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The Stages of Culture Shock – How it Occurs and How to Overcome it

culture shock in london

Believe it or not – culture shock is a legitimate thing that has been studied by professors across the globe. It is a universally recognised four-stage process that many international students experience when moving abroad to study. Although it’s not just experienced by people moving abroad. It’s also perfectly normal to feel the effects in a similar way just from moving to a new city. 

Everyone is unique and may experience culture shock differently (including not at all depending on your previous experience). But there’s no denying that moving somewhere new can be a huge change in your life. Everything can feel unfamiliar and disconcerting. The best thing you can do when moving to a new city is to understand what culture shock is, so you can feel more prepared to deal with it if it occurs.

Here’s what you need to know about the stages of culture shock, how it occurs and how to overcome it to have the best studying experience in London.

Why do we Experience Culture Shock?

Before we get into the stages of culture shock and how to overcome it, let’s take a quick look at how it occurs. We can experience culture shock for several reasons, but it’s usually narrowed down to a combination of two things:

  1. The specific challenges we face when we first move and;
  2. How we deal with the loss of our familiar surroundings. 

That means that our personal experience of culture shock and how severe our feelings are can vary depending on our individual circumstance. For example, if your new city is similar to where you lived previously, your culture shock may be mild or non-existent. Or, if you’ve moved to a new country before, you may already have long-term coping mechanisms to help you adapt to different environments. Despite this, the most important things that affect the severity of our emotions are how prepared we are for the change and how strong our social networks are.

The Four Stages of Culture Shock

There are four stages of culture shock that you could experience over the course of 12 months. That sounds like a long time (and it might feel like it), but how you feel during that time isn’t entirely bad. When you first move somewhere new, it can be great fun. And there’s no better feeling than when you have finally overcome the confusing emotions. It’s important to remember that while we all may experience these stages of culture shock, some of us may go through the process quicker and with less stress than others. Your experience will be your own and there is no right or wrong way to encounter these feelings. 

Here are the four most common stages of culture shock.

1. The Honeymoon Stage

Also known as the ‘tourist’ stage, this can be the most enjoyable stage of culture shock. This often includes the feelings of excitement that you have as you look forward to the new journey you are starting. During this stage, you may feel open to exploring and trying new things. You may experience some anxiety and stress about your new city, but, during this stage, you may tend to view these feelings positively. Generally, you enjoy the buzz of the new city and all it has to offer when you’re in the honeymoon stage.

2. The Negotiation Stage

This may be the worst stage of culture shock, not least because it happens immediately after the high of the honeymoon stage. For some people, it can occur just hours after moving. For others, it can happen up to six months after you’ve been living in your new city. In this stage of culture shock, you may feel exhausted and constantly tired of the discoveries you have been making. You may also feel frustrated by how different things are from what you are used to. The aspects of your new life that you found endearing at first, may feel irritating or confusing when you’re in the negotiation stage.

3. The Adjustment Stage

This is an important stage in your recovery from culture shock. It’s also a stage that you can reach quicker the sooner you recognise why you feel the way that you do. In this stage, you start to learn how to manage your feelings. You begin to problem-solve to understand how you can overcome those irritated or confusing thoughts in your day-to-day life. During this stage, you may still experience problems and negative feelings. However, you may also begin to understand more about why things are so different and maybe even why it makes sense in this culture.

4. The Adaptation Stage (or Acceptance)

This is the final stage and is also known as the acceptance stage of culture shock. This is when your problem-solving starts to work and you become successful at managing your new environment. Although you may never fully accept the new culture, you’ll feel like you have successfully adjusted, and you have stable ways of feeling good while living day-to-day life. Once you reach this stage, many people can permanently say goodbye to culture shock and feel happier and more secure in their environment long-term.

How to Overcome Culture Shock

The only way to overcome culture shock is to learn long-lasting adaptations (or coping mechanisms) to deal with your new environment. For students, the two specific most highly advocated ways to overcome culture shock is to be prepared for it and have a strong social network around you. If you can recognise that how you feel is because you are culturally shocked, then studies suggest that you are more likely to be successful in overcoming it. Likewise, if you talk about how you feel with others, you can feel more supported and not alone.

Although everyone experiences these stages differently and will have individual ways of dealing with issues faced, here are some useful tips that are widely recognised to help you overcome culture shock.

Remember That How You Feel is Normal

As we mentioned earlier, the stages of culture shock are real and countless researchers have delved into the ins and outs of why and how it happens. It’s important to remember that how you feel is normal and someone else has probably felt the same way that you have. That’s why it’s so important to…

Reach Out to Someone

Try not to isolate yourself and make sure you talk to someone about how you feel. Culture shock is highly common amongst students moving abroad. That means that some of your classmates are likely experiencing similar feelings to you. Or it means that your new friends might have gone through a similar overcoming process when they first moved.

When you feel low, it can be tempting to isolate yourself and spend more time alone to reflect. But we all know that spending time with good friends boosts our mood and that sharing our feelings with people we trust can help us feel better. So, reach out to a friend for help and try not to spend too much time alone. If you need a helping hand, read our post on how to make friends in London for tips on reaching out and building a support network in your new city.

Find Things That Help You Reconnect

London is well-known for its diversity, and you can find the evidence everywhere you go – from worldwide street food to imported drinks in supermarkets. To help you overcome your culture shock, find things that help you reconnect with your home – like a restaurant that sells your favourite cuisine, or a café to study in that has a homely feel to it.

Keep an Open Mind

As best as you can, make efforts to keep an open mind about your new city and the way that it works. Try and remember that how you feel now might not last forever. By keeping an open mind, you may feel more able to embrace the new culture and start to understand it better – even if you never fully accept it.

Explore Your New City

Take advantage of everything that your new city has to offer and venture outside often. When culture shock occurs and makes you feel like you want to hide away indoors, try to push yourself to leave your student accommodation, so you can actively practice your problem-solving techniques.

Beware of Re-Entry!

Something that isn’t often talked about with culture shock is re-entry. Just because there are four stages, that doesn’t mean that you’ll move from one to the other and then finish. It’s possible to move around the stages, especially if a crisis occurs or you face a problem that you haven’t experienced before. The good news is that it’s usually easier to bounce back into acceptance again after a crisis, since you’ve been successful many times before.

Help is Available

There are so many advantages to studying in London and countless reasons to study abroad in London. But culture shock can be a difficult thing to experience. Hopefully after reading this, you’ll have a better understanding of how culture shock occurs and how you can prepare for it. But despite how prepared you are, you may still feel like you need some extra support. If you’re struggling with overcoming culture shock, or if you think how you feel may not be culture shock, help is available. Read about the student wellbeing support we offer at UWS, or visit Mind for UK helplines that you can access for support.

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