Reverse Culture Shock: What is it?

The anticipation and excitement builds as you return to your home culture, yet there is still a sadness of leaving your host culture. The emotions of the return can leave you on a sort of emotional “high” for a time. You finally get to visit that one store that you really really like and really missed while you were gone. The friend you have spoken with over text can finally be spoken to in real life. Holidays are coming up and can actually be spent with family. The beloved coffee shop that you used to basically live at is still there and has one of your favorite seasonal drinks.

All of these exciting new things are happening. So why is it so shocking? Why do you have those emotions that you don’t really know how to sort through? Why is something that would normally bring you joy, all of the sudden bringing you frustration or apathy? Well, there’s a thing called “Reverse culture shock.”

What is Reverse Culture Shock?

Reverse culture shock isn’t a medical condition, but it does affect your ability to process emotions and events as you normally would. Reverse culture shock can be defined as: “the emotional and psychological distress suffered by some people when they return home after time overseas. This can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar.”

Unfortunately, with reverse culture shock, the effects are not all the same and it does not affect all people the same. Some people breeze through the adjustment period, while others (like myself) have intense anxiety and difficulty.

What are Symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock?

It is important to know the symptoms of reverse culture shock so that you know what to prepare for upon your return, or to understand what is happening to you currently. As family members and friends of people who are returning, it is also extremely important for us to come alongside the returnees and be a sort of anchor for them during this time. Patience is key for all parties involved. Below are some common symptoms of reverse culture shock.

Common symptoms of culture shock

  • Feelings of helplessness/dependency

  • Disorientation and isolation

  • Apathy

  • Depression and sadness

  • Hyper-irritability, may include inappropriate anger and hostility

  • Sleep and eating disturbances (too little or too much)

  • Excessive critical reactions to home culture/stereotyping

  • Hypochondria

  • Loss of focus and ability to complete tasks

What are the stages of Reverse Culture Shock?

(Source: John and Jeanne Gullahorn) found on )

(Source: John and Jeanne Gullahorn) found on

Above is a great picture of what reverse culture shock feels like. Numbers 1-4 represent the culture shock you feel in your host culture, then numbers 5-8 represent your return to your home culture.

Here are the four stages of RCS explained:

Honeymoon: You get home and you’re excited, everything is great. Friends and family are thrilled to see you.

Crisis: You then start to feel sad or confused, maybe even a little like you’ve lost your identity. Frustration kicks in. Maybe you felt more useful in the other country, so now you wonder what your purpose is at home.

Recovery: Things start to look a little better and you begin to enjoy things again. You are no longer comparing your home culture to your host culture and you’re a little less frustrated.

Adjustment: You are finally coming to grips with the culture back at home and you are feeling more and more accustomed to the pace of life. Driving is no longer scary and that Walmart parking lot isn’t something to avoid (I avoided big parking lots for several months). At this point you feel like things are finally becoming your new normal.

In part 2 we are going to discuss how to deal with Reverse Culture Shock from the perspective of a family member or friend of a returnee, and from the perspective of a returnee as well. Communication and Community are key to transition, so we will be giving tips on how to ask questions or talk about the experiences. Make sure to come back for part 2, next week!

Samantha CouickComment