Coping with culture shock

Many people who travel or live overseas experience what is commonly referred to as “culture shock” when they first arrive in a new country. New sights, smells, sounds, people, and customs can be intimidating or even scary when all experienced at once – especially when they are very different from the country you grew up in. However, you might also experience “reverse culture shock” after traveling or living in another country for a long time. In these cases, the environment in your home country can feel just as confusing as the new one first did if you’ve been away for a long time. And while some people love the feeling of culture shock because it makes them excited to explore a new culture, others never learn to handle it and it can have a negative effect on your settlement in a new country.

Here, we discuss the four stages of culture shock you may have gone through when you arrived in Canada, and discuss ways to handle it. Scroll down for more:

The Four Stages of Culture Shock

Just before or shortly after arriving in Canada you may be excited and have many hopes and expectations. This is an exciting time. Everything is so new and different. During this period, some people feel very confident and can easily deal with problems and stress. During this period, immigrants also tend to focus on similarities with their own culture and country.

During the first six months you will have some good experiences and some less enjoyable ones as well. You may feel very happy about the challenges you have had to face or feel very frustrated, confused, and even depressed about the difficulties you are facing. It is not uncommon to feel very positive one day and very negative the next.

During this period, the focus may turn from similarities to differences. You suddenly look at everything with different eyes. Canadians do not seem as friendly as you originally thought. Life is so fast, complicated and stressful. There are so many rules and regulations. You miss your family and feel rootless in Canada. It is hard to get up in the morning and go to work or look for work. This time can be very emotional and family problems may, as a result, develop with your partner or children.

Symptoms experienced during this period are frustration, irritability, and a feeling of anger; a feeling of indifference and a desire to withdraw from normal activities; loss of appetite and general tiredness (or difficulty in sleeping); a feeling of missing your country and loved ones; a feeling of guilt about leaving family members behind.

As you learn better language skills, and gain a better understanding of Canada, Canadians, the style of work, and the values, and as you gradually get involved in the community and in your own particular community, you start feeling in better control of your life. Your sense of humour returns. You understand better the process you have to take to adapt to life in Canada. You have a better sense of direction.

You feel more comfortable in your new culture. Perhaps you have made some friends. You get more involved in life outside your home. You understand Canada’s values better and no longer regret having come to Canada. Perhaps you are studying, planning to return to school or working at better jobs. You generally feel happy and satisfied.

Help and Resources

There are many ways to heal culture shock, but probably the best way is to make an effort to adjust to the new culture. Here are some suggestions on how to make yourself feel more at home in your new country:

  • Admit that these impacts exist. It is not a sign of weakness to admit that you feel uncomfortable, tense or confused.
  • Learn the rules of living in your new country. Try to understand how and why the local people act the way they do. Their behaviour and customs, although they may be different from your own, are neither better nor worse than what you are used to.
  • Get involved in some aspect of the new culture. Whether you study art or music, or learn a new sport or hobby, being an interested student will make a world of difference.
  • Take time to learn the language. It always helps to understand as much as possible of what people are saying. They will appreciate your effort to communicate with them in their language, even if it is just a few simple phrases, and it will make your daily life much easier.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise and take the time to sleep. Limit your alcohol consumption to moderate amounts.
  • Travel. Take the time to be a tourist and explore the country’s sights.
  • Make friends and develop relationships. Getting to know local people will help you overcome cultural differences and understand the country. It will also show you how to be more sensitive to cultural expectations.
  • Maintain contact with friends and family back home. Writing home about your experiences and problems can help you sort through them. It is also a good idea to keep a journal of your feelings and thoughts.
  • Do something that reminds you of home. Listening to your favourite music or practicing a familiar hobby can boost your spirits when you are feeling homesick.
  • Avoid idealizing life back home. Try to make the most of your new home and try to keep an open mind.

This article was adapted from the Government of Canada resource “Coping with Culture Shock”, found here.

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Thanks to Whitney Loewen for help with this guide. If you want to suggest a correction to this guide, or want to submit one of your own, please contact us.