Wellness Wednesday: Cultural Adjustment During Study Abroad

Welcome to the third installment of Wellness Wednesdays featuring Abroad101′s expert on expat emotional health, Melissa Doman.  Below Melissa shares with us the wonders of cultural adjustment, and warns that “spending time abroad will be a little bit of a roller coaster, so get prepared for one of the best rides of your life!”

The key theme in your study abroad process is change. It’s normal to view change as a bit scary, as it’s unknown and unfamiliar – but I challenge you during your time abroad to view change as exciting and positive. Change that occurs during cultural adjustment is not only incredibly unique, it’s also very character building.

I often like to dub the beginnings of the honeymoon stage (that time when you first arrive in your host country), as the “shiny new things make me super excited” phase. You are hearing a new language, seeing new sites, witnessing intriguing cultural interactions, and eating delicious foreign foods. These are all very exciting experiences, but what I want to prepare you for is the potential subsequent rough patches that may occur – which are perfectly normal and only temporary!

Understand that cultural adjustment, while it may be uncomfortable, will not feel that way forever. Remember that when you’re rubbed the wrong way by stark cultural differences, are feeling out of place, homesick, or frustrated from not understanding the locals –these feelings are temporary. These are normal expat growing pains – and everyone pays their dues! When I lived in South Korea teaching English, you better believe it was overwhelming to not understand the language, not be able to read any signs posted, and be thousands of miles from home. Rest assured, I stand here today thankful for that experience. You will be too!

Two character traits that will be your best friend during cultural adjustment are resiliency and adaptation. Not only will they benefit you during your cultural integration process, but they will also serve you well when you encounter trying times back in your home country. Here are 5 reasons, echoed by mental and medical health professionals on CNN Living, why working on these skills will benefit you when the going gets tough:

1. Be a survivor! Avoid worse case scenario thinking – usually these events won’t occur and odds are you’ll be just fine.
2. View setbacks as temporary. Try to see difficulties as challenges and as opportunities for growth.
3. Don’t get frozen by the ‘what if’s’. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in these situations, but as my fellow traveling sister reminds me, “don’t get paralysis by analysis.”
4. Take care of yourself! Self-care is an integral thing during cultural adjustment. Whether it’s exercising, journaling, making new friends, or picking up a new hobby – do something that’ll give you feel-good sensations to get you through.
5. Don’t embark on the journey alone. By having friends to go through this process with, and people at home, they will remind you of the amazing thing you are doing and how much you are growing from it (and odds are the people at home are wishing they could go through it with you too).

Per the usual, I’d like to leave you with inspirational words of an adventurous traveler. As philosopher Martin Buber said, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Cheers everyone!