How To Deal With Reverse Culture Shock After Your Gap Year.

Gap year reverse culture shock

Reverse culture shock can hit you hard after your gap year and many travellers don’t even know what it is they are suffering from. Reverse culture shock should not be ignored or underestimated as it can lead to a lot of serious mental health problems. Here are some ways you can deal with the shock of returning home from your travels around the world.

When you set off on your gap year and travel somewhere alien and exotic for the first time, every backpacker experiences that initial assault on the senses known as culture shock.

Sights, sounds and smells are all new to you. The food is different, paradigms, cultures and norms are completely alien and sometimes bewildering and the language barrier can often leave you feeling overwhelmed. At least at first, anyway.

When it does hit you culture shock can hit you hard, almost like a baseball bat to the face, especially if you go somewhere that is completely outside of your comfort zone.

Culture shock never lasts long of course, usually just long enough for you to settle in and acclimatise to your new surroundings. Many travellers even end up loving the exact things that were so bewildering at first.

But What About When You Get Home?

But what happens when your gap year is over? What happens when you get on that flight back home and have to prepare for life back in the real world again? What most guidebooks and most travellers won’t tell you, what you can’t expect and prepare for, is the complete reversal of that feeling when you return home from a long trip.

‘Reverse culture shock is the psychological punch to the gut you feel when you return to normality, when you come back down to earth with a bang and return home’.

For many backpackers, especially for those who have been travelling for a long time, reverse culture shock is so much more than just missing your carefree gap year. It is something that can go far beyond getting used to the bad weather again or trying not to haggle at the local supermarket at the extortionate price of a pint of milk, no matter how much you insist that price would get you a beach hut on a tropical island somewhere. It is something stronger than that, more invasive, more insidious.

Of course many travellers can deal with this transition quite quickly and can settle back home with just a few reentry bumps. But for many backpackers reverse culture shock hits them much harder.

For many travellers reverse culture shock can be a significant psychological and emotional event as they try to deal with feelings of being alienated from the place they once called home. They have to come to terms with no longer fitting in to their once familiar surroundings and social life and they have to watch helplessly as the person they have become struggles to interact with a once familiar environment.

For some long term travellers and serial expats, this disjointed, detached state can lead to feeling like you never quite belong anywhere anymore.

In many ways this can be a stressful and traumatic time for many travellers, and one that is often dealt with alone. Similar in principle – if not as intense or potentially damaging – as the PTSD felt by soldiers returning to civilian life or a sudden onset depression.

Backpacking around the world can profoundly change the way you think about the world and yourself, it can change your paradigms and beliefs and in effect make you a different person. This is not a bad thing, in many ways this is a positive, but these changes can make it hard to interact with your old life and many backpackers and travellers do struggle with that.

Nothing Changes Except You.

During your travels you may have changed in genuinely profound ways, but people you may once have been very close to are exactly the same as they always were. Those inane, endless conversations about reality TV or what orange faced vacuous C list moron is sleeping with who just seem – pointless. The sheer, dull normality of routine becomes mind numbing.

Your old friends are still in the same jobs they were before you left, having the same conversations and drinking in the same bars.

Nothing changes except you. A once familiar environment stops being familiar and comforting and instead becomes claustrophobic and estranged. You can feel isolated and alone.

The absurd senseless nature of life around you can seem overwhelming.

And then of course there is the newly instilled constant feeling of wanderlust to deal with.

So what do you do? How do you deal with reverse culture shock when you have to return to a normal, stereotypical 9 – 5 drudgery and no one around you seems to understand what you are going through?

Be Prepared For It.

A big part of dealing with reverse culture shock is understanding how it will affect you. You will learn very quickly when you get back home that this huge, life changing event  that has profoundly affected your life and who you are means absolutely sod all to anyone else.

You will find that while you are away life simply carried on as normal and nothing really changed. It is a huge anticlimax. Even your closest friends and family really won’t give a proverbial, and you can find your round the world adventures being dismissed as ‘skiving off on a long holiday’.

Unless it somehow affects them and their immediate bubble of existence, people just don’t care. Your life simply doesn’t matter to them.

That’s a hard, bitter pill to swallow sometimes, but it’s one that you do have to swallow. Just don’t take it personally. Most people are in general introvertly focused on their own immediate lives and anything outside of that doesn’t matter much.

It can hurt, it can feel like your life means nothing to those that you thought cared about you. It isn’t like that of course, you have just changed. Your personality, your paradigms, your innate being is intricately connected to the experiences you have had on your travels now, and your old friends or family have no understanding or connection with that.

They are still stuck in the tiny bubble of existence you used to be in and can’t relate to the reality you live in now.

