Why Culture Shock Is Different Than Depression
Talking

You might be facing a unique set of challenges right now. Acclimatizing to a new locale, new cultural norms and social practices, ever-changing pandemic rules, children with identity issues, an injury, or an elderly relative, who just fell down a third time and needed to be hospitalized. 

These challenges bring with them additional levels of stress and dealing with them every day inevitably results in mental exhaustion, especially if you cannot be there in person and have to support through WhatsApp calls.

You might also downplay your own mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion or worse, ignore them altogether. That’s because as new members of the workplace or community, you don’t want to be seen as the “constant victim”. You might end up overworking and taking on too many responsibilities to show your “worth” and you’re not looking after yourself enough.

This can result in weight fluctuations, feeling drained or listless, and being unable to get out of bed. If any or all of those descriptions apply to you or to a family member, then this discussion would help you understand better what is going on. 

The Expat Experience

The “Expat Experience (XX)” involves working longer hours, adjusting to the rules and culture of the host country, trying to build a new circle of friends, and retaining some semblance of social life. You notice that things that were commonplace in your home country, perhaps easier access to medication or specific types of food, are way harder in the new country and add to the stress that is already near peak levels due to the recent move.

Stress is something we all have to manage but for you, stress is experienced more frequently and from a broader range of sources. It starts with the “small” things – handing over your previous work, clearing your office space out for the move, and saying goodbye to people you love or grew accustomed to.

For you, it only gets more complicated from there. There is a new language and an entire culture built around it that needs to be understood, people to interact with, transport networks to figure out, and more. Remember, all this is happening in conjunction with everyday obligations like cooking and cleaning, spending time with family, calling your relatives or parents in your home country.

You can see why the statistics skew in favor of you facing more burnouts, and the negative impact on personal and professional life that they bring.

Culture Shock 

Early on during an assignment, a large portion of you suffers from “culture shock” or cultural adjustment. The impact of these often manifests as symptoms similar to mild depression – feelings of isolation and helplessness, oversleeping and lethargy (or even the opposite: insomnia and lethargy), mood swings, and unexplained body aches. Homesickness adds to the symptoms, which combined with the fact that you might be new to your role makes things even tougher. It could also be that you don’t have a job or occupation just yet and feel that an important part of your identity is suddenly missing.

In this high-stress, emotional scenario, you often turn to the wrong things for management: substance abuse in the form of drugs or alcohol. 

I usually prescribe these seven easy-to-implement steps for helping your body with cultural adjustment.

  1. Implement a Daily Mission Walk. The focus here is not on high-impact training, but rather on consistency. Go for a short walk and make it a staple of your daily routine. Motivate yourself by small missions such as taking the dog for a walk, recycling the glass bottles, getting bread or flowers, buying groceries without the car, dropping a few items off at the local Brockenhaus (or Salvation Army).
  2. Plan a Digital Detox. This one is not easy, as you end up losing contact with your family and friends back home, but it is well established that overuse of social media and technology has a high impact on stress levels. A weekend of digital detox will help you regain focus and have some time to think and reflect. I usually try to stay away from social media for 24 hours over the weekend. During the RockMeRetreat we are practicing to stay away from media for several days.
  3. Practice PMR or a similar Relaxation Method. Work through Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) every day after lunch or before you go to sleep. Start with videos you can find on YouTube or buy CDs and audios from Medical Doctors such as Dr. Beth Salcedo (English) or Dr. Stephan Frucht (German).
  4. Start Meditating 5 Minutes a Day. Practicing active meditation is also a good idea. I created this video to get you started. There are many more detailed videos on how to do this out there. I’m teaching active meditation at the RockMeRetreat.
  5. Combine your first coffee with a morning meditation. You can also start your day with a short morning meditation such as this one. I try to combine my first coffee with a short meditation.
  6. Start a Journal. Journalling is a great method to deal with your mind and emotions. If it feels like a lot of work, try a bullet journal first.
  7. Join one of our Group Programs. Having a support group to help through any kind of transition is useful. With the current BANI world out there I would advise that you always build a support network fast and have a person you can trust and speak to about your challenges regularly.

Reverse Culture Shock

The hope that you would only experience culture shock once when you start an assignment is dashed by the revelation that by the end of that assignment, particularly if it was several years long, the same people experience a similar shock on returning home.

Also dubbed “re-entry shock”, the scenario is pretty similar to the original culture shock. After 5 or more years, the friend’s group, support networks, and even the workplace have all evolved and changed, while your memories and knowledge stopped at the point where they moved away. You find yourself in a similar boat as when you arrived in the host country all those years ago.

Reverse culture shock has not received the attention it deserves until now, but Vanessa Paisley’s “5-V Repatriation Model” is a great starting point to learn more about it.

When You Need Help From a Therapist

Coaching is not always the best solution, especially if symptoms have been persisting for a long time or were previously undiagnosed, perhaps even in the home country.  Should I identify that your symptoms are beyond what we deem “normal cultural adjustment” I will advise you to seek out professional help. 

The symptoms of depression are complex and vary, but have devastating long-term impacts on a person. 

If you are experiencing changes in sleep patterns, appetite, weight and mood swings, or any combination of symptoms listed on the link, please reach out immediately.

It is not easy to admit, whether to loved ones or even ourselves when things are tough. If you are feeling symptoms of culture shock, the first and by far the most important step is to honestly identify and acknowledge that you are not well. 

Without that acknowledgment, the treatment and healing can not begin. Also, asking for help can be shameful. Start with asking us for help by emailing romee@globalpeopletransitions.com for a first 25-Minute Call with me. 

We would also once again like to invite you to join our preparatory free workshops in advance of the RockMeRetreat and for anyone who would like to get to know our work with Expats, Expat Partners, Global Nomads, and Scientists better.

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