Moving to another country or city or living in a different culture can be both exciting and intimidating. 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 in a foreign country. It's important for this to happen so that people can be comfortable, well, and successful in their unfamiliar environment.
Adjusting to a new host culture takes time, and some people will become comfortable more quickly than others. Some people experience prolonged challenges or even mental health problems which make it more difficult to adjust to foreign environments. While discomfort and homesickness are normal to feel in an unfamiliar culture, it's important to seek help if you have any concerns.
How do people adjust to foreign 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 Phase: During this first phase, you'll have feelings of initial excitement about the move and new experiences. You feel positive and optimistic.
- Crisis Phase: Often referred to as the ‘culture shock phase,' this secondary stage is the most distressing step 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 difficult stage, which will be 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 Phase: During this phase, you become more aware of what is appropriate and expected and learn and feel more comfortable with differences in culture experiences. Often, your mood will improve, you accept the cultural differences, and you get a sense of achievement in mastering the new culture.
- Adjustment Phase: This is when a comfort level is met in the host culture which no longer feels alienating or different. You accept your own culture of origin and the new culture and can function at your usual ability again.
Symptoms of culture shock
People can have a very wide range of challenging experiences during the cultural adjustment process. During the ‘crisis' phase, people are trying to fit in with the new culture and learn unfamiliar rules on what is acceptable or proper and what is not. During this understandably stressful time, common feelings and disruptions that people experience as signs of culture shock include:
- Changes in eating patterns
- Changes in sleeping patterns or feeling fatigued
- Feeling irritable or angry
- Feeling sad or lonely
- Feelings of uncertainty and confusion
- Feelings of homesickness and contacting home more frequently
- Spending less time with people or taking part in activities
- Doubting yourself
How common is it for people to have trouble adjusting to a new culture?
It's very normal for people to experience the effects of culture shock when adjusting to a new host country or culture, especially when there are language differences. 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 frustrating, but very normal.
Cultural adjustment and mental health challenges
Like anyone coping with a major life change, people who are adjusting to a new culture and unfamiliar situations may experience mental health challenges. Adjusting to a foreign language and new social situations 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 normal to experience challenges while 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 and community organizations that provide specific support for cultural adjustment.
- Social support: It's important not to isolate yourself. Maintain communication with friends and family from home and find activities and people in your new culture that have the same 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 of dislocation that people have.
- Learn: Talk or read about other people's experiences with cultural adjustment and understand that most people will find it to be a complicated process. Learn about the distinct 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, getting adequate exercise, 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 affecting your daily activities or everyday life. You don't need to be experiencing a mental health condition to receive help from therapy.
Most therapy types can be applied to cultural adjustment challenges. Common examples of therapy types include:
- Cognitive Behavior 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 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 inaccurate assumptions on different world views and provide therapy adapted to other cultural expectations, 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 massive impact on the efficacy of therapy. People adjusting to unfamiliar 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 a complete picture of what therapy 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)