Culture Shock and Homesickness

Leaving home and traveling to study, work or volunteer in a new country can be a stressful experience, even though it may be something you have planned and prepared for, many people are surprised when they experience the impact of culture shock, and it can be helpful to realize your experience is completely normal!

Culture shock is simply moving from a familar culture to one that is unfamiliar.  It can include the shock of a new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning the ways of a new country. Here are some factors that can contribute to culture shock:

  • Climate - Dark nights, humidity.
  • Language - Listening and speaking in a new language is tiring, communication barriers.
  • Social roles - social behaviours may confuse, suprise or offend you.
  • Rules of behaviour - As well as the obvious things that hit you immediately when you arrive, such as sights, sounds, smells and tastes, every culture has unspoken rules which affect the way people treat each other. These may be less obvious, but sooner or later you will probably encounter them and once again the effect may be disorientating.
  • Values - Although you may first become aware of cultural differences in your physical environment, (e.g. food, dress, behavior) you may also come to notice that people from other cultures may have very different views of the world from yours.

In most cases you can prepare and expect an element of culture shock, but it is the homesickness that can take you by suprise and it will be the little things that can cause this:

  • The pillows and beds are harder/softer than you are used to, which effects your sleep.
  • The food is different, and you are missing some of your favourite foods
  • You miss your family and friends
  • Language barriers and terminology. 

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of homesickness and culture shock can manifest in both physical and emotional ways, and can be immediate or take several weeks to kick in.

Typical symptoms can include:

  • Increased need to sleep/sleeping badly
  • Compulsive eating or lack of appetite
  • Being hostile/complaining all the time about the host country/cultural disorientation about how to work with and relate to others
  • Language difficulties and mental fatigue from speaking and listening to a foreign language all day
  • Unexplained emotional surges, such as verbal outbursts, being easily angered or crying
  • Increase in physical ailments or pain, or recurrent illness
  • Inability to work effectively
  • Feeling of self-doubt and a sense of failure
  • Calling home much more often than usual
  • Avoiding meeting people or participating in activities
  • Feelings of: helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness, homesickness, slight depression, irritability, boredom, sadness.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs website has a good explanation about the different phases of culture shock and IES Abroad have really good blogs from students who have experienced homesickness and culture shock.

How to overcome these feelings

One of the key key things in overcoming homesickness and culture shock is to stop looking at the big picture and just take small steps. You should find that as you adjust slowly to your host culture and environment and begin to find your way around, you will start to feel more settled and at home in your new environment.

You may find the following suggestions helpful:

  • Don't give yourself a hard time. Lots of students are feeling the same way and it is perfectly normal.
  • Make your new room your own by decorating it with familiar things from home.
  • Get out there and explore, the more you familiarise yourself with your new environment, the less intimidating it will be.
  • Limit social media. If you wake up every day and spend the first hour catching up on what your friends and family are doing back home, you’re bound to feel homesick. Put away Facebook and Instagram, and start taking your own pictures, then share them on social media and wait to hear the lovely comments from your friends and family!
  • Make sure you get enough sleep and try to eat a healthy diet. This is really important as if you’re already feeling a bit down this can have a huge impact on your mood.
  • Go and speak to your host university’s study abroad office or counselling service to get advice. 
  • Most students will find their homesickness and culture shock fades and do not need formal wellbeing support. However, if it is affecting your ability to take part in social or academic activities, please let us know, or Student Support or the Counselling Service here in Manchester. The Counselling Service remains open to students who are on a placement abroad and can offer you confidential advice and can arrange video call counselling sessions with counsellors. You can also use their SilverCloud service which uses clinically proven tools to identify key problems and offers programmes of activity to help you overcome them.