Understanding Culture Shock

Understanding psychological processes during your adaption to a life in a foreign country

Expatriation is not merely a decision, it’s a transformative process. Even more so: it is a wonderful and exciting journey of lifelong learning. At the same time, this journey is not without its challenges and emotional hurdles. While living abroad grants a strong sense of independence and boundless freedom, it also presents a vast labyrinth of unfamiliarity and constant change. Adaption is crucial, often requiring a trial-and-error approach.

The experiences of an expat, digital nomad, or exchange student can be subdivided into different phases. Each phase demands its own set of adaption processes and abilities. Psychological distress is involved in every adjustment process.

When moving abroad, we refer to the psychological distress and emotional reactions during the adaption process as Culture Shock.

Think of it as sitting in a rollercoaster of emotions. It often manifests as frustration, anger, or feelings of inadequacy, but is not limited to these emotions.

Three psychological adaption models

To comprehend the rollercoaster of adaptation better, I introduce some pioneer psychological models to you. These are pretty dated models but remain relevant for understanding culture shock stages.

1. The pioneer U-curve model (Oberg, 1960) illustrates the expatriate’s journey after leaving the home country: starting with excitement (the honeymoon phase), descending into the challenges of reorientation (culture shock), and gradually ascending towards equilibrium (adjustment). But this does not explain the full journey sufficiently.

2. A W-curve model was introduced to account for the rollercoaster experience of repatriation when returning to your home country (Gullahorn & Gullahorn, 1963). It’s a realization that upon repatriation sojourners often experiences similar challenges and adjustments as before. You also might have asked yourself this common question: “Should I stay, or should I go?”  Even though it is your home country you return to, repatriation again triggers culture shock effects.

3. Third, adaption is required even before entering the new country. Organizational preparations, as well as expectation and individual cognitive processes lead to distress and an anticipating emotional rollercoaster (Black et al., 1991).

Why do I present these models?

By understanding and actively engaging in the adaptation process, you will improve your coping skills and your resilience, more easily overcome culture shock experiences and find your sense of belonging in your new cultural environment.

Cultural adjustment is inevitable

In summary, embrace the exhilarating journey of expatriation, acknowledging that culture shock is part of the ride. With understanding and active engagement, you can conquer the peaks and valleys of adaptation, follow your values, ultimately finding your role and place in your life abroad.

    If you’re in need of guidance and support as you navigate the challenges of expatriation and culture shock, don’t hesitate to reach out. As a coach specialized in this area, I’m here to provide assistance and help you thrive in your new cultural environment. Feel free to contact me to explore how I can support you on your expatriation journey.

    Hi, I am Sarah. It is my passion to learn and teach about human thinking, emotions, and behavior.

    Sarah Eisenacher

    Expat Coach and Psychologist (PhD)

    Article last updated on 17JAN2024


    Black, J. S., Mendenhall, M., & Oddou, G. (1991). Toward a comprehensive model of international adjustment: An integration of multiple theoretical perspectives. The Academy of Management Review, 16(2), 291–317. https://doi.org/10.2307/258863

    Gullahorn, J. T., & Gullahorn, J. E. (1963). An extension of the U-curve hypothesis. Journal of Social Issues, 19(3), 33–47. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1963.tb00447.x

    Oberg, K. (1960) Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177-182. https://doi.org/10.1177/009182966000700405