Recently returned from an incredible trip abroad? Feeling a bit out of place in your own city or town? Catching yourself reminiscing on your travels with such frequency people think you’re mad?
You may be experiencing something called reverse culture shock. Yes, there is a term for what is happening to you and it is a legitimate issue affecting your mental health.
You’ve probably heard of culture shock. You may have experienced it upon arrival to your host country. You were in a new place, a different cultural landscape. You might have learned a language or changed your diet. You may have lived with a local family or with international students. You adapted to your environment and things eventually became comfortable.
Now you’re back. Back at school or at work. Back to the place you called home. But is it the same? Your family and friends’ lives continued without you there. Things have happened that you’ve missed. You feel a bit out of place or left behind. Now you have to work to catch up.
There might be new relationships in your group of friends. This can be disconcerting. It seems as if you’ve been replaced. You might start to disconnect from your friends. They might be getting tired of hearing about your travels. You feel like you’re bragging or you’re boring people.
You miss the new friends you made abroad. These might have been people you saw everyday and now you could be on different continents. You feel lonely.
It’s important that you know this is normal. A lot of people experience reverse culture shock when they come home and struggle to readapt to their own culture and environment. You’re not alone in these emotions.
I’ve experienced reverse culture shock multiple times and to different degrees. In this article I’m going to break it down for you. I’ll give you all the info that helped me understand RCS and how I addressed my specific symptoms.
What Does Reverse Culture Shock Even Mean?
Reverse culture shock involves the various feelings of disconnection and disappointment experienced by people upon re-entry to their home country after an impactful trip abroad.
You return home to a place that feels completely different. You left and the world kept spinning. Things have changed in your absence.
On the other hand, you might return home to a place that feels stagnant and uninterestingly familiar. This was my problem when I returned from my semester abroad. It wasn’t that things had changed, it was that nothing had changed. Everything was exactly as it was. This lack of progress made me miss huge, diverse, exciting London even more.
You come home a different person with new experiences and perspectives. You see things in a new light and that includes your hometown, your friends and family, and your country.
How Many Stages??
Reverse culture shock is broken down into four different stages. Everyone’s experience is different and you might not go through all of these stages. Think of RCS as a roller coaster. There are highs and lows, but eventually you will get off the ride.
Stage 1: Disengagement
This starts before you leave your host country. You’re packing your bags, saying goodbye to friends or your host family. You’re already missing all these people and all your favorite places. You’re sad. This can carry over into your re-entry. I landed back in the U.S. feeling extremely sad and nostalgic.
Stage 2: Initial Euphoria
You might be sad about leaving your host country, but you are excited to go home. You miss your friends and family. You want to share your stories. You’re pumped to eat your favorite foods and go to your favorite spots. You have this idealized version of home in your mind. When things begin to fall short of what you imagined, the frustration and disappointment sets in.
I was excited to come home for Christmas and to spend time with my family. This gave me a bit of a buffer before stage three hit. And it hit me hard…
Stage 3: Irritability and Hostility
People are getting tired of the stories and hearing about your experiences in your host country. They’ve moved on, but you haven’t. You might start to feel annoyed with the people around you. You’re very critical of others. You’ve gained a new perspective of the world, but your friends and family didn’t have that same experience. Things that used to be very important, no longer seem that essential to you. You might feel alienated.
I was depressed. I went from living in an apartment with four other people in bustling London to living in a single upperclassman dorm room in the college town I grew up in. I was tired of everything. I had already been studying there for two years. I was sick of greek life, of frat parties, of day drinking in a backyard.
In England I was old enough to drink legally and we would go out to clubs, to pubs, to grunge rock bars, to live events in huge city parks. The options were endless and invigorating. Getting trashed on potentially roofied natty lite in a sweaty basement with racist, sexist bros was not my idea of a good time.
I missed the new friends I made that were in other states and countries. I was annoyed with my old friends. We had drifted apart and there wasn’t much connecting us anymore. It’s sad to see friendships end, but it’s a normal part of adult life.
Stage 4: Readjustment
Eventually things will begin to feel a bit more normal. You might reestablish some old routines. You’re not the same person and your home isn’t the same place. You’ve gained a new understanding of where you come from and who you are. Realizing this and reflecting on your experiences is how you will begin to readjust to your home.
I didn't readjust, exactly. I revamped my school life. I kept up with my study abroad friends and made new friends. I joined an alternative spring break program and got more active on campus. I started focusing on my future and what I wanted to accomplish. I applied to study abroad again. I got internships and jobs. Finally, I graduated and moved abroad.
I think going through reverse culture shock can be a positive thing. It means you really immersed yourself in your host country. You feel a strong connection to the place or the people, to the culture, the music, the food, etc. You made a home there. You can have more than one home. That’s what I realized.
Returning from Spain
I recently returned to the States after living and working in Spain for three years. This has been my longest time away so far. I'll only be in Delaware for a few short months, but this is my home and a part of who I am. I leave to go on adventures and gain life experience, but I do always come back.
I haven't been surprised with any aggressive symptoms of RCS this time. I'm educated and prepared from past experience. I'm being proactive about reconnecting with friends. I try to get a lot of sleep and I exercise everyday.
One of the worst things that happened to me when I came back from London was developing insomnia. I never slept that well to begin with, but this was different. One or two days a week I wouldn't sleep at all. If I did sleep, I never got more than four hours. It was horrible. It affected every aspect of my life. Sleep is soooo important. It's taken me forever to really figure that out. Since coming back from Spain, I've prioritized sleep and other self-care.
My final tip for dealing with RCS is to write! Write in a journal. Write a travel blog. Write articles for other blogs. Write little zines about your trip. If you don't like writing, do something else creative. Make a scrapbook. Make a photo album. Keep enjoying the memories you made. You had an incredibly impactful life experience. Don't forget that!
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