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Culture Shock: Not a Disorder, but Still Very Real

Look in the DSM and you won’t find culture shock. It’s not a diagnosis or a medical condition, so there aren’t any criteria or evidence-based treatments.* But I’ve been in Ghana for over 3 weeks now and I’ve been interested to see how the themes of trauma, culture shock, grief, self-care, adjustment, coping skills all overlap and interlock. I don’t feel that different than when I’ve experienced other kinds of loss.

And loss it is

Make no mistake, one of the first elements of culture shock has got to be that the person who has left their home culture has left their home. Often their entire support system is gone, and it may not be that accessible, especially if they’ve moved to a country where technology isn’t as, ahem, developed. Familiar clothing, transportation, grocery shopping routines, all may be gone. “Trailing spouses” as we’re called may have lost our job (not just the job itself, but the fact that we had one). It’s a lot to reckon with at one time, and the fact that it was self-imposed doesn’t change the fact that everything is different. While all this loss is occurring is the euphoric first stage of culture shock:

The honeymoon period

The first few days in a new place understandably feels like vacation. Most people, especially those who sign up to live in a foreign country, are excited to learn about and experience their new place. Trying new food, shopping for gifts for family, sightseeing are fun and exciting, as are meeting new people and making new friends.

Initial slump

A friend recently told me “coming home is the best part about vacation.” Even after the most needed and satisfying vacations, coming usually provides some sort of relief, whether it’s going back to eating cereal for dinner, catching up on tv shows, and yes, even returning to the routine of work. At some point, the body notices that something is off and it hasn’t had those routines or comforts in some time. It’s real: your past routines are gone and you don’t have new ones yet. You would kill for something as artificial and starchy as a PopTart. You’re pretty sure you just offended someone again, but you don’t know what you did. The person at the grocery store was hostile because you forgot to put the barcode on the bananas. You’ve made some friends, but none of them really get you and you can’t be vulnerable with them yet. But soon enough…

The Surface Adjustment

You have a grocery store. You have some regular friends. You’re figuring how to communicate with people from the local culture in a more sensitive, reliable way. You have a favorite restaurant and beverage place. Your new bed is now the place you look forward to when you’re tired or on a trip. And now that daily life isn’t so overwhelming, you’re able to contemplate the nature of the people and the culture, its rhythms and norms.

Confronting deeper issues

Here is where you find that profound differences can be obstacles to connection. You’re exhausted or frustrated or both at the way that people interact with each other. When I lived in Ecuador, I was worn down by the lack of privacy. What are you thinking? Who called? What did you say to them? People that I barely knew would ask me these questions all of the time. I noticed that adults never seemed to have any time alone and when I took some, I was perceived as being rude. And since I lived with an Ecuadorian family, I tried desperately to balance expected participation with my dire need to sit alone and read a book in English (I was conversant in Spanish, but to do so exclusively was tiring).


And then, after a while it begins to click better. There is a sense that you fit, somewhat at least. A lot of this happens by observing the differences and accepting them, mindfully. Inevitably there is a reevaluation of who you are and sense of self. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict argued that “If we are interested in cultural processes, the only way in which we can know the significance of the selected detail of behavior is against the background of the motives and emotions and values that are institutionalized in that culture.” That’s a pretty intense study to understand why, for example, Ghanaians carry things on their heads. And yet, if we truly want to understand another culture, that is precisely what one must learn.

*This is a very limited, not comprehensive introduction to culture shock
Culture Shock: Not a Disorder, but Still Very Real

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2014). Culture Shock: Not a Disorder, but Still Very Real. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2018, from


Last updated: 14 Aug 2014
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 14 Aug 2014
Published on All rights reserved.