Culture shock is a common problem for backpackers and long term travellers, but it is one that is often misunderstood and underestimated. So what exactly is culture shock and how can backpackers deal with it when it happens?
Many backpackers experience culture shock at some point during their travels, usually when they arrive in a new destination and especially if that destination is very different culturally and socially from what they are used to back home.
Most travellers who do experience it get over it pretty quickly, if they experience it at all. The disorientation and assault of new sights,sounds, smells and customs that drag travellers out of there comfort zones are even part of the fun of travelling to a new place for many backpackers.
The big problem comes when culture shock isn’t recognised for what it is and then dealt with appropriately, as it can then turn into a much more serious chain of various mental health issues. Quite often culture shock isn’t even seen as a real thing at all, just a fancy term for some privileged kids whining and whinging, but this cannot be further from the truth. It is a real thing, a real set of emotions and problems, and these can lead to very real mental health issues.
Culture shock can not only ruin many people’s gap years in terms of not allowing them to enjoy or be open to the experience, or even cutting it short entirely, but has the potential to lead to isolation, anxiety, depression and many other serious long term mental health problems too.
What exactly is culture shock?
Culture shock is an umbrella term for a wide range of emotions and psychological or mental health problems that can occur as a result of struggling to adjust to a new destination, and the disorientation and confusion that can occur as a result of being in a cultural and sociological environment different to what a traveller may be used to. It is the failure to understand, adapt or get used to the sights, sounds, smells, customs and social behaviours of the new cultures they find themselves in that can lead to culture shock.
Who is at risk?
It is important to remember that this can happen to any traveller at any time, and can be very disorientating and a huge shock to the system.
There are a variety of risk factors that all backpackers and travellers can be exposed to that all contribute to getting culture shock, including:
- Tiredness or jet lag.
- Unfamiliar surroundings and being out of a comfort zone.
- Scenes of extreme deprivation, poverty or extreme cultural differences.
- Inexperience of new cultures, different dress, different food, different climate, social roles and behavioural norms.
- Separation from familiar things and surroundings.
- Separation from familiar friends and family.
- Ill health, travel illness and disease such as travellers diarrhoea.
- Any previous mental health issues.
This list is far from exhaustive or all inclusive, but does include the most common risk factors to watch out for.
What are the symptoms of culture shock?
Not every traveller will experience culture shock in the same way and every individual will have their own unique experience of it. Many travellers find that it is only a transitory feeling for a day or two, whilst others may feel a slow burn of different feelings over a much longer period. These include:
- Low mood.
- Rapid mood swings.
- Inability to focus.
These initial feelings can lead to anxiety, isolation, depression and even a separation from the local people, other travellers and even the environment itself.
How many stages of culture shock are there?
Depending on what academic text you look at there are anywhere between four and six stages of culture shock, but what they all essentially boil down to is a circle of experiences that lead from exposure to a new culture to reemergence back into your old life, where quite often the experience of reverse culture shock can begin.
Stage one: The Honeymoon Period.
This is where you still feel relatively connected to home and the new sights, sounds and experiences are all new and exciting. Your senses are all stimulated and you feel curious about your new environment.
Stage 2: The disillusionment.
This is where you start to feel disconnected from your life back home. Your new surroundings start to overwhelm you and you feel discomfort and a little isolation. Cultural differences start to feel a lot bigger, perhaps strange customs or the sight of something shocking such as poverty or injustice start to become very real, and you no longer have the safety net of familiar surroundings or friends to fall back on.
Stage 3: The rejection.
This is where culture shock can hit you the hardest, when you start to completely reject or even become hostile to the new culture you are in. It is just too different to what you are used to. Too different to your own customs, norms or belief systems. You can’t cope. You become irritable at these changes. Small, simple tasks such as going to the shops or getting a bus seem infinitely more difficult.
Stage 4: The acceptance.
This is where you start to become used to the changes and the differences. To an extent they start to become normal. You can feel yourself start to change and react differently to the stimuli around you and question your own paradigms as a result. You feel orientated to the new country and the new culture.
Stage 5: The adaptation.