So don’t go banging on about your gap year or your time in Timbuktu or Swaziland like Uncle Albert on a war story marathon, at best you will bore people and they will get fed up with you, at worst you may even bring out some resentment or jealousy. But at the same time don’t completely deny it either. It is who you are now and you shouldn’t deny who you are just because others can’t understand or relate to you.

Some of you may have that rare friend or family member who genuinely does care about your travels and your personal journey, and if you do then hang onto them like the rare jewel that they are. For the rest of you, you may simply have to accept that you have outgrown your life and your old friends. You are not the same person anymore, but they are, and a healthy part of getting past reverse culture shock is realising that some people are part of your history, but aren’t necessarily part of your future.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t still be friends of course – and noone can ever get rid of family – it simply means that your relationship with them will evolve and change as life dictates it must. You can still have old friends and be close with family, and the best thing is you can spend some quality time reconnecting with the friends and family that really do matter.

Yes you will lose friends along the way, but you will form deeper, stronger bonds with those you choose to make the effort to reconnect with too. Those are the friends who will be there no matter who you change and evolve into, and that is a wonderful thing to discover, just accept that there is a part of you, a part of your life that isn’t a good fit with that old part anymore, and you have to decide which part will dictate who you will become in the future.

The good news is this amazing new person that you have become will have a wealth of new friends to share your thoughts and experiences with too. You will have met plenty of people on the road, other travellers who have gone through the same experiences as you, who are feeling the exact same things with you. One of the best things about travelling is the range of amazing new people you meet, from all races, creeds, religions and social and cultural backgrounds, and how travelling brings you all together, how the gypsy blood and nomadic soul binds you. You may not be together at the moment, but there are kindred spirits out there. Once you get your head around that, life doesn’t seem as lonely anymore.

Use Some Of The Skills You Learned.

Following your passions and learning or improving new skills is another huge benefit to taking a gap year and – forgive me for using a hackneyed cliché – finding yourself. But who says you have to stop when you get home?

It doesn’t matter what it is of course, whether you use some of the skills and knowledge gained on a cooking course to counteract the bland restaurant fare in your home town compared to the awesome street food in Panama or Thailand, or you turn that Tai Chi class in China into a full time hobby, using some of these skills and experiences to improve and better yourself when you get back home will help you cling onto a little bit of the life you were living on your travels and seriously help to deal with the onset of reverse culture shock.

You could even use your travels to help you to build a new life for yourself, one that suits your new supercharged backpacker persona. You can use the skills or volunteering experiences to get a promotion or a better career, for the creative souls out there you could even write a book or use your photos to create an online portfolio to sell? Maybe there is an artistic career ahead of you? Whatever it is, use your new skill sets to improve the life around you instead of trying to fit into an old one that no longer fits.

Grow And Evolve.

In a way you have outgrown the tiny little bubble of existence that used to be your life. That comfort zone of your home, your job, your friends and your routine that you once surrounded yourself with now seems small and restrictive.

You have grown and evolved.

You are a different person to the one that used to fit into your old life. You have travelled around the world, experienced things that most people only ever dream of! You’ve climbed mountains, trekked jungles, seen wonders of the world and you have rocked them all! You’re a damn superhero! Just one trying to live a civilian life.

Travelling the world will have instilled in you a sense of freedom, a sense that the world is infinite and yet infinitely accessible at the same time, and trying to force yourself back into the same comfort zone that you festered in before you left for your gap year is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t fit.

And you won’t necessarily fit into your old life anymore either.

So don’t try and cling to the notion that just because you have returned to the place you once called home that you have to fit back into your old routine. You don’t. You’re bigger than that now, better, so create a new comfort zone, a new paradigm; one where you can deal with being home as just a place where you happen to be for the moment.

Realise that you don’t have to fit back in, you don’t have to get straight back to the 9 – 5 and settle down with the mortgage and the kids. You can do whatever you damn well please with your life, and you can redefine a new comfort zone, a new way of thinking, that allows you to easily be back in the place you once called home for as long as you want or need to be there.

Letting go of all that weight, all those societal expectations can be extremely liberating, and embracing the powerful new persona that has evolved from the ashes can be the most empowering thing you can ever do.

You can still get a little reverse culture shock as you attempt to haggle over a pair of jeans on the high street, but if you embrace your gypsy blood and backpackers soul then you can return home and be completely content in your surroundings.

Remember You Are Not Trapped At Home.

A huge part of reverse culture shock is the sudden feeling of being trapped, of being restricted. Of having all that freedom and wonder that you enjoyed on your gap year suddenly taken away from you and the soul crushing feeling that it is over and now you have to return to normality.

It isn’t true. It’s an illusion created by those old doubts and fears that you used to have before you started travelling, and you are being sucked back into them again.

