The Psychology Behind Reverse Culture Shock
By Bianca Lambert
Living in a new country is the dream of many nomads. The thought of packing your bags to work, study, or just explore new territory for longer than a few weeks sounds glorious. But what happens when your work visa expires or your study abroad trip comes to an end? Is moving back to stateside as simple as packing your bags, saying goodbye to your friends, and boarding a plane back to your home city?
The short answer is no. Many expats find themselves working through reverse culture shock when they return home. By definition, “culture shock is a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.” Culture shock can arise even when a person is excited about starting over someplace new since everything nothing is familiar. The sounds, the people, the food, the cultural expectations, and of course the language (depending on where you land).
Reverse culture shock has a lot of those same triggers, but as it relates to re-integrating yourself into the place that was once familiar. It only takes a few months to be considered an expat, but returning home and experiencing the symptoms of reverse culture shock can happen almost immediately.
For former expat, DeAnna Taylor, one of her biggest challenges after moving back to the States after 13 months in Cheonan, South Korea was adjusting to healthcare. “When I came back home, I was a little depressed over the thought of going through the process to acquire US healthcare. The reality that even with paying a premium each month it still kinda sucks. I got all four wisdom teeth pulled in Korea for $140 total with loopy drugs.”
But moreover, upon returning after just 13 months, a lot about home had changed. “I came home, and I just felt like I went on this amazing vacay, but went straight back to my life,” DeAnna says.
Many expats have similar experiences and have a difficult time accepting or even recognizing that they are experiencing reverse culture shock. Dr. Melissa Parks of Intentional Expat, says one of the best ways to start dealing with the psychological impact of coming home is to prepare for the symptoms before you leave your expat home. You can do that by planning a goodbye outing with your friends, visit your favorite places, and taking the time to write a recap of your time abroad.
As expats descend on the life they once knew, they may feel alone, bored, depressed, feel differently about their home culture (negatively), and find themselves homesick (missing their friends and life abroad). Expats might also find themselves sensitive to sounds, especially if the language in their expat home was different from their native language.
If you’re an expat or know someone re-immersing themselves into their home culture, be gentle with yourself (or them.) Taking the leap of living in a new country is bold, brave, and life-changing — but that doesn’t mean the journey there and back won’t be met with some bumps along the way. Many will likely experience what researchers John and Jeanne Gullahorn call the reverse culture shock W-curve.
First, will be the honeymoon phase where you’ll reconnect with your friends and family, and catch up on the things that are new and also notice much has stayed the same. Then, they’ll find themselves navigating the cultural differences of where they are and where they’ve been, and then they will find balance in their own time. There is no set time for how long with will take to readjust after reentry, as everyone’s experience is unique to them.
Many expats might even feel the urge to move to a new destination right after they get back to their hometown due to their restlessness, but that isn’t always the healthiest way to cope.
If expats find themselves unable to reconcile moving back to their home on their own, the next step is seeking guidance from a professional. The psychologist will get the root of the of what is making the transition difficult, and find solutions that help the expat work through their readjustment.
There are so many places to see — so take that job overseas, backpack across Europe, and live your best life, but be sure to take care of yourself along the way. If you find yourself experiencing culture shock or the reverse, know that it’s a normal part of seeing the world, and don’t be afraid to find support if you need it.