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Reverse culture shock is the unsung ailment of the travelling world. After all those exciting highs (and lows) of being on a trip, you might feel depressed, disoriented, even angry. Don’t despair. These feelings are natural. You’re in transition. Whether you’re a returning expat, have just finished studying abroad or are trying to cope after the trip of a lifetime, here are 10 tips for making life good again.
Reverse culture shock
At first, coming home from a trip can be a relief. For one thing, you’re so exhausted you don’t care where you are. You get to phone all your friends and everyone says, “How was France/India/Botswana? I want to hear all about it!” Trust me, they don’t. They only want to hear that you had fun, that you’re alive and that you didn’t get pickpocketed … unless you had an affair. Everyone wants to hear about that.
Reverse culture shock symptoms
For a few days after a trip you are motivated by the excitement of the return. It’s like that fresh feeling you get in the spring of hope-filled beginnings. For a few hours or days you might see your city in a new shining light, and you’re filled with a determination to get organized, to start anew. And then … blah. Reverse culture shock hits. You were special when you were traveling. You were different. Life was exciting. Guess what? You still are special and you really are different.
Travel changes a person. When you return home you see your own culture through different eyes. You also see yourself in a new light. And this new you is an explorer, an adventurer, a person who gathers up cultural experiences at the speed of a jet and embraces them all. But now you’re home. Now what?
You get depressed. This is natural and one of the main symptoms of culture shock.
In addition to depression, you might find yourself frustrated with the things and the people around you. Short tempered. Your family and friends don’t understand you anymore. They can’t imagine the experiences you’ve had. You’ve seen the world. (Cut them some slack. They love you.) You might get irritated with the culture around you. Canada and the United States are complacent, spoiled, there is too much waste.
Loneliness is a symptom of reverse culture shock that can be the toughest to deal with. You feel alienated from the people around you, because you have changed and they have not. The world looks grey compared to the colourful world of travel you left behind. Nobody understands.
It might sound as if I’m making light of the reverse cultural shock depression you’re suffering but I’m not. I’ve been there. So many times. It’s like a concrete pit of despair and you will find yourself listening to mournful songs like Bowie’s Heroes over and over again.
My personal experience with reverse culture shock
The worst culture shock I’ve ever had was after working abroad in England for a year and a half. I had such a terrible time adjusting I ended up returning to Europe for another couple of years. Reverse culture shock in students returning from overseas is especially common, but expats are at risk too. Not to mention regular travellers – it was so hard to adjust after spending just six crazy weeks in India. When I went to Korea for grad school I really couldn’t handle the return, so I bought a round the world ticket and left again. And, erm, then I bought another. So you can see I’m an expert in the field.
But eventually I came home and dealt with the depression of not being a world traveler anymore. Now I actually like coming home from a trip. Take heart, you can get over reverse culture shock, too. Here are my tips for adjusting.
10 tips for getting over reverse cultural shock
1) Don’t stress out if you don’t seem to be able to get much accomplished when you first return. Travel is tiring – especially if it was a trip abroad. It takes awhile to recoup.
2) Indulge in your depression. You’re going to be depressed anyway, so you might as well dive in. Listen to those same sad songs over and over, just maybe with headphones. Let yourself wallow in it for a little bit.
3) Learn something new and completely different. Cruise the Internet or read your local paper to find a talk or a workshop that will keep you motivated and interested in life. Poetry? Coding? Vegan cooking? Doing something completely out of the norm will help you lumber out of your slump. You can always start a travel blog or try your hand at freelance writing. Writing about your experiences is one of the best ways to relive your trip.
4) Meet someone new. No, I’m not saying walk down the street and try to pick someone up (you should have done that in Paris because then your friends would want to hear about your trip). Join a club, maybe something to do with travel. Volunteer. Do something that will give you a new perspective on the familiar.
5) Reconnect. The best thing about coming back to town is meeting up with old friends and having a beer (and don’t cry because it’s not champagne at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris; though it’s something I’ve cried over many times).
6) Think about others. Don’t let it all be about you. If you spend some time catching up on other people’s lives and all the scandalous gossip you missed while you were away, you’ll slowly get pulled back into the swing of things instead of looking at your new (old) life from the outside.
7) Make the most of what you learned. When you’re suffering reverse cultural shock it can be a great escape to learn more about the place you just left. Get some books about the destination. Look up some movies set there. Seek out cultural groups or art shows based on the place you’re missing so much. Truly, it can extend the trip in your mind.
8) Plan your next trip. Trip planning always cheers me up. Returning home is not a life sentence, and looking to new horizons and destinations is one way to add some spark to your future. The world is a big place, and your home makes a great launch pad for exploring it. Appreciate that fact.
9) Make a list of things you love about home. A favourite park? A stellar library? Movies without subtitles? If you try to focus on the good, rather than what you’re missing, it will help you change your mindset.
10) Most importantly, give yourself time. It’s the number one cure for reverse culture shock, and the best path to helping you readjust.
Thanks, Nancy! I’m so with you on trying to come back to reality after traveling. Reverse culture shock is real!
Carol, Loved your award-winning article. No one talks about this but we all experience it! I used to come home from a trip and look around, thinking, I live in this dump? (It wasn’t of course, just Bette Davis possessing my soul for a time). Once I built a Buddhist shrine, in my house after being in Thailand and carried on like that for a while..another trip is just the cure.., so true.