Taking a gap year or a backpacking trip doesn’t have to be a once in a lifetime thing, travelling the world is not a one off experience never to be repeated. Okay, so you may have to get back to normality and work for a little while, but what is stopping you from saving up for your next trip? What is stopping you from going on a staycation? A series of weekend breaks, short holidays or snap years to appease that wanderlust in you just a little? Absolutely nothing!

Taking a day out or even a long weekend to a city or popular tourist attraction near you that you have never been too can be a really effective tool in beating reverse culture shock. Seeing parts of your own country through a travellers eyes can help you not only get a taste of that travelling freedom again, but also appreciate your own country a little more too!

I came back from my first backpacking trip and felt all these things and more. It was tough. I couldn’t settle, I couldn’t satiate that wanderlust inside me, it literally felt like the gypsy blood in me was boiling and the only way I could ease the fever was to get back on a plane. So I did. And I haven’t stopped since! Sure, I have periods back in England now to work and maintain my career but it isn’t somewhere I consider home, it is just somewhere I happen to be for the moment.

Home to me is wherever the next plane takes me.

This isn’t for everyone of course, eventually some people do want to settle down and have a family or do whatever it is that makes them happy, and that is great too; but until then, you don’t have to struggle with that sudden, crushing feeling of your travels being over. You can have the best of both worlds! And realising that makes the transition back to normality that little easier to bear.

It Does Get Easier With Time.

No matter how hard reverse culture shock hits you, how bad you feel on returning or what tools you use to help you along the way, reverse culture shock does get better! You will readjust to your new life eventually and you will learn to adapt your once familiar surroundings to fit in with your new travel enhanced alter ego.

So when you get back from your travels, take a little bit of time to acclimatise back into familiar surroundings and then go forth and create a new, better life for yourself. Use all the awesome experiences and adventures you gained on your travels to find your place in the world again, because no matter what path you choose after your round the world adventures one thing is absolutely certain; you and your life will be infinitely more awesome as a result!  

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

A Guide For Settling Into The Backpacking Lifestyle.

How To Deal With Anxiety And Fear Before Travelling.

How To Deal With Homesickness On Your Gap Year.

How To Deal With Unsupportive Reactions To Your Gap Year.

It Really Is A Lonely Planet.

Top 10 Tips For A Stress Free Trip.

What Is Culture Shock And How Can Travellers Deal With It?

Will Taking A Gap Year Help Your Depression?


Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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Posted in Travel Health
50 comments on “How To Deal With Reverse Culture Shock After Your Gap Year.
  1. Vagabond Traveler says:

    A great article and spot on. My first gap year lasted twice that, and I never got over the reverse culture shock and have been traveling ever since. There is a saying, “You can never go home” and it is true. For visits yes, but moving back did not work out at all for the very reasons you mention.

  2. Benita says:

    I think this really described my current state of affairs! And here I thought it was all in my head!

  3. BobR says:

    I’ve been back for just over four months and am still feeling unsettled. And for the most part am still wearing the same few shirts and pairs of socks. 🙂

  4. Sharon says:

    It can be hard work returning home. i definitely was depressed for quite awhile when I returned home after my first year away. It was hard, and it actually helped cause the end of a long term relationship. I have never found it so hard since, but I still do wonder how people can be happy with lives which just revolve around the one place and the 9-6 slog.

    • People really do underestimate – and are often pretty dismissive of – the very real mental health issues that surround returning home. I’m sorry to hear about your relationship though, that’s pretty rough.Thanks so much for the comment Sharon, I appreciate it.

  5. surfingtheplanet says:

    The feelings we had after coming home from a year and a half trip were just as you describe it in the post. I think for us the best way to overcome the negative feelings was to make us believe that a long trip like this is something we will repeat in the future, even if we can’t know it for sure.

  6. kcatanza says:

    I cannot tell you how much I love this post! It says EVERYTHING that I have been thinking and feeling after spending almost a year abroad in South America and Southeast Asia. I know I’m not alone as I discuss MANY times with my travel friends, but sometimes the day to day being back “home” (which is a term I use loosely because the road seems to be my home moreso these days) can be so difficult and depressing. Trying to incorporate my backpacking life into creating a new life back in Boston.
    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for posting this!!!!

    • I’m seriously glad you found the post useful Kcatanza, thank you so much for the reply. It can be really hard readjusting to life back ‘home’ or being settled, but you can get through it. 🙂

  7. Elena says:

    I´ve been back for more than 4 months now and I have already planned my next trip…its so nice having my own place and seeing all my clothes in a real wardrobe (not digging into my backpack) but I just can´t see myself stuck in the office again so Im mostly trying to appreciate the place where I live as you say (which is luckily one of the best ones in the world to go back to…) and develop and apply some of skills I´ve learnt travelling :)) Pretty good tips you´ve listed here!

