The stages of adjustment to a new country

Even the most open-minded and culturally sensitive among us are not immune to culture shock. There are several stages that we may go through when integrating in a different country from the one of origin. At first living in a different cultural and social environment is perceived as exciting and enriching. This is called “honeymoon stage”, when all is new, fascinating and an adventure.

After a while though a person may start experiencing another phase, dramatically called “disintegration stage”, most commonly known as “culture shock”. This involves confusion and disorientation and it happens when the differences in behaviors, values and attitudes become increasingly noticeable. One’s own understanding of these aspects becomes less appropriate and doesn’t help integrating into this new world. At this point, it’s like the society we are living in doesn’t make any sense to us. It can become a rather nerve-wrecking experience leading to anxiety, depression and identity confusion. One might also feel alienated from the rest of the world, which ultimately lowers the chances of integration.

Later on, expats may move to the “reintegration stage”, which is a strong rejection of the second culture, together with its differences and inconsistencies with one’s own culture. It is at this stage that expats normally start seeking for relating mainly with those confirming their values, behaviors, attitude and sticking mainly with fellow nationals. These negative emotions though aren’t per se to be seen as dysfunctional, they can be seen a sign of increased ability to re-act to negative feelings, as a survival instinct we may say.

The “autonomy stage” comes into play when one starts being more sensitive towards their second culture, with a consequent acquisition of more and more skills to be integrated with their original one. The person starts to be more independent, therefore is more capable to decide what to keep and what to move away from.

Lastly, the “independence stage”, when one is capable of perceiving satisfaction and growth from those cultural differences that before where instead lived as threatening. The person becomes more flexible, creative, capable of contextualizing different behaviors, values and attitudes and able to integrate all these into their identity.

How we can work together towards a more satisfying life abroad

I can help you gaining self- and cultural awareness while working on validating your cultural status, role and identity. The first step towards overcoming this phenomenon is accepting that it is happening (or it will happen) and trying to understand it. The intensity with which different personalities deal with culture shock depends on many factors, such as having a network of friends and professionals providing one with a safe base where one knows can always fall back on. On top of this, we can work on developing your intercultural communication skills, clarifying your values, create new habits and strategies to face challenging intercultural situations, identifying your specific psychological construct behind stressful moment and reinforcing your resilience. It’s only by going though it that we adjust to its several stages, which will, ultimately, lead to integration.

What you can do in order to adjust to the new culture

Some tips on how to deal with culture shock might help you going though the first steps. If you feel that this process is taking longer than you can tolerate and overwhelms you, or that you feel stuck somewhere between the “honeymoon stage” and the “independence stage” mentioned above, please consider getting in touch with myself or another trusted counselor/psychologist to work on this together.

Investigate and learn as much as you can about the place where you live now –  Do this without neglecting the negative aspects of it, but focusing on the positives as much as you can. Try to really understand what’s behind those cultural and social aspects you don’t agree with or you simply don’t quite understand.

Be open and gentle – There are people you will come across that will actually match with the idea you had of them before moving there, but don’t make the mistake of confirmation bias. Don’t try to confirm your idea by forcing those who don’t fit at all in it. Every society has a very complex identity and it takes time to understand and accept it (think for example at those cultures that come across as cold and distant while they are instead just being careful opening up with who they don’t know).

Practice gratitude – Gratitude is a specific type of paying attention to our lives in a special way. It’s a way of positively reflecting on what has happened to us or what’s been brought into our lives and our experiences. There are numerous benefits that scientific research has uncovered, associated with purposefully practicing gratitude. When people intentionally do this, they are more satisfied with their life, overall happier, more optimistic about their futures, they’re better at handling challenging situations, they get more sleep, they able to think more clearly in problem solving situations.

Start from the very beginning to establish your routine – For example, you may want to find a course to attend or subscribe to a fitness center. It will provide you with some sort of familiarity that you have lost in the moment you moved away from your previous country. In a way, routines provide us with a sense of control and, ultimately, safety.

Meet people – Don’t hide at home and in yourself, drag yourself out there and let people know you. Meeting people from different cultures is extremely enriching and fascinating. Besides these very people might be experiencing the same difficulties you are and sharing is uplifting.

As always, eat healthy and take good care of yourself! – This process will take time, you will need to be physically and mentally in balance. Give yourself time.

Don’t isolate yourself from your friends and family living far from you – They are still your base, they are still part of your life and of who you are. They will provide you with comfort, support and motivate you to be strong and move on.

“..because home is not a place, it’s a state of mind.” – Irvin Yalom