Thursday, July 18, 2013

Coping with Reverse Culture Shock (Re-Entry Shock)

For many expats and international students, as well as for anyone with an extended stay abroad, the idea of returning home* can stir up complex feelings.  You may have already weathered Culture Shock upon arriving in your host country, and returning home may come with mixed emotions, such as excitement, anticipation, sadness, and stress.  The phenomenon of Reverse Culture Shock (also known as Re-Entry Shock) can and should be expected - that is, the emotional reaction to re-adapting to one's home culture after having spent time in another culture.

A variety of reactions to Reverse Culture Shock are normal.  Upon arrival home, the experience of Reverse Culture Shock can catch us by surprise.  For those with lots of relocation experience, Re-Entry Shock may go away with time.  For other frequent relocators, it is an expected "part of the drill", with the knowledge it will be experienced for a few days while settling in.  As a German expat to the US, I experience Re-Entry Shock every time I "return" to either country.  I consider both countries my home and feel that Re-Entry Shock is like jet lag, a temporary discomfort.

Here are some hallmark signs and symptoms of Re-Entry Shock:
  • It feels like you are viewing the world through a stranger’s glasses: Everything seems similar and familiar, but not the same.
  • You feel like a foreigner in your own country.
  • You feel like your friends and family don’t know you, or understand you, anymore.
  • You feel like you’ve changed while everyone else has stayed the same.  Alternatively, you may also feel everyone else has changed whereas you have stayed the same.
  • You become critical of your home culture. Having grown accustomed to the signs and symbols of everyday life in your host country, returning to your home culture can trigger feelings of annoyance, frustration, and overwhelm.  
  • You feel bored, restless, depressed, confused, or isolated.
  • You feel homesick for your "other" country, or host country.

Here are some other tried and true tips to help overcome Re-Entry Shock:
  • Expect re-entry shock and connect with others who have been through it.
  • Appoint a friend or family member to keep track of cultural fads, popular entertainment, trends, political events, economic changes, etc.  This way, they can fill you in and catch you up on topics that are important to you from a local viewpoint.
  • Keep a journal and pictures of your host country accessible if you need a little mental vacation or to jog positive memories.
  • Similarly, maintain meaningful connections with loved ones in your host country.
  • Others may grow tired of hearing about your abroad experience, and they may let you know directly or indirectly. The sensation of others not sharing or understanding your experience is often experienced as the most jarring aspect of Reverse Culture Shock.  Stay in tune with your friends' needs and find other expats who can relate and share in your abroad experience.  This requires extra work on your end, but is well worth it.
If reverse culture shock takes longer than expected, or if it is interfering with your daily ability to work, study, and socialize, consider consulting with a licensed mental health professional.

*For the purpose of this article, "home" refers to one's country of origin and/or the country one is returning to.  We also recognize that for many expats, the concept of "home" is highly complex and often encompasses more than one place and country.