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Information to help you cope with culture shock

Friday 30 October 2015

So what is culture shock?

All new students’ first weeks at university are ones of adjustment. However, for international students this adjustment period can be particularly profound. You may well be experiencing so many different changes at once that you feel temporarily quite overwhelmed and there are usually four phases that you may experience:

  • Honeymoon: Everything is great, nothing is wrong, you’re having a wonderful time.
  • Shock: There are so many differences in this country that you don’t know how to deal with them. You didn’t think things would be like this.
  • Negotiation: You learn to deal with the problems set before you and try to integrate them with your own beliefs.
  • Acceptance: You are able to live well in the environment with the differences you are experiencing.

Culture shock – some definitions

“Culture Shock is a state of mind in transition, a state in which an individual’s senses adapt to new stimuli and he becomes aware that his behaviour, which for years he had thought of as correct, polite and friendly, can be interpreted or misinterpreted as odd, rude and even hostile. It is a period in which his experience of life does not relate to life around him.”

“Culture shock, like love, is a temporary madness.”

“The most wonderful and most depressing feeling in the world. An experience to make life more complete.”
Culture Shock Thailand and How to Survive It
Robert and Nanthapa Cooper

“Transition is a period of moving from one period of certainty to another with an interval of uncertainty and change in between.”
Naomi Golan 1981

Some symptoms of culture shock

  • Feeling very angry over minor inconveniences (irritability)
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Sadness and longing for home
  • Sudden intense feelings of loyalty to one’s own culture
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Feeling very tired all the time, not being able to sleep or relax
  • Headaches
  • Stomach upset
  • Loss of confidence
  • Depression ( feeling very down) / Anxiety (worrying a lot)
  • Loss of ability to work or study effectively
  • Unexplainable crying
  • Marital or relationship stress
  • Feeling sick much of the time

In order to have culture shock, you need not have every symptom on the list. It is possible that only a few may apply to you. These symptoms can appear at any time but are most common when you first arrive. Physical symptoms such as persistent headaches and upset stomach should be checked by a doctor before you decide it’s only culture shock.

Why do some students suffer extreme culture shock while others seem okay?
Factors which may affect this include:-

Easier if…

Harder if…

  • You have lived away from home before


  • You have visited the UK before


  • You have arrived here with friends or fellow students
  • Your friends/family back home are well and happy


  • You can contact home as often as you want to
  • Your own cultural background is similar to the British culture


  • You have come to study in UK because you really want to
  • You have good English language skills


  • You are generally secure and see change as an opportunity and an adventure
  • You find it easy to talk to people and to ask for help


  • You are financially secure
  • This is your first time away from home


  • You have never been to the UK before
  • You have travelled to UK alone


  • You are worried about the wellbeing of someone back at  home
  • It is difficult to have contact with people back home


  • Your cultural background is very different from the British culture
  • You have come to study In the UK because someone else wants you to


  • You struggle with speaking/understanding or studying in English
  • You tend to get anxious and find change difficult


  • You find it hard to share your feelings with people
  • You are struggling financially  


Solutions for culture shock

Even though some people may not be able to eliminate culture shock, there are ways to ease the stress. Some of these activities are listed below:
1. Understand that this is a normal experience that will take time to pass. Many international students experience culture shock in some way, this is quite normal during the first few weeks, sometimes months. Remind yourself that this is not permanent.
2. Keep in touch with home –by email, phone calls, Skype or online or write a letter!
3. Keep Active. By getting out of your room or outside of your apartment, you are able to experience first-hand what British people are doing. Take a map and go walking in central London. Visit the famous places and get to know the city.
3. Read. Researching a bit more about culture shock and adapting to change by reading can be helpful. Accessing the Internet is also a good way to do this.
4. Exercise. By finding an activity that you can enjoy, you will be able to help reduce your stress. Check out QMotion the university’s sport and fitness centre https://www.qmsu.org/qmotion/ to find out what more.
5. Find shops and restaurants that sell familiar food– London is a very diverse city with people of all nationalities so you will probably find there is a community from your background already here! Enjoy cooking your favourite dishes from back home, or eating at restaurants with other students.
5. Community Activities. Ask the students union, or the College Chaplain, http://www.faith.qmul.ac.uk/StBenets about community activities, religious services, or volunteer opportunities to help you become a member of the community while you are here.
6. Have familiar things around you such as letters, photographs or objects from home.
7. Introduce Yourself to Other International Students. Other international students may be experiencing the same problems as you. By talking to them, you may be able to learn about new ways of coping with problems.
8. Talk to someone - if culture shock continues you may find it helpful to talk to someone at the Advice & Counselling Services, email welfare@qmul.ac.uk, or come and see us on the ground floor of Geography Building, Mile End Campus.

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