Culture Shock and How To Survive It

If you have ever worked in any environment that has been going through a period of change, you’ll be familiar with the transition curve. This curve is used to illustrate how it feels when going through a huge transition, from the huge exciting highs to the sweeping lows when reality strikes. For me, a similar rollercoaster of emotions is felt when going through a big international move. This experience is the phenomenon known as culture shock. The thrilling highs and the panicked lows, and from speaking to other expats, I am not alone. All that upheaval, all that excitement, then suddenly you feel like you are at the bottom of a valley looking up at an impossible climb.

Valleys and mountains of culture shock.

The valleys of culture shock can seem insurmountable.

For me the sweeping lows hit shortly after our arrival, everything had been so hectic and fast paced and exciting, then we arrived and reality hit. First things first, find a new home! And this is where the problems began, the first apartment we saw was horrific, it was next to a huge road, and a bigger building site. The complex was old and grotty, the apartment billed at 600 square foot, was tiny, dark and dank, and my heart sank. This was the top of our budget, if this was all we could afford, I couldn’t live here, I had to try so hard not to cry there and then, during the viewing.

When you’re down at the bottom looking up, it can feel overwhelming, impossible even, I was all ready to pack my bags and head home but instead you dust yourself off and try again. Here are some things, which I have tried and which have helped me when things have become a little too much.


My tips for surviving culture shock

1. Find Your Calm

This will be a different thing for different people but finding your own little space, clearing your mind and switching off for even a few minutes can make everything seem a little better. You may have a nice little park or creek nearby to take a little break, you might like to meditate or do some breathing exercises or yoga poses. For me I like to read, to take my mind away from everything else and enter another little world, even if just for a little while.

2. Get A Taste of Home

Maybe all this trauma has made you a bit homesick, you’re wondering why you ever thought this was a good idea, what I like to do at these times is get a taste of home. This could be a literal taste, finding or making food that reminds you of home. Or it could be watching a film or a TV show, meeting up with fellow expats from your homeland, or even simply chatting with family and friends back home. I tend to use a combination of these things. My go to TV show, for which I am sure to be judged, is the Colin Firth starring, BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, whilst drinking tea and eating marmite on toast, I’m such a British stereotype. Though assimilation is key to overcoming culture shock, sometimes a taste of home can be comforting enough to prepare you for another round!

For more tips on beating homesickness, Felicity’s post has a lot of great ideas.

Pelican Inn, A little taste of the British countryside.

Pelican Inn, A little taste of the British countryside.

3. Make a List

From a practical point of view, make a list of things you need to do. Ticking something off, no matter how small it is, can feel like a huge achievement and suddenly everything seems a lot more manageable. Whether you go old fashioned with a paper and pen, or try an app like Wunderlist, when things feel a bit much, get out your list, choose a small doable item and tick it off. My husband and I use Wunderlist as it is available from desktop as well as mobile, and lists are automatically synced and can be shared between accounts.

Looking outside, from inside an apartment

Don’t just look outside, go outside.

4. Go Outside

The worst thing you can do, and I am most definitely a culprit of this, is lock yourself a

way and hide from the world, it won’t solve your problems and you’ll feel worse. Get outside, get some sun (there’s no end of it!), get some vitamin D, and you’ll feel better.


5. Find a New Skill/Hone an Old One

I know a lot of expats get fed up of being told to find a new skill, they were happy with the skills they had and don’t want to do anything new. So whether you find something entirely new, or just find time for something you used to love, having something to do will take your mind off things. If your skill can be done in a group, look for somewhere to go and join in, meeting new people will help you feel at home much more quickly, is a good place to find all sorts of groups with similar interests to you.

And for us, things did get better, we saw better apartments, we found a nice home, we learnt that the apartment was most definitely not the 600 square feet at which it was advertised. And sitting on our new apartment floor, eating takeaway pizza from the box, with no furniture and only a few bags of belongings was a wonderful feeling. But we all know this is easy to say when you’ve climbed back up to the top and are enjoying the view. No one is denying that when you hit the bottom it can be a struggle to claw your way back up, but I promise, it will get better, and it will all feel worth it in the end. There are others going through the same thing, so don’t be afraid to look for and ask for help.

Have you struggled with lows during your transition? How did you bounce back from the culture shock?

About Sarah Jennings

Less than five years ago, I got my first passport and went on my first short holiday outside of the UK to the absolutely stunning Croatia. And it feels like I have never looked back! Since then I have spent 2 years living in beautiful Copenhagen, before arriving in the Bay Area in early 2016. It has been quite the whirlwind adventure. I have used my expat adventure to reignite my lifelong dream to become a writer and editor, returning to my studies and slowly building experience through work and voluntary roles to make this a reality. I have recently left the Bay Area and returned to the UK, to live in London, another place I haven't lived. You can follow my journey at my website -

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