This is were you have adapted yourself completely to the new culture. It no longer feels strange to you and you may even feel at home in it. Your own norms and belief systems are starting to change and adapt to your new experiences and you start to grow as a person.
Stage 6: The reintegration.
This is where you are heading back home with a new set of norms and paradigms, you have changed as a result of your experience and now must begin this process again as you settle back into old, or new surroundings again.
All of these stages are not set in stone and can be fluid depending on your own character and personal experiences. Experienced travellers for example may skip stages two and three altogether, but struggle a lot more with stage 6 when the head back home. Newbie travellers may fluctuate between stages two three and four at different times, whilst those heading to India for the very first time may be stuck on stage three a lot longer than most.
My point is each and every stage is a natural part of the human process and can be fluid depending on the individual.
How can you avoid and deal with culture shock?
It is important to remember that culture shock is a completely normal reaction to new and confusing circumstances, and every backpacker will experience it to some extent at some point. Often it is completely unavoidable (unless you have found a way to not have any emotions or feelings at all), but it is something you can deal with quite easily if you know what to look for.
It is nothing to be afraid of or overly worried about. The most important thing is to recognise it and take steps to deal with it.
Travellers should remember that it will take time to adapt and get used to a new culture and they should not put any extra pressure on themselves to do so. Unrealistic expectations of being able to hit the ground running and being an awesome world traveller who can cope with anything the second you step onto Khao San Road for the first time aren’t helpful, it just isn’t going to happen.
Giving yourself time to rest and acclimatize to your new surroundings and climate is absolutely essential. Just give yourself a few days of doing absolutely nothing when you arrive in a new country or right at the start of a long trip. Book yourself a nice, private room for a few nights, don’t plan anything, just go out, explore your immediate surroundings for a little, try a new local dish or two, speak to a few locals, and then retreat back into your room for some you time.
Ease yourself into things, there is absolutely no rule that says you have to explore everything in the first couple of days.
Make sure you have a little more contact with family and friends back home during these first few decompression days too. Modern technology and social media have made it easier than ever before to be in constant contact and it is often a good idea to dial that back and live in the moment a little more. This is not one of those times. It’s perfectly okay to ring your parents or your best friend and just have a chat. It will help you feel a little less lost and help create that bridge between your ‘normal’ life back home and the new surroundings you find yourself in.
But at the same time don’t be afraid of pushing yourself a little out of your comfort zone and making new friends of other backpackers and travellers. Go to that backpacker bar on KSR, say hi to the backpackers sitting in the hostel common room or waiting at the long distance bus station with you. It really isn’t as hard as people think, and it can really help you adjust and acclimatize.
Beyond that travelling slowly really helps you to take the time to soak everything in, relax and not let things overwhelm you. Not putting the pressure on yourself to see and do everything in a short period of time and taking a couple of days to yourself every now and then really helps, because tiredness and exhaustion can make it much easier for the anxiety, stress and other negative aspects of culture shock to take hold.
Exercise is always a great way to combat any negative thoughts and feelings, especially things like stress and depression, and fortunately being out on a gap year is a great way to get fit and keep fit. Go on one of the overnight jungle or desert treks offered at the hostel desk, hike up that mountain, go for a run on the beach or a swim in the sea.
Turning a negative into a positive.
It is also important to remember that culture shock isn’t always a bad thing either. As long as it is recognised and dealt with in a healthy way then it can actually have a positive effect on backpackers.
Just like a baptism of fire, culture shock can be an integral part of travel making you a stronger, better person. It can be a significant learning opportunity and experience, not just teaching you about the new culture and country you find yourself in, but about yourself too. Culture shock can show you who you really are, making you more aware of how you can cope with and deal with new situations. It really can help forge you into a bigger, better you.
So remember, culture shock does happen to almost everyone, you aren’t alone in your feelings and you have done nothing wrong, it is just a normal process of travelling the world and seeing new things. Whilst the feelings may not be pleasant at the time they do for the most part pass after a couple of days or so, and if you do struggle with it for a little longer there are plenty of ways you can deal with it too.
So get out there, revel in the culture shock of new places and new cultures and enjoy your travels.
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