Study Abroad: How to Overcome Homesickness and Culture Shock
Overcoming homesickness and culture shock can be incredibly rough, especially because it is often something that won’t go away overnight. It’s made even worse by the fact that some people don’t take homesickness and culture shock serious and don’t realize just how much it can affect a person. However, being homesick does not mean that you are weak. It is experienced by a great number of people, and can be beaten. Find out how to overcome homesickness and culture shock when studying abroad!
I’ll be the first to admit that when I studied abroad in Japan for four months, I dealt with severe homesickness and culture shock. The culture shock I had been expecting, the homesickness I did not. The pillows and beds were much harder than I was used to so I was having trouble sleeping and was fighting extreme jet lag. Plus, I am already a picky eater, and I quickly found that there were VERY few foods in Japan I would actually eat. I really didn’t have the “honeymoon phase” of culture shock. While I was excited about learning and experiencing Japanese culture, the “negotation phase” of culture shock hit me from day one.
In the beginning, I thought that I would just need time to adjust, but I quickly found that, the more time passed, the worse I felt. Due to anxiety and homesickness, I developed a strong aversion to food. Just the thought of food repulsed me, and I struggled to eat even a handful or so of chips for every meal. I began to really worry that this was going to be my life for the next four months.
How Did I Overcome Homesickness and Culture Shock?
For me, the key to overcoming homesickness was to stop looking at the big picture and just take baby steps. I stressed myself out because I knew that I should be eating more than just a cracker or two for meals. I felt uncomfortable when I had to go out to eat at restaurants because of social obligations. I wouldn’t order anything, or if I did, I couldn’t take more than a few bites of what I had ordered (and leaving leftover food like this is frowned upon in Japan). I was incredibly anxious that I had made a huge mistake by going on this trip, that I hadn’t been ready at all. At the end of the day, none of those thoughts were getting me anywhere.
The key to beating my homesickness was to stop looking at the big picture and just take baby steps.
So here are my five tips for overcoming homesickness and culture shock when studying abroad….
#5 – Read Other Peoples’ Stories
When trying to figure out how to overcome my homesickness and culture shock, I spent a lot of time reading tips for beating homesickness, desperately trying to find something that would finally help me. Doing so lead me to find stories from many other people who had also dealt with homesickness, whether they were going off to college, doing a study abroad program, or had moved to a different country. Reading their stories was a small comfort, if only because it meant that I wasn’t truly alone. There were plenty of other people who had been homesick or dealt with culture shock and eventually overcame it. If they could do it, I could too.
#4 – Limit Your Connection to Home
Before I left for Japan, I told my mom that under no circumstance – bar a medical or family emergency – was she to allow me to come home. Looking back, this was one of the best things I ever did when preparing to study abroad. She had to remind me of that statement, because we both knew that if I went home early from this study abroad experience, I would live to regret it.
During the first few weeks in Japan, when I would skype with my mom, I would feel better, but only in those moments. As soon as we hung up, I would often feel worse than I did before calling her. I’m not saying to completely cut off connection with your family, but try to not let it prevent you from moving forward.
#3 – Push Yourself, But Not Too Hard
This tip for overcoming homesickness and culture shock when studying abroad is a little contradictory to the last one. If limiting contact with family isn’t pushing yourself, then I don’t know what is. Just bear with me on this one.
In all of the research I did, trying to learn how to deal with homesickness, one of the most common tips was to not stay locked up in your room. Go out and explore the new place you find yourself in. While I agree with that, I think you should also be careful.
I forced myself to try and keep busy, to go explore the new world I found myself in. However, I only resulted in giving myself a panic attack in the middle of a shopping area. I was overwhelmed by the loud sounds, intense smells, and bright lights that surrounded me, for the busy city was very different than my quiet hometown. After that experience, I was definitely in no mood to try to go out and experience my new home.
If getting out and discovering your new home is just a little too overwhelming, do it in stages. Start off by hanging out in front of your new place (whether it’s a dorm, apartment, etc) and just people watch. As you start feeling better, explore the street where you live, the neighborhood, and eventually the whole city.
#2 – Take Things One at a Time
As I mentioned above, I added to my anxiety and homesickness by stressing about my inability to eat and my crazy jet lag. I was worried that I was never going to be able to eat more than a few crackers and start having to worry about unhealthy weight loss.
It’s not easy, but you have to learn to stop this negative thinking in its tracks. Once it gets started, it tends to spiral out of control very quickly. If I can only eat three crackers for lunch, that is okay. For dinner I will eat four crackers, and for breakfast tomorrow, I will eat five. I didn’t just magically overcome my homesickness and culture shock. It was a process. Accept where you are at with it and take small steps to cross that bridge. Eventually you’ll find yourself at the other side.
#1 – Find People to Lean On
I still remember the day my homesickness took a turn for the better. A few of the people in my dorm got together to play a game of cards. We played uno and old maid, and I was thrilled to find that there are card games which are universal. Having the card game helped me meet other people in the dorm in a situation where I was comfortable (instead of at a restaurant where I was worried about eating or out on the town where I felt overwhelmed).
If you’re simply traveling to a place (as opposed to moving there) it may not be as easy to find friends such as I did, but it doesn’t mean that there is nobody to lean on. Find hotel or restaurant staff that aren’t super busy and willing to sit and chat for a few minutes. Most will be happy to spend a few minutes telling you about the local area to help you feel more comfortable.
Those are my tips for beating homesickness! I hope they can help!
Have you ever been homesick? Have some tips for beating it that you think I missed? Feel free to share your story in the comments below!
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