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Study Abroad FAQs: What is Culture Shock?


No matter when or where you study abroad or do an international internship, odds are you’ll experience some level of culture shock during your experience overseas. While this can be challenging for many participants, it’s important to know that by identifying the symptoms and seeking support, you’ll be able to successfully ease the temporary discomfort and anxiety of living in a new place.

Let’s break down the basics of culture shock so you can feel prepared for your study or intern abroad program.

What is culture shock?

Culture shock is when you experience discomfort or disorientation from being in a new environment, culture, or country. It’s common for college students who participate in a study abroad or international internship experience to experience culture shock in some way or another.

What are common symptoms of culture shock?

Chase, an AIFS Abroad student in Barcelona, talks about his personal experience with study abroad culture shock.
  1. Homesickness
  2. Annoyance
  3. Frustration
  4. Loneliness
  5. Anxiety
  6. Depression
  7. Feeling critical of your host city or country
  8. Physical ailments
  9. The urge to withdraw or isolate

What are the stages of culture shock?

1. Honeymoon Stage

During the Honeymoon Stage of culture shock, you’ll feel intense excitement about your study abroad or international internship experience. It’s understandable, of course — you’ve been waiting for this for a long time! Odds are that upon arrival you’ll experience a sense of euphoria with all the new foods, languages, customs, architecture, smells, and more. Additionally, you’ll likely find yourself constantly calling out the similarities between your own culture and the new one you’re experiencing. There may even be times where typical annoyances at home — like traffic or a crowded train — somehow become charming to you in your host city. It will feel good to be in the Honeymoon Stage of culture shock, but for some study abroad students, this phase will end up wearing off.

2. Distress or Negotiation Stage

Kerry, an AIFS Abroad student in Barcelona, talks about her personal experience with study abroad culture shock.

Welcome to the Distress or Negotiation Stage! There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to when you might enter this phase of culture shock — it really depends on the student. Once the Honeymoon Stage has ended, you may find yourself experiencing frustration and anxiety as you navigate challenges, difficulties, or uncomfortable situations abroad. You may also start to miss your friends and family, idealizing the life you have back home. This phase is also often when physical symptoms begin, should you be someone who experiences them.

3. Autonomy or Adjustment Stage

Fear not, the Distress or Negotiation Stage will come to an end! Enter: the Autonomy or Adjustment Stage, where culture shock as a study abroad student will start to wear off. Once you’ve acclimated for a little while and have gotten your bearings, you’ll develop a routine, which means how you feel as a student abroad will start to improve! At this point, you’ve likely become more familiar with the local way of life, the foods and traditions, have made new friends, and learned a bit of the local language or lingo.

4. Independence or Mastery Stage

Last but not least, we have the Independence or Mastery Stage of culture shock — a great moment for study abroad students! Entering this phase means that you’ve successfully adapted to your host city, its culture, and your routine overseas — congratulations! While there will always be new things to learn, your feelings of isolation will likely have subsided. And while you may never return to the initial euphoria you felt during the Honeymoon Stage, you’ll take solace and comfort in feeling like you really belong.

What are some ways to cope with or overcome culture shock while abroad?

Here are few of the many ways you can cope with the impact of culture shock as a study abroad student or international internship participant:

1. Identify the symptoms

It’s not a sign of weakness to admit that you’re experiencing symptoms of culture shock! Identifying your feelings will help you solidify specific actions you can take to make progress.

Since arriving in Cannes, it has been a difficult adjustment for me. I have more downtime than usual, which is a challenge. I sometimes feel confused and anxious for the next event or class to attend. It has been a major adjustment to adapt to a new culture, as well as a brand new campus.

Autumn C., AIFS Abroad in Cannes, France alum (2019)

Genevieve, an AIFS Abroad student in Valencia, talks about her personal experience with study abroad culture shock.

2. Stay busy or get involved

Take part in activities or events in your host city or country to make you feel like more of an official member of the community! If your study abroad or international internship program offers social or cultural events, be sure to attend. Being an interested and participatory student abroad will make all the difference.

PS: Did you know that social and cultural activities, as well as group excursions, are included in all AIFS Abroad programs?

3. Dive into your host culture

Take the time to learn as much as you can about the place where you’re studying or interning abroad! It’s okay to compare and contrast the differences of where you are with where you come from, but keep an open mind! It’s natural to have some preconceived notions and beliefs, but stay wide-eyed and neutral when you discover new things.

4. Write down your feelings

A great way to work through your emotions or symptoms is to take a moment to put pen to paper. Journaling or other forms of writing can incredibly therapeutic and helpful when trying to work through symptoms of culture shock.

5. Take care of your mind and body

Be sure to eat well, exercise, and get plenty of rest during your experience abroad.

Figuring out when and where to go on runs and exercise has been quite the task in Spain. I knew that I didn’t want to join a gym during my study abroad in Salamanca because I didn’t want to spend my time cooped up indoors, so outdoor runs it was. However, figuring out the time when to run is tricky. Rarely anyone wakes up before 8 AM here, so going on a run at 7 AM would be very odd.

Andrea P.M., AIFS Abroad in Salamanca, Spain Alum (2019)

6. Spend time with friends, both local and on your program

Taking time to get to know the locals on a personal level will help you work through cultural differences and understand your host city or country in a deeper, more meaningful way. It may also help you realize ways to be more sensitive and understanding to local cultural norms, traditions, and expectations. Be sure to also spend time with other students on your program! Building relationships with them will be a bedrock of your abroad experience, and you may find they are also going through similar feelings of culture shock. It’s great to support one another!

7. Seek support

If you’re experiencing symptoms of culture shock and are feeling overwhelmed, seek out help and support from those around you. For example, here at AIFS Abroad we have on-site staff who are available to assist students throughout their program, including as they acclimate to their host city. Part of their job is to provide support during the acclimation phase, so our students always have a resource should they need assistance.

What is reverse culture shock?

Just like you experience culture shock when you are abroad, the same can be said for when you come home. Reverse culture shock, or re-entry, occurs when you return from your experience overseas and need to re-acclimate to the life you knew before you went abroad. Here’s the catch: You’ll be different, so life at home won’t feel quite the same. This disassociation can be a little jarring, and it can take time for coming home

Hannah, an AIFS Abroad alum, talks about her personal experience with reverse culture shock.

Hear from Hannah, an AIFS Abroad alum who studied abroad in both Barcelona and Rome, about her experience with reverse culture shock.

The transition from life abroad back into life as I previously knew it was an endless emotional rollercoaster. Re-entry is a long, difficult, and ongoing process that I continue to battle daily, and most likely will for a long time. Throughout this transition, I have learned that acceptance comforts me. I am coming to terms with the fact that my study abroad experiences and my life back home in Minnesota are two completely separate circumstances, both having shaped me into the individual I am today.

Hannah H., AIFS Abroad alum

Don’t let the fear of culture shock prevent you from a study abroad or international internship experience.

It’s normal to go through the various stages of culture shock when you study or intern abroad. If you have questions or concerns about this prior to applying, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team who can provide you with resources and reassurance. We’re here to help!