Culture shock

Reverse culture shock is the dark side of living abroad

There are turning points in life that you remember with more clarity than you would like. One of mine: June 29, 2016, when I was sure I was dying. It was 3 am and I was in Amsterdam, at the end of a six-month stay abroad. In just a few hours, I was supposed to board a flight back to Canada, and yet I was there. Hot cheek pressed against a cold toilet seat, out of breath. I was shaking so intensely that I was – between bouts of vomiting – grateful for the international student insurance I would surely need for ambulance transport to the ER.

It was the first panic attack I had ever had. I didn’t know it wouldn’t be my last. Six months earlier, I had happily left the Montreal campus of my university. My school was notorious for making students feel like success was always a bit out of reach (it’s one of the best colleges in the world…and we were constantly reminded of that). I needed a break from the pressure. The Netherlands beckoned me and in Amsterdam I found the relief I was craving. Sure, I took a few sociology courses, but in those six months what I really did was see the world for the first time. I discovered commonalities that crossed cultures (turns out we’re all looking for someone to enjoy an Aperol spritz and reality TV with) and found family among friends from around the world. ‘places I had never heard of (I now have a sofa to sleep on almost every continent). I fell in love with a city, a boy (spoiler: he’s still in the picture), and a slower, happier, and somehow more meaningful way of life than anything I had known.

Hannah Chubb

I never ended up in an ambulance that night, but I would land in a hospital soon enough. My plan for returning to Canada was to live in my college apartment for the summer, work on graduate school applications and GRE prep. But I found it hard to concentrate and quickly descended into such severe anxiety and depression that I had to move back to live with my parents eight hours away. I could feel the weight of my sadness sitting on my chest like a dumbbell. I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be happy. Every time I allowed myself to acknowledge my desperation, I panicked, ran to the nearest restroom to vomit, and then finally rushed to the ER.

High on tranquilizers in my local hospital, I told the doctors I didn’t know why I couldn’t stop crying. I had loving friends and family, a healthy relationship, enough money in savings, a good GPA in school. Yet my thoughts raced and my heartbeat quickened, my brain and body betraying me again and again. After prescribing more tranquilizers and antidepressants, a doctor explained to me that I probably had what is called reverse culture shock, an emotional and psychological distress sometimes experienced by those returning home from a hospital stay. ‘foreign. He told me that while it wasn’t an official medical diagnosis, it might as well be because healthcare workers see the phenomenon more often than you might think. (There are even entire books written about it, including The art of coming homeby Craig Storti.) I was so relieved to have a name for what I was going through, even though it wasn’t a family name.

I was so relieved to have a name for what I was going through, even if it wasn’t a family name.

As a psychology minor, I naturally did more investigating and quickly found the work of Janice Abarbanel, PhD. She has studied the mental impact of living abroad and said young travelers are often unprepared to deal with the intense emotional challenges that come with cultural transitions. Things like you miss the family you created abroad, the feeling that you can’t really explain your absence to people back home, the yearning for the freedom to travel, the realization that you don’t like your own culture, it can all be overwhelming, Abarbanel wrote. And the resulting emotional stress can interfere with your brain’s ability to solve problems, making it difficult to put your angst into words or put it into perspective. This is probably why the symptoms of reverse culture shock can set in quickly, especially for people like me who have moved from a slower pace of life to a still-busy society.

Abarbanel’s advice? Give students – or anyone who will be spending a lot of time abroad – an ’emotional passport’ which consists of awareness, access to counseling or therapy and coping skills before and after their trip. My school didn’t provide any of this, but frankly, I’m not sure she knew she needed it. You can’t fix things you don’t know are broken, which is why reverse culture shock needs to be part of the travel conversation. I hope to help start here: for a long time I was too embarrassed to talk openly about what I went through, but I want to shed some light on how what happened to me could and does happen to others.

I don’t blame Amsterdam for stealing any bits from me – I just wish I had known how to put myself back together after the flight home. It took six years, the aforementioned antidepressants (yes, I’m still taking them), and a lot of soul-searching, but I finally feel like I’m whole again. Traveling continues to be the most meaningful way to spend my time – it’s even a big part of my job now – and I do it fearlessly, knowing that I have my physical and emotional passports packed and ready to go.