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Coping with Culture Shock: Lessons I Learned from Living Abroad

Living abroad will be the best time of your life, but it can also be the hardest time of your life. Culture shock is real, and it will happen to you. Going into an environment abroad expecting everything to always feel new and exciting is unrealistic, and you will have some hard times. Ultimately this will help you grow and develop as a person, but it can be hard to see that in the moment when it feels like everything is going wrong. This may seem negative, and that isn't my intent, but more to show you that despite all of the Instagram posts, life abroad isn't always pretty. It can actually be quite difficult, and if you've never dealt with culture shock before it can be amplified when you're abroad, constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.

Culture shock is nothing new to me. I moved across the country from a rural New England town to Southern California, where I faced this on a much lower scale. I started to miss the winters, and people in California seemed overly friendly. But after living there for 4 years, I consider it my second home. It really does just take time to adjust to a new environment, and it will always get better.

I didn't really face culture shock when I studied abroad in Argentina because I was only there for the summer, but my second time dealing with it was when I moved to Spain after graduation to teach English. This time was much more difficult, I was dealing with feelings of postgrad anxiety, had just moved to a foreign country I'd never visited before on my own, and really didn't know just how different life in Spain would be. I had definitely romanticized my new life abroad before getting there, and once the novelty wore off I started to feel a bit homesick.

From my own personal experience, I can tell you that it always gets better. Look up the "cultural adjustment curve", it explains perfectly the process you'll go through. And once you get on the upside of the curve, you'll realize that you actually feel quite at home in your new country, and you've established a nice little home and community for yourself there.

Culture shock is real, and it can absolutely ruin your experience abroad if you let it. It's important to be mindful of your own personal biases when entering an environment abroad. Understand that things are done differently, and that's OK. But you'll still have to face it, so here are some of my tips for coping with culture shock while you're living abroad.

  • Talk to other expats... Obviously be careful with this one because it can quickly turn into an echo chamber, but having other expat friends really, really does help. While you absolutely should make some local friends, it can be so helpful to have someone to vent to that understands exactly what you've been through, cause they've been through the same thing themselves.

  • ...But not just expats. Isolating yourself from your host country culture will only make things worse. While it's important to have expat friends, hanging out only with people from your own culture won't allow you to integrate. Feeling like you're a part of and knowledgable in your host country culture will allow you to adjust much faster, so get out there and meet some locals! You will learn so much from each other.

  • Therapy is OK. Taking care of your mental health is so important, whether you're at home or abroad. Feelings of homesickness and culture shock are absolutely reasons to go to therapy, and if it's really getting to you, don't be afraid to talk things out with a therapist. There are plenty of online resources, and most major cities will have a therapist that speaks your native language.

  • Remind yourself why you're there. Why did you move abroad in the first place? Leaving your comfort zone will always be uncomfortable, but this is you growing. You are changing so much as a person, and you will come back stronger and more confident.

  • Get outside. While staying inside your apartment all day talking to friends and family from back home can sometimes seem tempting, this is only making things worse for you, I promise. Get out there, meet new people, and explore your city. Chances are you're only there for a certain amount of time, and you don't want to waste that time inside your apartment, missing home.

  • Develop a routine. And stick to it. Having a routine and a semblance of normalcy in your daily life really helps. Practice your daily rituals that you enjoy, whether it's a skincare routine, meditating before bed every night, or making avocado toast for breakfast on the weekends. Having those little things to look forward to will help so much.

  • Move your body. You know that working out is good for your health, so don't neglect it just because you're abroad! Find a gym or studio near you that you enjoy. I found a hot yoga studio in Madrid that I loved, and it was pretty cool to take classes in Spanish and realize that I was able to understand it. This will help you meet new people and develop a sense of community, as well as relieve stress.

  • Treat this place as if it's your permanent home. You may be leaving in a year or two, but try to think of the city you're in as if it were your permanent home, instead of someplace you're just passing through. Make friends and develop a community as if you were staying there forever. While this will be sad to leave, you'll always have wonderful connections and friendships from around the world, and you'll look back on your time abroad with nothing but fondness.

Sure, culture shock may suck, but living abroad is so, so, so worth it. Like I've said before, it will change your life, and you'll grow and develop so much as a person. You'll be forced to be independent, and this is a good thing! You'll break out of that shell and that comfort zone, and before you know it you'll be fluent in another language and have lots of cool foreign friends. Living abroad is addictive, and after doing it once, you can't stop. No wonder so many people are lifelong expats. And remember: you only regret the things you didn't do.

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