Moving to another country or city, or living in a different culture can be both rewarding and challenging. Understandably, everyone who makes a move like this goes through a period of adjustment. Cultural adjustment is the very normal process of adapting to the different expectations and environment of a new, unfamiliar culture. It’s important for this to happen so that people can be comfortable, well, and successful in their new environment.
Adjusting to a new culture takes time, and some people will become comfortable more quickly than others. Some people experience prolonged challenges or even mental health problems which makes it more difficult to adjust to new environments. While it’s completely normal to feel uncomfortable in an unfamiliar culture, it’s important to seek help if you have any concerns.
How do people adjust to new cultures?
There is a widely accepted psychological model that explains the process people go through when they are adjusting to a new culture. People typically pass through four phases on their journey to adjustment:
- Honeymoon: During the initial phase, you feel excited by the move and new experiences. You feel positive and optimistic.
- Crisis: This phase is sometimes referred to as ‘culture shock’ and is the most distressing phase of adjustment. People often go through a period of feeling anxious, doubtful or sad about the change. There are some common symptoms people experience during this time, which are discussed in more detail in the next section. People who experience difficulty moving beyond this phase may particularly benefit from help from a mental health professional.
- Recovery: During this phase, you become more aware of what is appropriate and expected, and learn and feel more comfortable with cultural differences. Often, your mood will improve, you accept the cultural differences, and you get a sense of achievement in mastering the new culture.
- Adjustment: This is when the culture no longer feels so foreign or different. You accept your own culture and the new culture, and can function at your usual capacity again.
Symptoms of culture shock
People can have very different challenging experiences during the process of cultural adjustment. During the ‘crisis’ phase of adjusting, people are trying to fit in with the new culture, and learn what is acceptable or appropriate and what is not. During this understandably stressful time, it’s common for people to experience:
- Changes in eating patterns
- Changes in sleeping patterns or feeling fatigued
- Feeling irritable or angry
- Feeling sad or lonely
- Feeling confused
- Feeling homesick and contacting home more frequently
- Spending less time with people or participating in activities
- Doubting yourself
How common is it for people to experience difficulty adjusting to a new culture?
It’s very normal for people to experience challenges adjusting to a new culture. It’s something that almost everyone in this position experiences, albeit in different ways. In fact, one way that you can help yourself to adjust is to accept that this process is very normal and challenging.
Mental health challenges and cultural adjustment
Like anyone coping with a major life change, people who are adjusting to a new culture may experience mental health challenges. Adjusting to a new culture presents a set of unique challenges which may increase the risk of mental health problems requiring professional help, such as:
Treatment options for cultural adjustment
It’s very normal to experience challenges during the process of adjusting to a new culture. The upshot of this is the development of specialized services to help. Consider a combination of the following:
- Therapy: Talk therapies in both individual or group settings can help address mental health concerns and the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture. Therapy types to consider are discussed in more detail below.
- School and college resources: If you are a student, most educational institutions have a team of counselors or international student services that provide specific support for cultural adjustment.
- Social supports: It’s important not to isolate yourself. Keep in touch with family and friends from home, and look for people and activities in your new culture that align with your interests. Some people find it helpful to talk to people who are also going through the adjustment experience. This can help to normalize the feelings people have.
- Learn: Talk or read about other people’s experiences adjusting to new cultures and understand that most people will find it to be a difficult process. Learn about the phases of cultural adjustment so that you are aware that the feelings of discomfort won’t last forever.
- Physical health: Take care of yourself by eating healthily, exercising and getting enough sleep.
- Hotlines: If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Therapy types to help with cultural adjustment
Although it’s normal to experience challenges adjusting, it’s important to seek help if you are concerned, or if your symptoms are impacting on your daily activities. You don’t need to be experiencing a mental health condition to benefit from therapy.
Most therapy types can be applied to cultural adjustment challenges. Common examples of therapy types include:
- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Psychoanalytic Therapy
- Psychodynamic Therapy
- Interpersonal Therapy
- Narrative Therapy
What to look for in a therapist for issues related to cultural adjustment
There are several factors to consider when choosing a therapist to help with adjustment issues:
Education: It’s always important to look for a mental health professional with a current license. This ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice and has participated in ongoing professional development. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that all of our therapists have already been vetted.
Specialized training: Regardless of which type of mental health professional you choose to work with, you’ll want to be sure the therapist is committed to culturally competent practice and has prior experience working with people from different cultures. These therapists are aware of different world views and provide therapy adapted to different cultural values and beliefs.
Personal fit: It’s important to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working. The trusting working relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy. People adjusting to different cultures often feel isolated and different from everyone else, so you want to be sure that you are working with someone who you feel understands you and is sensitive to cultural differences.
Ask in advance: The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also enables you to ask about their experience, what type of therapy they suggest, and what it will be like. Try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding on a provider.
- Berkely International Office, “Cultural Adjustment”
- University of Texas at Austin, “Cultural Adjustment: A Guide for International Students”
- Princeton University, “Four Common Stages of Cultural Adjustment” (PDF)