Reverse Culture Shock: What It Is & How To Handle It
This is a post that I am hoping will help many people- reverse culture shock is something that most people have never heard of, and often by the time we hear the term, it’s because we are already experiencing it. This post will outline the facts and myths about the phenomenon, as well as practical ways you can make life easier for yourself when going through it it. If you are experiencing reverse culture shock or know someone who is, or if you are planning on returning to your home culture after a period of time away, I recommend reading this book which will help you process the events in as healthy a way as possible.
What Is Reverse Culture Shock?
Reverse culture shock is the term used to describe the difficult feelings, emotions and processes experienced by someone returning to their ‘home’ location after a period of time spent living in another culture.
How Does Reverse Culture Shock Manifest?
Symptoms of reverse culture shock include:
- Feeling ‘weirded out’, surprised, unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the way things are done at ‘home’; becoming overly critical of your home culture
- Feeling alienated, unwelcome or not fitting into your home culture; feeling marginalised and disconnected
- Guilt about leaving the previous location
- Identifying strongly with the culture one has just left
- Tiredness or exhaustion- doing the most basic tasks start taking up a lot of mental energy because of the re-learning of usual routine and patterns
- Strongly missing the place you’ve just come from, to the point of mourning or grief-like feelings. This is also known as ‘resistance to adapt’ to the home culture.
All of these things can be part of a healthy reaction to leaving somewhere you have enjoyed, but if these feelings leave you feeling notably sad, distressed or empty, you may need some help in dealing with reverse culture shock.
What Reverse Culture Shock Is NOT
Feeling sad that you are back to reality after a great holiday, or experiencing wanderlust, is not reverse culture shock. This phenomenon happens after one has been away for a significant period of time and usually after they have become invested and involved in the day-to-day life and culture of the place they have visited. If you find that you are wanting to travel more and would like to see how you could work and travel at the same time, check out these jobs that will let you earn money on the go!
The “W-Curve” Of Reverse Culture Shock
John and Jeanne Gullahorn developed a chart to show the different stages of reverse culture shock, shaped in a ‘W‘. Firstly there is the high point of the ‘W’, the honeymoon stage. This is where you get to see friends and family and enjoy novelties and things that you missed about your home culture.
Then the ‘W’ starts to descend, to the ‘crisis’ stage. This is where the cultural differences show themselves starkly and the stresses of reentry start to build up. This can be particularly difficult for people who expected coming home to be easy; the shock of the challenges can compound stress further.
After hitting the bottom of the first dip in the ‘W’, the ‘recovery’ period begins. This is where people start to manage their expectations, adapt to their new routine and get a more balanced perspective on the pros and cons of where they live.
After ‘recovery’ comes ‘adjustment’, where the intense feelings subside and become less frequent, and a new normal is established.
Our Experience Of Reverse Culture Shock
Things that we found difficult when returning to the UK from Bali included:
- Being overwhelmed with the size of the store and range of choice while visiting supermarkets (this doesn’t sound like much but I walked out of shops empty-handed and filled with anxiety several times)
- Feeling guilty to the point of tears whenever I heard a news article about the island (we left just after a spate of earthquakes that had left many people dead or homeless). This was particularly strengthened by the fact that our daughter had suffered a serious brain injury while in Bali and we had experienced how different the medical care was there. I both felt guilty for being able to afford private medical care when most Balinese people can’t, and horror that even the private medical care was inadequate.
- Feeling like no matter how we tried to explain the earthquakes, people couldn’t understand what had just happened or the impact on Bali/Lombok and the people there.
- Feeling a loss of home, future plans and security, as we had planned to move to Bali long-term.
- Finding it difficult to go back to groups and clubs that we had previously enjoyed.