  8. Sandra says:

    I do appreciate my country more when I go back, and I also travel a lot locally finding places I had never paid attention before. But the first impact is always getting over my “snobbish” look when someone tells me (usually complaining) about what has been going on with their lives. It’s awful I know… I’ll take your advice with me 🙂

  9. Sarah says:

    Wow I never thought of it like this at all, but you are right I’ve been feeling this exact way since I got back from my travels! I just didn’t know how to explain it! I’ve already done what you suggested though and am getting ready for another trip, not a full gap year this time, just a couple of months in Brazil! Tickets are already booked for a couple of months and I’m saving up my spends now and I can’t wait!

  10. Dolores says:

    Fantastic article, I love the way you write about backpacking in general but highlight proper issues like this too. You are so right that coming home after a long trip can be a massive shock and can lead to so many other problems if you aren’t careful. Keep up the good work!

  11. Alex says:

    YES!! THIS!! I seriously thought I was the only one and I was going mad until I read this! Thank you!

  12. KissFromARose says:

    Yes! I love this! You totally wrote exactly what I have been feeling!

  13. Jennifer says:

    OH MY GOD! Yes!!! I had no idea there was an actual name for this but this is exactly how I’ve been feeling!

  14. Natalie. says:

    Love this, really insightful. Do you think it gets easier over time, as in the more you travel?

    • In a sense Natalie yes, I think over time, if you have been travelling as long as I have for example, you get into a state where travelling is the norm and you know that the feelings you get when you return home are only transitory because your next trip is only x months away, if that makes sense?

  15. Serena says:

    I think mental health issues in general are so ignored in this country, and something like this can be easily dismissed as one of those ‘first world problem’ things and not taken seriously. Great article and well done on raising awareness.

  16. Jim. says:

    I’m just about to set off on my own gap year and had no idea this was even a thing! Thanks for the heads up!

  17. Terrell says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Such an important topic to talk about.

  18. Michele says:

    I felt exactly the same way after I came home from travelling a few months ago and I couldn’t explain why. I felt sad and lethargic all the time and it felt like it was getting worse, and I got more and more depressed, yet I couldn’t explain it to myself never mind my family and friends. Thank you for writing this, reading it last month led me to start looking for help and talking about things, and I am now feeling much happier and better, and I am even planning my next trip! Thank you so much.

    • I’m so glad it was helpful Michele and I’m happy that you are feeling a little more yourself now. It’s not an easy thing to go through, especially when people around you don’t get it. Have a a great time planning your next trip. 🙂

  19. Ben says:

    I thought I was the only one!!!

  20. Angela says:

    Thank you so much for expressing this dilemma so well. I returned home after a year last year and was back out in Thailand within 2 months teaching. Just recently I have been asking myself the question – what have I done and what next? There is a wealth of literature and online help to set up a gap year but not a great deal about the aftermath. It surprised me. I always suspected that it would be difficult to settle but I find that it is a far more disturbing time than just a resettling issue. You’re right – I’ve changed and changed for the better. It’s just that I made that change alone, away from friends and family. I had a mature gap year after raising kids, they left then so did I! Much to their amazement 🙂

  21. julienne says:

    This is the best article I’ve read, it explains exactly how I felt after returning home from SE Asia. I couldn’t settle at all back in the UK so I packed up and moved to Cambodia, I have a job and an apartment here but it is so different from doing this in England. The Khmer people are genuine, kind, compassionate and friendly. I’m not saying that people from England aren’t, some are, but here peoples are less materialistic and care more for who you are rather than what you possess. Cambodia had a pull on me from the first moment i arrived, I don’t think I’ll ever leave and the added bonus I can still travel around when I’m not working.
    Thankyou for sharing this, I’m going to tag all my travelling friends I know that they all have the same feeling.

  22. Luis says:

    It was the first time that I read something that could cover all the aspects of my new old life. After being trapped for a while inside my thoughts I understand now that I’m not alone

    Thanks for all insight and tips!

    The best of luck to all that are on board with the same feelings of reverse culture shock.

  23. Joe Moravski says:

    So true! It is this exact thing that is making me save up and keep travelling every time I come back home.

  24. Chris Rankin says:

    I get really bad depression every time I return from vacation. I cannot imagine how I’d feel after long term travel or a gap year

  25. Mike says:

    Excellent post and so well written! I never felt quite at home again after my first gap year, something was never quite right. So I saved up and planned another trip, this time with mo fixed end and I live life as I see fit. Ironically, I feel more at home now than I have in the past 4 years living comfortably and working a 9 to 5. It’s an odd feeling to describe to others who have never experienced it, it is good to know that there are others who feel the same though

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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