Reverse Culture Shock and the Post-Abroad Slump

Reverse culture shock is real. When you return from long-term living somewhere unfamiliar, returning back to “normal life” can mean an abrupt coming down to earth.

 Studying abroad is a highlight of college. This is me with my Chilean host family and my "real" family, who came to visit. 

Studying abroad is a highlight of college. This is me with my Chilean host family and my "real" family, who came to visit. 

When I came back from studying abroad in Chile for the spring term of my sophomore year, I was a mess for weeks. I felt out of joint with the people around me, and at loose ends for plans and purpose. The countdown to the end of study abroad is such an intense and give-it-your-all way of living. Arriving home means loosing the excitement and vibrancy of life abroad, plus leaving all the sights, sounds, and experiences that made study abroad so special.

Culture Shock

Before you set off on a study abroad (or any prolonged travel), you will probably hear about culture shock time and time again. You’ll be warned that some aspects of culture or the mundane details of normal life will be different where you’re going, and that these differences will probably cause you to feel uncomfortable in ways you can’t anticipate before you go. This is almost always the case—I have experienced some degree of culture shock in all of my travels, from Chile and Honduras to Dublin and London. It even includes minor culture shock in places like Washington, DC or the first time I spent time in small-town Arizona. When you travel, you encounter different expectations of “this is just how things are.” Your favorite brand might not be in the convenience store refrigerator, or the change might be as significant as adjusting to seeing security guards with massive guns outside most shops (as is the case in much of Central America). These changes, large and small, nag at your expected way of being, and they add up to a sense of discomfort that gets categorized under “culture shock.”

What isn’t discussed so often is the reverse shock of returning home.

After my travels, I have often spent a couple of weeks getting back into the swing of things. When I’ve traveled in Spanish-speaking countries, I find myself back home mentally preparing for everyday conversations, checking to be sure I know all the vocabulary. Then I remember the upcoming exchange will be in my native English. It’s like a language jet-lag, and it really messes with my head.

The shock of unfamiliarity with the familiar is a bizarre and intensely disorienting experience. You might be walking through the neighborhood where you grew up, and all of a sudden it feels strange and uncomfortable. A certain smell will remind you of where you were abroad, or a memory will pop into your head and you’ll want to share it with a friend…only to realize that doing so would either be too complicated or too alienating to make it actually enjoyable.

This sense that you can’t fully share your thoughts and stories with the people around you can seriously impact your mental state when you return from studying abroad.

 Studying with my language tutor in Guatemala 

Studying with my language tutor in Guatemala 

I recently met up with a friend who was just back from studying in India. We met for a drink, and it took her nearly eight minutes to finally pick a cider. The array of options, and so easily available to her, was a shock. I remember coming back from my first major experience abroad, coming back from Guatemala. I had to get a birthday present and ended up at an indoor shopping mall. Never have I felt more out of place or bewildered in my life. The scale and flashiness and gaudiness of it all astounded me, not to mention the reverse sticker shock after having stayed for several days in a gorgeous hostel for approximately $3.16 per night.

So what does this mean for returning from abroad?

If you’re abroad now, there are a few things you can do that will make your transition back a little easier. One is to take a bit of your precious abroad time to stay connected with your friends and family back home. Make sure they know the names of the people important to your abroad experiences. Share some of the hard things you’ve been experiencing, along with the good. Invite them to engage with your abroad experiences while you’re still gone, so that when you get back they have an entry-point to your stories.

And be absolutely sure to continue taking an interest in the lives and experiences of your friends back home. It’s difficult to not feel disconnected from home while you’re traveling. Reach out and remind your friends that you still care about what’s going on with them while you’re gone.

The biggest thing you can do for yourself if you’re still abroad is to just live it up. Live every single moment so you have no regrets when you head back home.

Once you get back, give yourself some space and time to get re-adjusted. Plan for some down time, but also try to make some lists of things you’d like to make happen for yourself once you’re back. Leave room both to rest and to continue adventuring. No matter where you’re from, there are probably experiences worth having in your hometown. Continue traveling once you’re home. Go to the art museum. The nearby hike you’ve never gotten around to. Look up your town’s Trip Advisor site, and do a couple of those things. Learn something new—sign up to some class or activity that’s different from anything you did while abroad, or anything you’ve done before. Celebrate coming home by building new experiences in your days.

Stay busy. Too much downtime after traveling can leave you stuck in a serious rut.

On the flipside, give yourself time.

When I returned from Chile, I was so darn sad. I was busy for a few weeks, but then I had a month of summer when my Colorado friends were back in school and fall term hadn’t started yet in Oregon. My mental state in that time was somewhere between mourning and mild depressive symptoms. I won’t go into the details here. But I was sad, and it took a long time to get over it. I had a stack of books to read that I never read. I don’t really know what I did with that month, to be honest. I missed my American friends I met in Chile, and the Chileans I had gotten to know. I missed speaking Spanish and the music and dancing and constant travel. I missed my host family and the food and the walk to school. And I felt like I was rattling around in my childhood home—like things no longer fit and I didn’t belong.

These feelings pass with some time. You re-engage, and find new ways to channel your experiences and energies.

The biggest thing is to know that this is part of traveling. Like a hangover, it’s part of the reality of an emotional shadow after a long adventure. Wallow a bit, and then move ahead. Take some time to really celebrate the time you had while abroad, and then launch into everything that happens next.

The post-abroad slump is real, and it will get you. But just imagine everything "real life" holds in store...and all the adventures you can plan into your future.

If you liked this post, you should also check out "My Journey In Spanish," "A Disruption," "A Student Travel Mentality," and guest post about gap years and international travel by Rita Golden Gelman

Please share your experiences with traveling, culture shock, and the post-abroad slump in the comments section here.