How To Cope With Reverse Culture Shock
Although there are still elements of our experience that can bring up painful memories, we have come a long way since we first arrived back in the UK eight months ago (wow, how has it been that long already?!) We left Bali under extremely stressful circumstances (read about our daughter’s brain injury here, and more about the Bali earthquakes here) so it’s not surprising that it was difficult at first to adjust back. We have, however, discovered several things that made this process easier, and I’ll share them with you now:
- Accept that this process is common for people who have returned to their home culture after being away; you are not the only one this is happening to and although it is unpleasant it is not a sign that anything is seriously wrong; it is a fairly logical reaction to stressful circumstances. Allow yourself to feel sad and frustrated, and don’t berate yourself for not ‘getting over it’ quickly. Simply put, allow yourself the space to go through the process.
2. Take things slowly. I was desperate to get back to church when we arrived in the UK; we landed on Friday and took the kids to church on Sunday. Big mistake. Not only were we tired and jet lagged (learn about how to get over jet lag here) but we had just been through huge events and seeing loads of familiar, concerned faces was just overwhelming. I had to take our kids out of the service to sit in the hallway and they dissolved into tears, for reasons they couldn’t explain- it was all just too much. Don’t book loads of visits with friends and family for the first week you arrive back; give yourself a few days to sort out your sleep patterns, some laundry and some good food so that you’re in a less frantic place when you do see people.
3. Do an online shop. I know this sounds ridiculous, but going into a huge supermarket with a ton of unfamiliar options is a recipe for brain meltdown, especially if (like us) you’ve become used to eating the same things every single day in your visited country. Shopping online makes it easier to just pick items to make meals that you know you like, and not get distracted by new items and offers (it’s a good way to keep the cost down, too!)
4. Keep visits short at first. Anyone who has had a baby will know that visitors are great, for a short while- and then you’re exhausted and need them to leave! Apply similar principles to seeing people when you get back- although you will probably want to catch up on everything that has happened since you left, you will wear yourself out if you do this with everyone. Keep it short and sweet and book in a longer visit for when you’re feeling more established at home; you’ll be less shell-shocked and better company then anyway!
5. Tell people you are finding it difficult adjusting back. It’s very easy to say ‘oh, it’s going great, fine,” when people ask how you are settling back, and that’s what I did most of the time because a) it’s quicker, b) you don’t want to pour your heart out to everyone who asks and c) I didn’t think anyone would understand anyway. However, a couple of times I told people that I was finding it tricky (people who I knew had been abroad for long periods of time) and their responses in validating how I felt and remembering their own struggles at re-adjusting, have been really helpful.
6. Ruthlessly prioritise who you want to see. It’s lovely to have lots of people to visit, but as above, you can quickly get overwhelmed if you book in too much. Visit your closest friends and relatives first and then see other people.
7. Take care of yourself physically, as best you can. Drinking plenty of water, exercising (even just stretching if you can’t manage anything else), getting fresh air and eating whole foods with plenty of fruits and veggies will help you cope with stress better. Putting a blue light filter on any electronic devices can also help to prevent disrupted sleep.
8. When it is helpful to, look at photos and videos of your time away and talk about these memories with people who shared the experience with you. I still go through phases where I don’t want any reminders of Bali, but increasingly I am enjoying remembering the amazing times we had there, the people we met and the positive impact our experiences had on us.
9. In the same way, take note of the positive things about your home culture. I was blown away by four-ring cookers, rubbish collection services and the NHS when we came back, as well as the gazillion vegan options to make plant based life easier! Those things, along with our friends, family and church, homeschool groups and the lack of earthquakes, are what I remind myself to be thankful for when I’m missing Bali.
10. Remember that nothing is permanent. Your move back to your home culture may not be forever, and even if you think it is, you can still travel in shorter periods and/or visit the country you love. Give yourself time to adjust back to home life before booking a flight so that you don’t feed your longing to go back, but eventually a visit may be a good thing. If you don’t want to visit, remember that the place has a special place in your heart, became part of who you are and will have had a positive impact on yourself as a person, and that is something very valuable.
I hope this article will be helpful for people going through similar experiences; for more information and advice check out this book about dealing with the process – if you have tips for handling reverse culture shock or post-travel blues, please let me know in the comments below! If you have been through a particularly difficult event either while travelling or back home, check out how we helped our children deal with trauma.