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The 4 Stages of Culture Shock When You Study Abroad in the U.S.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock When You Study Abroad in the U.S. Most people think they aren’t going to experience culture shock when they move to another country. “That isn’t going to happen to me,” they might say. “It’s going to be amazing every day I’m there!” That is exactly what I thought when I moved from my home in the U.S. to South America for two years. I thought that I was different, stronger or something, until one day culture shock hit me like a ton of bricks. I had a lot of the classic symptoms:
  • Changes in mood
  • Minor health issues
  • Sleep problems
  • Missing family
  • Feeling like an outsider
  • Isolation
I had underestimated the fact that coming to a new country is a challenge! Sure, it’s exciting and new, but it’s also scary because you don’t know exactly what to expect. How different will it be from home? Will you be able to adjust? Will you make friends? This is especially true for Bridge Pathways students who come to study on a U.S. university campus. They must adapt to the new culture of the country and of American college life. It isn’t always easy. What I didn’t know then is that there are four stages of culture shock, and being aware of them can help you recognize and better cope with culture shock.

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Stage

The name says it all. This stage usually lasts for around three months, during which everything is fresh and wonderful and you just can’t get enough of your new country. You never want this stage to end, and during this stage, you never actually think it will! It’s like being high on some sort of culture drug. Colors seem brighter, the language is beautiful (even if you can’t understand it) and everything is charming to you. For example, I remember how endearing I thought the feral dogs were that I saw roaming the streets in South America. I loved everything about my new country. I thought, “How can it get better than this?” Well, the high must subside at some point, and when it does, you are left with honeymoon hangover. Welcome to Stage 2.

Stage 2: The Crisis/Depression Stage

Using no uncertain terms, the crisis/depression stage is a real bummer. It can come on suddenly, when the differences in your new country start to impact you negatively. The experiences you’re having no longer feel new; in fact, they are starting to get tiring. You feel confused, isolated or inadequate and realize that your familiar support systems (e.g. family and friends) are not easily accessible. During this stage, many different feelings may arise, like moodiness, confusion, anxiety, homesickness, anger and loneliness. You may feel overwhelmed, unsure of yourself, or less confident than you did at home. The language barrier is no longer a welcomed challenge, but a source of frustration. I remember noticing that the stray dogs I found so endearing during the honeymoon stage were suddenly getting to be annoying! This phase can last from one 1-6 months depending on the person. But don’t despair. This stage also comes to a close. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel: the adjustment stage.

Stage 3: The Adjustment Stage

In the adjustment stage, things get better as you mover toward acceptance. You’re almost there! This is the stage when you start to come out of the “fog” and finally begin to feel like yourself again. You start to accept the differences and feel like you can live with them. As you gain experience in the culture, you feel more confident and better able to cope with any problems that you face. You’ve gotten in a routine now, made some friends, and picked up a bit more of the language, so you no longer feel isolated and you’re able instead to look at the world around you and appreciate where you are. All of the quirks about this new culture that at first charmed and then irritated you are now so commonplace you hardly notice them. I must have reached this stage when I was no longer fazed by the pack of stray dogs I saw on my way to work everyday!

Stage 4: Acceptance

Ah, acceptance, sweet, sweet acceptance. This is the stage where you finally feel normal again and you embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. Things start to become enjoyable again. You feel comfortable, confident and maybe even like part of the community. You understand and appreciate both the differences and similarities of both your own and this new culture. Best of all, you start to feel at home. The stages of culture shock are totally normal and happen to most people who move abroad to a new culture. The best way to deal with culture shock is to stay connected to your friends and family at home, while not being afraid to create new connections in the U.S. Join a university club on campus that interests you, get involved in an expat group to meet others in the same boat, or join a gym or sports team. You can’t avoid the stages of adjustment to a new country, but you can make the journey smoother.
Now that you know how to prepare for culture shock, are you ready to start your journey studying in the United States? Check out all of our BridgePathways locations in the United States to get started!

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