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Mental Health & Study Abroad

While studying abroad students experience acculturation, which is the process of adopting the cultural traits or social patterns of another group. It is not uncommon for acculturation to be associated with acculturative stress, or more commonly known as culture shock. Acculturative stress is associated with psychological changes and behavioral alterations in an individual while adjusting to another culture that is different from one's own.

Signs and Symptoms
Individuals differ greatly in the degree in which acculturation affects them, many may not even experience affects at all. The signs and symptoms of acculturation and acculturative stress come from experiencing ways of doing, perceiving, or valuing things that are different from your own. A few signs and symptoms could be:
  • Feeling increased anxiety and sadness
    • Easily irritable
    • Excessive fear
    • Excessive amount of sleep
  • Feeling lonely or social isolation
    • Homesickness or withdrawal
    • Compulsive eating and/or drinking
  • Feeling uncomfortable and helpless
    • Excessive need for cleanliness
  • Rejecting the new culture and the people of host country
    • Refusal to learn the language and culture
    • Desire for dependence on residence of one's own nationality
Risk Factors
There are also some risk factors related to the signs and symptoms of acculturative stress. These may include:
  • Poor language proficiency
  • Loss of familiar social support
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Weak host country identification
  • Separating self from new environment
  • Poor relations with host nationals
  • Not connecting with host country or home country (marginalization)
Ways to Cope
There are ways that can help to cope with the acculturation process and acculturative stress:
  • Learn effective coping strategies
  • Increase social interaction with host country nationals
    • The quantity and quality of interaction impacts positive adjustment
      • Make active attempts to connect and interact
        • Try to make friends with locals and with students in your program
  • Improve cultural understanding and participation
    • Make active attempts to appreciate and engage in new cultural experiences
    • Make attempts to learn the language, even basic phrases
    • Learn about the host culture before you go
      • Read articles, listen to music, search for helpful information, etc.
    • Learn about cultural competency and work to be aware of your own culture
    • Join available activities or clubs to help learn more about the culture
      • Take part of any available excursions
    • Plan weekend trips
    • Set learning goals for your time abroad
    • Do not forget about your own culture
There are other ways that could help you cope with acculturative stress:
  • Keep in touch with and talk to your support group
    • Social support has been shown to reduce the effects of acculturative stress
  • Reach out to program coordinators or study abroad alumni who participated in the same program
  • Give yourself time to adjust
  • Take care of yourself!
    • Exercise
    • Journal your experiences and thoughts
    • Talk things out
Returning Back
Re-entry shock occurs when you return back to your home country. This affects students in many different ways. A few signs and symptoms of re-entry shock are:
  • Difficulty re-adjusting to being home
  • Missing aspects from the study abroad experience
  • Heightened awareness of the difference between home culture’s values, customs, and traditions compared to abroad country’s
You may ask, "How can I better adjust to returning home?" It might be helpful to ask yourself questions similar to the following:
  • How have I changed as a result of studying abroad?
  • What have I learned from my time abroad?
  • Has my identity changed while I was abroad?
    • If so, how could I adjust to this new identity?
  • How could I incorporate aspects of my experience into day-today life?
Other tips that could be useful for adjusting back home are:
  • Reflect on your time abroad
  • Keep in contact with any friends you may have met while abroad
  • Share your experiences with friends and/or family
For more information about re-entry from studying abroad check out our Re-Entry page.
 
Additional Resources
Here are some additional resources to assist in learning about the effects of acculturation and acculturative stress: