(Reverse) Culture shock

The information below provides you with details regarding the phenomena of culture shock and reverse culture shock.

Culture shock

What is culture shock?

Culture shock refers to a feeling of disorientation or confusion that often occurs when a person leaves a familiar place and moves to an unfamiliar place. The reaction may be both physical and psychological, and some students may at some point wonder why they chose to leave their familiar surroundings. It is important to remember that living in a different country and culture is a learning process, and that most students return with greater self-confidence and the ability to manage in an intercultural environment.

Why you may experience culture shock

When you arrive abroad, you will no doubt encounter a multitude of new things. The food is not the same as it is at home, and familiar greetings such as ‘hello’ and ‘good day’, ‘thanks’ and ‘how are you doing’, may suddenly elicit completely different responses than the ones you are used to. University teaching methods are different, and the way of studying may appear strange and difficult. Even if things seem very similar, they may not be, and suddenly everyday routine and simple actions become difficult and frustrating. It is often small differences that are most frustrating, as you think you know how to behave/do things, but you get an unexpected response.


To minimise the effect of culture shock it is important to acknowledge the existence of it, and to know and pay attention to the symptoms. Keep in mind that it is occurring as part of a learning process. Some of the typical symptoms of culture shock are:

  • Boredom, loneliness
  • Frustration
  • Fatigue
  • Mood changes, depression, feeling powerless
  • Feeling lost and out of place
  • Feeling insecure
  • Homesickness

Dealing with culture shock

If you experience some of the above symptoms and experience feelings of loneliness or sadness, here are some ideas that may be helpful in dealing with culture shock:

  • Accept that you cannot know everything about the new country and culture, and if it is overwhelming, take a break.
  • Be open-minded and learn about the new country and culture to understand the reasons for cultural differences.
  • Try to do things that you did at home, listen to your favourite music and/or eat familiar food.
  • Stay in touch with family and friends at home.
  • Stay active – physical activity often helps!
  • Learn from experience – moving to a new culture can be the most fascinating and educational experience of your life. There is no better way to become aware of your own values and attitudes or to broaden your point of view.  

Reverse culture shock

What is reverse culture shock?

When students return home after spending time abroad, they often expect to be able to pick up exactly where they left off. A problem arises when reality does not meet these expectations. Home may fall short of what you had envisioned, and things may have changed at home: your friends and family have their own lives, and things have happened when you were gone. This is part of why home may feel so foreign.

To get you started, the 're-entry worm' can be a useful tool in helping you realise that you are not alone in feeling a range of emotions.

Schedule 'Re-entry worm' describing how you feel after returning from a study period abroad

Feelings you may experience

The inconsistency between expectations and reality may result in frustration, feelings of alienation, and mutual misunderstandings between returning students and their friends and family. Of course, the difficulty of readjustment will vary for different individuals, but in general, the better integrated you have become to the country that you visited; the harder it is to readjust during re-entry. This is where reverse culture shock (sometimes called re–entry shock) comes into play.

Stages of reverse culture shock

Reverse culture shock is usually described in four stages:

  1. Disengagement
  2. Initial euphoria
  3. Frustration
  4. Readjustment and adaptation

Stage 1 begins before you return home. You begin thinking about re-entry and making your preparations for your return home. You also begin to realise that it is time to say goodbye to your friends and to the place you have come to call home. The hustle of exams, goodbye parties, and packing can intensify your feelings of sadness and frustration. You already miss the friends you have made, and you are reluctant to leave. Alternatively, you may make your last few days fly by so fast that you do not have time to reflect on your emotions and experiences.

Stage 2 usually begins shortly before departure, and it is characterised by feelings of excitement – or even euphoria – about returning home. This is very similar to the initial feelings of fascination and excitement you may have had when you first entered the host country. You may be very happy to see your family and friends again, and they are also happy to see you. The length of this stage varies, and often ends with the realisation that most people at home are not as interested in your experiences abroad as you had hoped. They will politely listen to your stories for a while, but you may find that soon they are ready to move on to the next topic of conversation.

This is often one of the transitions to stage 3. You may experience feelings of boredom, frustration, anger, alienation, loneliness, disorientation, and helplessness and not understand exactly why. You might quickly become irritated or critical of others. Feeling like a stranger at home, and the longing to go back abroad are also not uncommon reactions.

Most people are then able to move onto stage 4, which is a gradual readjustment to life at home. Things will start to seem a little more normal again, and you will probably fall back into some old routines, but things will not be exactly the same as how you left them. You have most likely developed new attitudes, beliefs, habits, as well as personal and professional goals, and you will see things differently now. The important thing is to try to incorporate the positive aspects of your international experience with the positive aspects of your life at home.

Dealing with reverse culture shock

According to professionals in the field of international education, 85% of people returning home have some kind of re-entry experience, and of those, 15% have more serious difficulties adapting to their return. If you are having difficulty with your return, think back to the adjustments you made to succeed while you were abroad. These same skills can help you in coming home.

Coping mechanisms:

  • Get together with others who have been to the same area as you.
  • Keep in touch with the friends and contacts you met while you were away.
  • Maintain a sense of patience and humour, similar to when you initially went abroad. Remember that you will have good days and bad days. Like culture shock, re-entry shock passes in time.
  • Seek out international news so you do not feel so abruptly cut off from your experience.
  • Look for ways to use the new skills and knowledge you gained while abroad. For instance, help out students that are going to the university where you went. Or if you learned a language while abroad, continue practicing your language skills. Enrol in a language class here at Maastricht University or look for a tandem partner in Maastricht.
  • Write about your experience, and share it with others.
  • Rekindle the spirit of adventure you had abroad. Explore home.