Culture shock is the emotional response to being transplanted into an unfamiliar social environment: it is the uneasy clutch of feelings that most long-haul venturers will experience on first arrival in a new country. Reverse culture shock – the discomfort that you feel on returning home – takes more people by surprise. It is often a problem, not least because coming home shouldn’t feel alien. It can though, and this can be difficult for the sufferer and, perhaps even more so, for their nearest and dearest to understand.
Both culture shock and reverse culture shock are psychological reactions to the changes experienced during travel. The symptoms they cause are similar, although they may feel very different because they are exhibited in different cultural environments. They are basically stress reactions, so some of the symptoms are akin to those of anxiety or even clinical depression. People who have had some recent emotional trauma might expect worse symptoms.
While you’re experiencing the culture shock of arriving in a strange country, excitement and novelty tend to buoy you up, and usually you muddle through. This is despite the additional burden of long-flight fatigue and jet lag. You’ll even be able to joke about your frustrations with fellow travellers who are experiencing the same emotions.
Even so, a good proportion of people will be set reeling from their first experience of the developing world: it is so full of poverty and seems so unjust, so unhygienic. However, most people get through this and go on to have a fantastic time.
Reverse culture shock is rather different. If you’ve ventured into regions where poverty and disability are in your face, your emotions can be strung tight. However, the wisdom you’ve gained from dealing with the harsh realities of life in the Third World may not be appreciated by stay-at-home mates.
One of the problems is that the experience of dipping into the developing world is often idealised by writers and those in the business of selling travel – the reality doesn’t make such a nice story. On returning to England after several years working in Asia, a friend commented: “The poverty in Liverpool isn’t as scenic as in Nepal.” On a grey, drizzly day in urban Britain it can be very difficult indeed to see any beauty.
Some people will have set out on their journey as an escape. Sometimes that works; sometimes returning home is just a return to the problems you tried to flee from. And the onger you’ve been away, the more the symptoms of reverse culture shock are likely to plague you.
Those who have had problems with low mood in the past are likely to get into worse trouble with reverse culture shock. True depression can be sparked off by the stress of readjusting.
It is important to try to deal with reverse culture shock. Seek professional counselling if friends can’t offer the right kind of emotional support. Sometimes physical travel-health concerns can play on your mind, so take these worries to your GP – you may find you’re worrying needlessly.
Start networking to find like-minded people. You might consider joining a travel club or a society for those with interests in particular regions, such as the Anglo-Malagasy or Britain Nepal Societies. Stay in touch with the people you met while you were away and look into ways of continuing a newfound interest – go diving in Cornwall, plan a long weekend hiking in Scotland or join a yoga class. After an extended trip there will be a lot to sort out when you get home. You may have been able to put your job on hold so that you are at least financially secure. However, long trips are often life changing, and returning to the same old job can be a monumental downer.
If you did resign your job in order to travel, it is a huge undertaking to identify what is now going to suit you. When you do start job-hunting, you need to work hard on your attitude so that an interviewer doesn’t label you as footloose and uncommitted. You need to ‘sell’ your trip as something that has been character building and has made you wiser than other, less-travelled employees. Most of all, give yourself time – it will take a while to readjust.
Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth got a bad bout of returnee’s blues after having been away in Asia for most of 11 years; it took her a full 18 months to return to enjoying normal home routines again.
Her book Bugs, Bites & Bowels (Cadogan) contains more travel health tips.
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