What to do when you feel culture stress

What to do when you feel culture stress


You’ve probably heard of “culture shock,” that initial wallop when everything’s different. Some folks, like Debbie Stephens, hit a wall when they’ve “bathed and washed my hair in a bucket… eaten with monkeys, been roommates with scorpions… and eaten foods I can’t pronounce.”

But you can also experience “culture stress” when you move between places or social groups even in your own country. This is a more sustained experience of not fitting in, and can hit you whether or not local habits and values jive with your sense of self.

Wildcat Canyon, East Bay, San Francisco area, panorama

And it can feel rough. As one woman reflected, she felt “a deep and continued sadness I could not explain or shake off,” but had luckily been warned she’d get depressed abroad and hate it all… and eventually, the feelings would pass and she would be fine.

I’ve experienced this in Asia, but I’m actually writing about this because of friends here in California. They face deep culture stress after moving from rural or suburban America to the land of high tech and hipsters.

We expect culture stress in a foreign country, but it can be even more surprising when you move but are still at “home” in your own country.

What you’re feeling

In any case, here are some of the feelings you may hit, perhaps after initial euphoria, when crossing places and cultural groups:

  1. Anxious and irritable
  2. Exhausted and withdrawn
  3. Disappointed or resentful
  4. Homesick
  5. Idealizing your past location or people
  6. Critical or rejecting of the country and people
  7. Refusing to learn the language or values of the people

When culture stress and grief combine

Even more painful, you may feel loss and grief, even if you’re excited to move, and in spite of assurances that you’re lucky! / you chose this / everything will be fine.

Those who’ve moved a lot may have unresolved grief “as we leave behind people, places, possessions and memories that matter.” It builds up as exhaustion, as stress, as a desire to settle down or emotionally shut down.

Other movers hit a sudden wall of grief, something they may be anxious to avoid:

“the pain and grief that comes with no longer being able to see, speak and spend time with friends and family members. The loss of these immediate connections can be overwhelming. Sometimes the grief hits you full on, as if you’ve run into a wall, other times it is like the tide, waves and waves of sadness and loneliness washing over you. It helps to put in place arrangements for staying in touch before you leave” (Janssen 227).

And even if these are all common feelings, they can still suck you into a vortex of sad, tired, and angry.

So what helps?

I’ve hit many of these stresses, but can still get surprised by the tangle of feelings and attitudes involved. Below are some tips I’ve found, which either resonate with me or with what I’ve seen of friends:

1. Accept that “the host culture is a valid way of life,” even if it’s not your preference.

2. Talk to a friend, family member, or mentor about what you’re experiencing–especially one who can affirm both how stressful it is, and the reasons you’re there.

3. Get away for a few days into nature, on vacation, or having fun with local friends.

4. Focus on similarities. The differences are clear, but these strange people have many of the same underlying needs and desires as you do, even if they’re expressed differently. Look for these.

5. Reflect on who you are and commit to a few core values, and let the rest of your experience flex as you adjust to where you are:

“Know who you are and what you will allow to be changed about you. Acculturation inherently involves changes in your personality, so determine the unchangeables.” – Ronald Koteskey

6. The Basics. What you’re told with any stress: eat well and hydrate. Get restful sleep. Pray, meditate, or do yoga. Journal. Call friends. Connect to others.

7. Reach out. It’s easy to retreat at home or on social media, but then you miss the irreplaceable life around you:

“In choosing to do so, we run the risk of ‘gliding through life’ rather than living it as fully as possible. We settle for superficial relationships, biding our time until we move on, repatriate or visit again. While understandable, this isn’t healthy. It is light years from choosing to engage, adapt and thrive.” – Linda Janssen

8. Explore. Loneliness or sadness should nudge you to reach out. Take a local class. Volunteer in the community, or find other ways to help and meet others.

9. Create rituals. Think of how the family in Fiddler on the Roof uses Friday prayers to ground their week and relationships. For you, this could be communion, or a shared movie night, coffee with your kids, or a quiet time by yourself.

10. Give yourself downtime. Coffee, ebooks, a notebook, and music would be my downtime of choice.

11. Activate. A normal response to stress is to fight or flee… but you can’t just slap someone or head out of town. What you can do is process this stress response by staying active. Meet with a local friend and pick up a new sport, try an ambitious exercise plan, or start active games with a pet, family, or friends.

12. Remember why you came here. Was it for a loved one, or a job, a spiritual calling, or an adventure? Remind yourself why you came here.

“Whatever the reason, we should honor that commitment by giving it our best effort. Time passes whether we’re happy or not, so better to make the most of it” (Janssen 301).

13. Live as though you’ll be there forever. ‘Act as though you’ll be there forever, and live your life accordingly.’ Otherwise you’re both in pain and on hold, waiting for the next job or chance to move. A few months… and a few months more, and you’re never really living. But you can choose to live this time well.

Can you honestly imagine telling someone else, ‘wait, don’t grow, put your life on hold, don’t explore, don’t meet people or make new friendships’? Of course you wouldn’t. Yet sometimes we find ourselves doing precisely that when we find ourselves in a situation that isn’t to our liking” (Janssen 198).

14. Develop meaning. If the original reason for moving has lost its power, pause and reconnect. Look for what you still value or can do with this time, cultivate a new meaning, and create a bigger picture for why you’re here.

What have you used in times of culture or location-based stress?

(*A number of the longer quotes here come from Linda Janssen’s 2013 book, The Emotionally Resilient Expat. Many thanks to Ersatz Expat for recommending this book!)

One comment

  1. Really interesting article. I wrote a load of tips when we moved to Malaysia a few years ago. https://ersatzexpat.blogspot.com/2014/08/relocation-how-to-deal-with-culture.html

    I do think it is easier now than 30 years ago (and that was already easier than 30 years before that). When I was a child a move would mean loosing touch with everyone and everything. We might run into people in a future posting or we might not, and we would never know if a goodbye was to be a final one.

    These days social media has changed everything. 20 ago I lost the address of a dear friend, and when I joined Facebook we were able to get in touch again. In some ways I think this makes today’s expats more flexible and has reduced a lot of the expat ghettoisation that used to exist.

Thoughts? Leave a note here!