When a person moves to a new country the experience, despite much preparation beforehand, can feel overwhelming. Whether an individual moves to a country with the same first language or not, the process of assimilating the new culture can be a time of great emotional turbulence. This can apply to international students and it is helpful to realise that is quite normal to feel this way.
What is “culture shock”?
“Culture shock” is a term used to describe the anxiety produced when a person moves from a familiar culture to an entirely different cultural or social environment. Familiar sights, sounds and smells are no longer around and small things can easily upset a person and can feel out of proportion.
- Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
- Preoccupation with health
- Aches, pains, allergies
- Insomnia or excessive sleep
- Changes in mood, depression, feeling vulnerable
- Anger, irritability, resentment
- Loss of identity
- Lack of confidence
- Obsessions over cleanliness
- Longing for family
- Feeling of being lost or overlooked
Stages of culture shock
Most people experience culture shock in stages. Many people go through different phases of this process a number of times. Some stages may only apply partially to you.
1. The Honeymoon Stage
Everything about the new culture will delight and stimulate the new arrival. The language will be studied with enthusiasm and great progress will be made. Memories of home are still close to mind and this has a protective value on the individual.
2. The Disintegration Stage
This stage can arrive without warning and can be triggered by a small incident or without any cause. Cultural differences will no longer be celebrated but be viewed as a source of conflict. A person may feel confused, isolated and depressed whilst missing familiar supports.
3. The Reintegration Stage
At this stage a person may begin to compare the new culture unfavourably with home. He/she begins to reject the differences encountered. Feelings of anger, frustration and hostility to the new culture begin to surface. Comfort food from the person’s home country may be sought and consumed with delight. This is quite a healthy reaction. The person is reconnecting with what he/she valued about themselves and their own culture.
4. The Acceptance Stage
A kind of equilibrium is attained in this stage where the person learns to accept both difference and similarity. The individual becomes more relaxed and confident as he/she becomes more familiar with situations and is able to cope well. Most experiences become enjoyable and one is able to make choices according to their own values and preferences.
How to help yourself
- Tell yourself that what you are experiencing is normal.
- Stay in touch with home by email, text or telephone.
- Have familiar things with personal meaning around you, such as photos or ornaments.
- Try to find familiar food if you can. Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
- Learn to include a regular form of physical activity into your routine.
- Links with a faith community is helpful to some students. Many chaplaincies welcome students of all faiths for pastoral or social activities.
- Maintain contact with your ethnic group and if possible with local students.
- Be prepared to take the first step and find activities which will give you a common interest with other students.
- Take time to find out what services the University offers, for example, the Orientation programme, information/support from the Office of Global Engagement, hall wardens, the health centre, and the counselling service. Even if at home you wouldn’t consider such steps, in the UK it is normal and may be of help when familiar support is missing.
- Check out what is on at the Students’ Union and its societies.
- Maintain confidence in yourself. Follow your ambitions and continue your plans for the future.
- If you feel stressed, look for help. There is always someone or some service available to help you. Check out the resources below.
Personal tutors and other staff in your department
Residential Tutors in your halls of residence
The University Counselling Service. See:
A web-based training resource on culture transition designed for US students abroad but of potential interest to any international student/ See:
UKCISA has a website offering advice for international students with a link to download Guidance Notes for students. See:
The University’s Office for Global Engagment (OFGE). See: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/ofge
OFGE offer an Intercultural Training programme open to all students at Warwick. www.warwick.ac.uk/interculturaltraining
Go Global initiative helps students to find a number of internationalisation activities in which they can get involved (https://www.warwicksu.com/goglobal/)
OFGE Welcome to Warwick programme (open to all international students in 2017, as well as all postgraduate students) is also designed to help ease the transition into life at Warwick: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/study/international/welcometowarwick/
OFGE also organise a range of trips and events to enhance the international student experience throughout the year, details of which can be found at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/study/international/students/trips/
OFGE videos containing student testimonials from international and EU students facing homesickness and culture shock:
An interesting article about students' experiences of culture shock: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/30/i-wasnt-prepared-for-the-culture-shock-of-being-an-international-student
For an opportunity to meet a family from the UK who is separate from the University, see:
For Chinese students:
The Chaplaincy. See:
Self-help leaflets in different languages:
A comprehensive guide to preparing for University:
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