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Culture Shock and Struggles with Mental Health Abroad

The effects of culture shock and the triggers of being in an unfamiliar place can often lead to depression. Depression that stems from or is triggered by culture shock may manifest as an overwhelming sense of loneliness, feeling helpless, lost, or vulnerable, isolating yourself, lacking motivation to do things you used to enjoy, numbness, or the inability to complete tasks. If you begin to experience these, please reach out for support. See our mental health guide for international students for further information and resources.

In order to enjoy your study abroad experience to the fullest, it’s important to address these feelings right away so that they don’t overtake your time abroad. Seeing a counselor will help direct you to the best resources and methods of improvement so that you can move forward. As much as some people would like to push these feelings aside or work through them alone, the symptoms of depression are often debilitating, and seemingly simple tasks like getting out of bed or making plans with a friend can seem daunting.

Culture shock can also bring about symptoms of anxiety, showing up as an overwhelming sense of dread, preoccupation with your health and overall cleanliness, excessive fear of being cheated, tricked, or robbed, a disproportionate concern over the safety of food, doubting your ability to navigate the new environment and get through this experience, as well as a general, undefined sense of anxiety. Anxiety and depression can often overlap, along with other mental health conditions, and many of the symptoms of culture shock trigger these mental health struggles. If this is the case, it can be very helpful to speak with a counselor or trained professional in addition to having a support system of friends and family. There are resources available so that you can more easily move forward in a healthy way and ensure that your time abroad is the wonderful time you imagined it to be.

Mental health struggles are not always avoidable, but they can be managed. Going into this new experience with a positive mindset and support structures in place is very smart to do; in the event that things get overwhelming, you’ll have a healthy routine and resources in place. Here are a few examples of things to do immediately to ensure you’re in a good headspace, have a good routine, and that you’re socializing and engaging in healthy activities. This way you can be well positioned for any culture shock or mental health struggles you may experience.

Sign up for activities you enjoy — Participating in a local pick-up league of your favorite sport, taking a dance class, cooking or art class, or joining a gym — will give you a regularly scheduled activity where you can meet new people and do something you enjoy. You can even try something out of your comfort zone — feel free to put yourself out there at the beginning of this new experience!
Keep a Journal — Making a habit of regularly journaling is a healthy way to process your feelings and record your experiences. You can list things you observe, that you are grateful for, that you like or find interesting about your new environment. You can also make a personal blog about your abroad experience so that you stay reflective, excited, and communicative with friends and family about what and how you’re doing in your new home.
Engage in a fun or creative project — This can mean taking photos, scrapbooking, writing stories, making a list of the best restaurants in town, or getting into local music. Whatever you choose to do, no matter how you express your creativity, having a fun goal or hobby for yourself can keep things exciting and interesting. Down the road, you’ll be grateful you did! It’s a fun way to track where you’ve been and memorialize your time spent in a new place. It will be fun to show your friends and family later on, and for you to look back on and remember your time abroad.
Reach out to people — Surrounded by new faces and places, you become very aware you don’t have your usual, comfortable support system around you. This means you’ll have to reach out to people way more than you normally would. In the beginning days, try your best to put yourself out there and meet people. Ask someone to grab a coffee, go up to someone and start a conversation, join a student group, try to go out of your comfort zone to talk to people — you’ll be thankful for it later, and you might find someone you really connect with. You’ll also have to make an effort to stay in touch with people back home more than you would normally. It can be smart to have a regularly scheduled call with a close friend or relative so that you don’t feel too distant from your support network.

Studying abroad is such an exciting and eye-opening experience. You’ll meet new people, try new foods, learn about different cultures, and have a ton of fun. With a schedule full of exciting new activities, a support system in place, and a good mindset, you’ll be well prepared to have a successful trip. Naturally, all the newness can be overwhelming. Remember that many people struggle to settle in a new environment, and that you are not alone. There are many international students who feel similarly and many resources to help give you the support you need. Reaching out when you are struggling is the best thing you can do to make sure you are healthy and that you have the best study abroad experience possible!

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