culture shock
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Humanitarian Reverse Culture Shock

Traveling as a humanitarian is different from going on a vacation. It is not an opportunity to relax, but a chance to learn and to give back. Both humanitarian workers and volunteers tend to integrate themselves within a new society and a different culture. Their life becomes part of a new place that they adapt to and discover. Often, it differs strongly from their home country. It also generally means adopting a completely new lifestyle. And while that’s a challenge, it is one that humanitarians expect. What is often just as hard or even more challenging is coming back. That’s because many volunteers and humanitarians experience reverse culture shock upon their return. So, just what is it, and how can you cope with it? Here are 10 essential things you should know about reverse culture shock.

  1. What is Reverse Culture Shock?

We’ve all heard of culture shock. This is the challenge of adapting to a new culture when moving to a different country. Often it has to do with language, customs, tradition, and cuisine. It is also frequently referenced with it comes to personal space, the pace of life, interaction with others, and lifestyle overall. But what happens once you get used to all these new things? More than that, you start to like them, and they become an integral part of your lifestyle. And the next thing you know, you are returning to your home country where all of the things that seemed “normal” for you before you left now seem “foreign.” That’s the moment when humanitarians and volunteers begin to experience reverse culture shock. Things that used to seem normal start to throw you off. Often, it’s more subtle than the original culture shock you experienced in your host country, but it is still very real. More importantly, it represents yet another adaptation challenge.

  1. The W-Curve

In your preparations for volunteering or working abroad, you may have heard of the “U-curve,” but a “W-curve” may actually be a more accurate name for it. That’s because the journey has a number of ups and downs. You start with the excitement of going to a new country then move to a low point when you experience culture shock. Then, there is a high point again once you have adapted. Similarly, when you get back home, you experience a high point, since you get to see loved ones, eat your favorite foods, etc. But next, there is the low point again—reverse culture shock. Over time, you get back to the excitement phase once you’ve re-adapted at home. So, the whole process takes the shape of a “W-Curve.”

  1. How do You Know if You Have It?

When you go to your host country, you know when you get culture shock. It’s easy. You miss home; you know exactly how you feel. But when it comes to returning home, it’s hard to put your finger on it. So, what are some of the symptoms of reverse culture shock? They include boredom, annoyance, alienation, irritability, and depression. One way to detect that you are experiencing reverse culture shock is to ask yourself some of these questions: Are you annoyed with many things back home? Do you feel that you cannot reconnect with family and friends? Are you missing your old-new home? Do you feel bored? Are you bothered by things that didn’t use to worry you such as consumerism or overuse of single-use plastics? If some or most of these ring true, you are probably dealing with reverse culture shock and the challenges of re-adaptation. Read on for some strategies to deal with it!

  1. Be Prepared for It

If you have spent any meaningful amount of time abroad, you will likely experience reverse culture shock. This is not a strange thing that happens to just a select few. As human beings, we tend to adapt, and once we do, we like to stay in that comfort zone. Not only that, but developing countries also tend to have plenty of charms that the developed world doesn’t. The comforts of large houses and air-conditioning are all well and good, but the social warmth that you find in your volunteer or humanitarian destination is hard to replace. So, when you come back, you’ll need to adapt again. Make sure that you know the symptoms of reverse culture shock and how to detect them. Next, take steps to deal with them, otherwise, you’ll become quite miserable. In fact, if left unchecked, reverse culture shock can be damaging your mental health.

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  1. Realize that You have Changed

The truth is that over your time as a volunteer abroad or on a mission, you have likely changed a lot. The things around you back home, on the other hand, haven’t. So the first thing to do when you begin seeing the symptoms of reverse culture shock is to reflect on how and why. How have you changed? And, why is coming back so shocking? Think about it and see what is different. Then, begin to think of strategies to deal with those feelings. Some aspects will be valuable lessons that you learned abroad both about people and society. These make you a better person and will help you in your adaption. For example, using or buying fewer things, recycling, reusing, and living in a tighter knit community. But there are other areas of life to which you’ll just need to re-adapt. These are things like a slow, laid-back pace of life that you may have had in your host country. That just won’t be possible if you are from a big, developed city.

  1. Find Someone to Talk To

Talking to someone is what they always suggest for mental health. And rest assured that it does work. Don’t keep those feelings pent up! You need to share them. Do not hide your experiences from your friends and family! They are your main resource at home. Just make sure that you are sharing them with the right people and in a correct way. Begin to share your experiences with others, but try not to sound judgemental. Make sure that you don’t make others feel like you are on a high horse. Even better, find friends or acquaintances who have gone through something similar. You can even look for forums and chats on this topic.

  1. Re-connect with your Family and Friends

Speaking of talking to someone, family and friends are essential in your re-adaptation and to fight reverse culture shock. One thing to remember though is that they didn’t come with you. They did not live your experiences and so their perception of your home country has not changed. In fact, they may be very surprised to find out that you need to re-adapt since they’ve only known you in this one environment. So, your job is to bridge the gap. Share your experiences with them and explain how things are different. Of course, it’s important to consider that they won’t want to hear about Ghana, Peru, or Vietnam every minute of every day. You should also give them space to share what has happened to them over the time that you were gone. Even if it sounds trivial to you, never make that evident. This will help to bring you closer again. Ultimately, come to terms with the fact that some people that were close to you before your trip may get left behind. As you grow as a person and a professional, it’s natural that this will happen.

  1. Join a Community

Another way to cope with reverse culture shock is to find like-minded people who are going through the same experience, or at least, those who have experienced it. Depending on where you live, you will likely find expat groups, meet-ups, or forums. Maybe the organization that you worked with has alumni groups or clubs. If nothing is available locally, then you can definitely find online Facebook groups. Basically, create a community for yourself where you can vent without hurting anyone’s feelings. These are people who will understand exactly what you are going through and how you feel. They will also be able to provide you with the tools and support that you need to re-adapt. Plus, it’s an opportunity to make new friends!

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  1. Avoid Making Comparisons

One of the easiest ways to deal with reverse culture shock is the same way you dealt with culture shock in the first place—avoid comparing things. No, the food does not taste the same. You’re probably right; people are a little bit different there. And yes, the problems of the Western World are nothing compared to poverty and conflict. Nevertheless, the more you compare, the harder it will be to re-adapt. Instead, try to make a positive change back home. Surely, there are communities here that also need your help. With your new knowledge, you can get involved and do your part.

  1. Find out about Resources

Last, but not least, make sure to find resources to help you cope with reverse culture shock. Many of the agencies that work with humanitarian travelers and international volunteers already have these in place. For example, you might have access to counseling services upon your return. There are also support groups organized by the agency itself. Likely, you can access some form of a debriefing session or courses online. For example, the United Nations has this type of thing available to anyone, which you can access here. And, if returning feels extra hard or you are experiencing symptoms of depression, make sure to reach out for help!

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