverse Culture Shock? How did you cope?

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