December 1, 2016
Impact of Cultural Shock on Mental Health
Ever wonder why the new kid is so weird? Why he doesn’t talk or ‘have any friends’? How about the new employee who sits next to you at the office that has no idea what she is doing? We often associate these symptoms with some type of mental or social disorder. However, we do not look at the bigger picture. The ‘new kid’ has actually just moved to the United States from Eastern Europe and the clueless office neighbor has flown in from South America. It’s not that they are weird but they are experiencing what, in today’s world, is known as cultural shock. For those who have spent their entire lives in one location, they probably have never heard of this word, let alone know what it means. On the flip side, for those who have made the journey across the world, cultural shock is inevitable. In order to comprehend the impacts on an individual’s mental health, we must first understand what cultural shock means. Cultural shock, as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means, “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.” In simpler terms, it is the confusion, anxiety and uncertainty that follow when one is placed in an unfamiliar environment without being prepared for the cultural changes.
Psychologists have exposed mental disorders that are a direct result of cultural shock. According to Analysis of Impact of Culture Shock on Individual Society by Junzi Xia, “When these people lose all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse, they have to try to adapt themselves to different lifestyles, living conditions and business practices in a new cultural setting. However, this is a long term and difficult process. In this condition, feelings of alienation accumulate sharply because of poor adaptation. Consequentially, culture shock occurs, followed by a series of psychological confusion and emotional discomfort. (Hess, 1994)” (Xia, 2009). Individuals experiencing cultural shock have to adjust to a complete new way of life. Customs and beliefs of their homeland do not apply in this new area anymore. This is often where the idea of being ‘weird’ or ‘awkward’ originates from. Psychological stress begins to emerge. This stress is the starting point to much deeper psychological problems. “Although not everyone will experience all the symptoms, almost all people will experience some parts. The major symptoms may be described as depression, anxiety and feelings of helplessness (Mio, 1999)” (Xia, 2009) Sense of isolation occurs in most individuals as does a sense that the personal culture has been lost. These major symptoms require medical attention right away because they could deepen, which according to Xia could lead to “difficulties in paying attention to the learning of new cultures… This decreases the motivation for adapting to the new conditions.” (Xia, 2009) Following this, individuals could go against the people or culture of the location they are living in and may create hostile relationships or bad decisions. Therefore, seeking a professional is pivotal when severe symptoms are present.
Culture shock can affect any person of any age. However, through various experiments it has been discovered to have the most damaging effects on international students who are studying abroad. Students, in general, have been found to be more prone to mental health problems than nonstudents. According to “International Students. Culture Shock Can Affect the Health of Students from Abroad” by H. Hamboyan and A.K Bryan, a study at Columbia University has found that, “75% of students were concerned about depression and more than 25% reported suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Other studies have shown that depression and suicidal concerns are among the most serious problems facing students.” (Hamboyan and Bryan, 1995). This study does not include depression and suicidal thoughts derived from cultural shock, it is from a raw percentage of students. Now, mix that with cultural shock and we’ve got ourselves a pretty big mess. Students entering a new country for educational purposes must adapt to the educational system. Workloads may be different in the country of origin compared to the host country. Test taking, homework and topics may be laid out differently as well. Therefore, the student must adapt to this system. The stress derived from being a student alone raises an issue of mental health, let alone being an international one. At that point, an individual must deal with not only “health risks associated with being a student but also with uprooting and culture shock.” (Hamboyan and Bryan, 1995). According to Hamboyan and Bryan, students can develop what is referred to as “uprooting disorder,” Symptoms may include the following: “disorientation, nostalgic-depressive reaction, and feelings of isolation, alienation, powerlessness, hypochondriasis, paranoia, and hostility” (Hamobyan and Byran, 1995). In conclusion, it has been noted that these symptoms, which a good percentage of the student population may experience, end up being much higher in international students who are studying abroad.
