Culture shock is a complex set of symptoms associated with the experience of migration to or contact with a new environment and the process of adjusting to this new environment. Historically, culture shock was conceptualized as a consequence of stress caused by contact with a new culture, resulting in feelings of anxiety, sadness, and confusion related to the loss of social rules and accustomed cultural cues. Contemporary definitions tend to characterize culture shock as a state of emotional and physical discomfort one experiences when coming into contact with a new culture and the opportunity for adaptation, acculturation, and integration into the host culture. As the population of the United States continues to become more diverse and multicultural, it is important that mental health professionals identify the physical and emotional elements of culture shock and how to develop appropriate interventions when working with clients experiencing such issues.
The term culture shock first came into existence in the mid-1950s when K. Oberg conceptualized culture shock as an experience of strain and anxiety resulting from living in a new culture accompanied by feelings of sadness and loss. In the late 1970s, the concept of culture shock evolved into a more cognitive reaction, which was manifested as feelings of impotence or inability to deal with an environment because of unfamiliarity with the dominant culture. In the 1980s, a more comprehensive definition of culture shock was put forth by S. Rhinesmith, who asserted that culture shock occurs when an individual experiences concurrently the challenges associated with living in a new environment and the loss of a familiar cultural environment.
Existing research and literature today focus on diverse aspects of culture shock, such as its symptoms and manifestations. Culture shock typically includes symptoms or feelings of anxiety, isolation, frustration, disorientation, sadness, helplessness, powerlessness, vulnerability, and extreme homesickness. When individuals migrate to a foreign country, their separation from a familiar environment, which includes friends and family members, could result in a sense of personal loss and, thus, a loss of intimacy that was once accessible to them. All of these feelings affect the mental health of individuals experiencing culture shock. As a result, they can isolate themselves from contact with others in the new culture, thus precipitating symptoms such as changes in sleep patterns and appetite and extreme feelings of sadness and worthlessness. Such symptoms, coupled with feeling overwhelmed by new cultural norms, may cause some immigrants to become depressed or to engage in obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors in an attempt to gain control of the foreign situation. All of these symptoms can have a detrimental effect on individuals’ sense of self-efficacy, as they may find it difficult to complete the tasks that were once routine for them.
Somatic reactions to culture shock also can be manifested in the lives of individuals who have migrated to a new culture. Because individuals are constantly (both consciously and unconsciously) processing new information (i.e., language, cultural values, and daily customs) about the host culture, they can experience cognitive fatigue, which can contribute to headaches or migraines. Furthermore, internalized feelings of anxiety about residing in a new country and adapting to a new culture can precipitate panic attacks, extreme sweating, irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal disturbances. In addition, marked feelings of homesickness can result in other somatic reactions, such as severe back pain and muscle pain.
Implications for Counseling
With the changing demographics of the United States and the influx of immigrants to nations around the world, it is important that mental health professionals acquire the knowledge and skills to work effectively with people experiencing culture shock. Ways that mental health counselors can be cognizant of potential culture shock symptoms include assessing immigration status and generational status of individuals, assessing their length of stay in the country, and evaluating their experiences of adjustment to the new culture. Finally, physical manifestations of culture shock must be taken into account when counseling individuals who have recently immigrated. Mental health interventions that work with clients’ adjustment to and sense of efficacy living in a culture different from their own will be beneficial to their physical and mental well-being.
- Constantine, M. G., Anderson, G. M., Berkel, L. A., Caldwell, L. D., & Utsey, S. O. (2005). Examining the cultural adjustment experiences of African international college students: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 57-66.
- Merta, R. J., Stringham, E. M., & Ponterotto, J. G. (1988). Simulating culture shock in counselor trainees: An experiential exercise for cross-cultural training. Journal of Counseling & Development, 66, 242-245.
- Misra, R., & Castillo, L. G. (2004). Academic stress among college students: Comparison of American and international students. International Journal of Stress Management, 11(2), 132-148.
- Oberg, K. (1960). Culture shock: Adjustments to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 4, 177-182.
- Winkelman, M. (1994). Culture shock and adaptation. Journal of Counseling & Development, 73, 121-126.