This is a very long process after all. In order to show the transitions that occur throughout cultural shock, this phenomenon has been broken down into four stages. The Honeymoon Stage, The Frustration Stage, The Adjustment Stage, and finally The Acceptance Stage. Note that every individual is different, therefore, the time that it takes to complete each process will vary from person to person. First and foremost, The Honeymoon Stage, which is pretty much what you are probably already thinking. It’s just like a honeymoon! As stated in “The 4 Stages of Culture Shock” by VIF International Education, in this stage, individuals are often “overwhelmingly positive during which travelers become infatuated with the language, people and food in their surroundings.” This is what happens on your basic trip to Cancún, Mexico or your extravagant stop in Istanbul, Turkey. Everything seem so much better than where you come from and it’s almost as if you can stay there forever. You might even start to believe that it was the best decision you’ve ever made. WRONG. Next, The Frustration Stage starts to kick in. In this stage, guess what starts to take over? You got it, frustration. This may be the most difficult part of cultural shock as many do not make it past this stage before they decide to return to their native country. The feeling of wanting to go home to a place where things are more conversant takes over. “The fatigue of not understanding gestures, signs and the language sets in and miscommunications may be happening frequently. Small thing—losing keys, missing the bus or not being able to easily order food in a restaurant—may trigger frustration” (VIF Int’l Education, 2016). Small things like the examples previously described may trigger a greater than usual frustrated outburst. However, for those who have an extend trip, this stage may come and go for a period of time. The third stage is known as The Adjustment Stage. When frustration over little things begins to subside and individuals begin getting accustomed to their surroundings, things get easier. It is easier for them to establish a sense of community, make friends and catch on to gestures and body language associated with the place they are living in. The fourth and final stage is The Acceptance Stage. This stage, depending on the individual, may take days, weeks, months, even years at times to reach. It is a stage that implies, “that complete understanding isn’t necessary to function and thrive in new surroundings.” One cannot fully understand a culture unless he/she is born and raised in that type of environment. On the other hand, one can get fairly close. This stage does not mean that they’ve got it all figured out. It just means that they have learned enough to maintain a normal lifestyle within that culture. In order to lessen ones extremity of culture shock there are ways to prepare. Get to know your location before the big move. Practice the language ahead of time, learn a few gestures, signs, or sayings that may be different from your culture. If one enters the county with some basic knowledge of the culture/tradition, their adjustment will not take as long as will not be as harsh.
What many people don’t know is that cultural shock does not just happen when moving to a new country. It can happen in several different ways as well. According to “Culture Shock: Why is culture shock so common, surprising and hurtful?” by Dr. Adrian Furnham, there are five different types of cultural shocks that a person can experience. The first one is called Invasion Shock, which is basically what it sounds like. It is when a particular group of people suddenly show up in large numbers and the locals actually end up becoming the minority of the location. Generally speaking, “they have culture shock without actually going anywhere” (Furnham, 2015). The second type of cultural shock is called Reverse Culture Shock. This type of shock occurs when an individual returns to their home country only to find that it is different from the time they left it. In a sense, they are not returning to the home they left behind because it simply does not exist anymore. A third type of shock that can be experienced in the work force is Re-Professionalization and Re-Licensing Shock. This shock “occurs when trained professionals do not have their qualifications accepted by a host country and have to be retrained and accepted.” (Furnham, 2015). This can be somewhat offensive to the individual as they have gone through the proper education and training in order to be a professional in their field of choice. Now that it is all of a sudden unacceptable in a different country may make them feel as if all their hard work is now useless. The fourth shock is known as Business Shock. This shock has to do with very minor differences in a business that exists worldwide. However, these minor differences may change the whole outcome of the task at hand. Last but not least is the Race Culture Shock. “This concerns being a racial minority in an institution within ones country. Class and race specific styles of dress, speech, etc. can seriously shock people who do not expect them (Torres, 2009)” (Furnham, 2015). This proves to be entirely true as when I first moved to the United States I was shocked to see how many different races existed in the world, how many different ways a person can dress and how many different languages you could hear in a one-block distance.
In final analysis, cultural shock is a real phenomenon that can affect any type of person. It can last from a couple days to a couple years, depending on how well prepared the individual was to make a move to a new location or how fast they can pick up the culture after arriving. Personally, I was lucky enough to learn the English language while attending school in Croatia, therefore after moving here, it only took me a year to perfect the language. However, at times I do still believe I revisit the Frustration Stage. As for the Acceptance Stage, I’ve accepted the location just fine, however I have never gotten 100% comfortable with living in a huge city after being raised on a farm. That is perfectly fine. Cultural shock can be felt throughout the span of a person’s life. So, just remember that the kid you made fun of at the beginning for being weird and the office neighbor who had no idea what she was doing… don’t worry, they’re doing just fine now.
"Culture Shock." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
Education, VIF International. Medium. 19 February 2016. 23 November 2016.
Furnham, Adrian. Psychology Today. 8 December 2015. 23 November 2016.
Xia, Junzi. "Analysis of Impact of Culture Shock on Individual Psychology." International Journal of Psychological Studies (2009): 97-101.
Hamboyan, H., and A. K. Bryan. “International Students. Culture Shock Can Affect the Health of Students from Abroad.” Canadian Family Physician 41 (1995): 1713–1716.