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New Zealand by Alex Opipari
Almost everyone who travels outside their own country will experience cultural adjustment, regardless of the length of time they spend abroad. Experiencing the stress of cultural adjustment, commonly referred to as “culture shock,” is a normal process. It’s never easy to live in a new environment. Cultural adjustment is an uncomfortable disorientation that can occur when expectations don’t match up with reality. 

Adapting Strategies

There are many things travelers can do to help themselves adjust and deal with changes in a positive way. Check out our Mental Health page in addition to the below tips. 

Before you leave:

  • Set realistic expectations and understand there will be highs and lows. Be prepared to have some moments of sadness and disappointment.
  • Realize many social media posts and travel blogs capture rare highlights rather than daily life.
  • Understand your experience abroad could be very different from your friends and others you know. Keep an open mind.

Once you arrive:

  • Be prepared for some anxiety as you discover the new rules and habits of this new place.
  • You will probably miss odd things about life at home like certain foods or the convenience of stores being open late at night.
  • Recognize the symptoms of cultural adjustment and find healthy coping mechanisms that work for you.

Culture Curve

The timing of the cultural adjustment cycle varies by person, the length of time abroad, and how involved one becomes in the culture. It tends to follow a sine-curve of difficulty and changes for most people.
  • The first stage you will encounter is pre-departure anticipation. While planning and packing, you may feel exhilarated and nervous. You might lose interest in current activities and you might have insomnia.
  • Next comes post-arrival exhilaration. You may have a heightened sense of enthusiasm; changes in routine can be exciting. Some insomnia and queasiness are normal.
  • Then, some experience early traveling frustration. You might feel impatient or disenchanted with life in your host country or you might feel restless and irritable. You might rely on familiar activities and start to question your own values and those of your host country.
  • In the mid-traveling frustration phase, you may be quite homesick, discouraged, or feel hostility towards local people and customs. You may experience frustration, withdrawal, or outright rejection of local culture. Colds and headaches are common, as are stomach problems.
  • Late-traveling assimilation and integration means you begin to reconcile who you are within the local culture and recognize changes in yourself. You experience renewed interest in the host culture and have a more constructive attitude. You feel adapted to the host culture and equilibrium with the host country.

Resilient Traveling

Resiliency refers to the adaptability of individuals or groups of people after experiencing adverse events. A resilient person is one who has the ability to be self-aware, to self-regulate, think flexibly and optimistically, and to connect with others to manage stress. Therefore, the five factors of the Resiliency model are self-awareness, and self-regulation, flexible thinking, optimism, and connection.

Here are several strategies for coping with Cultural Adjustment by becoming a resilient traveler: 


  • Keep a journal: This helps you keep a sense of perspective and offers an opportunity to vent feelings without having to tell others. 
  • Get your personal life in focus: If you are leaving a partner behind, you may limit your experience because you are concentrating on a person far away. Similarly, if you attach yourself too strongly to your U.S.-American group, you can also limit your experience. 


  • Hobbies and exercise: Resist the temptation to withdraw. Plan to eat, sleep, and study at about the same time every day. Physical exercise is often the best medicine for anxiety and will help burn off frustration. Engage in hobbies or activities and meet locals with similar interests. 
  • Explore: Find a map, strike out on your own, and explore the territory. Observe people closely to pick up subtle nuances about the culture. When you take time to familiarize yourself with your new surroundings, you will feel more comfortable and gain confidence. 

Flexible Thinking 

  • Expand your comfort zone: Think of activities on a spectrum from comfort zone, challenge zone and panic zone. These zones are different for everyone. Trying new things in the challenge zone is key to experiencing growth, and ultimately expanding your comfort zone. Plus, you may find something new that you really love! 
  • Acknowledge differences: When your host culture is different than what you are used to, this can create a sense of frustration, either with your host culture or your home culture. Remember that differences do not have to equal good and bad, or right and wrong. They are simply different. 
  • Remember, all of this is temporary: Keep reminding yourself you will get through this. It’s normal to have both highs and lows while abroad. Not every moment will look like a highlight reel. In the end, satisfaction that you have adjusted to a new culture will be its own reward! 


  • Find a few supportive people & utilize your resources: Surround yourself with friendly and compassionate people. Talk to friends, on-site staff, or teachers. If you are going through a rough patch, others can help you get through it.   
Learn more by reviewing the University of Michigan’s Resilient Traveling page. It provides information on additional skills in becoming a resilient traveler, and how to apply those skills to scenarios often encountered abroad including loneliness, group conflict, and personal struggles. 

Reverse Culture Shock

Often, you will experience the same process of cultural adjustment in reverse when you return home. After returning to Boulder, many of these same adjustment tips can help: 
  • Be reflective: Give some thought to your return and to the types of intellectual and emotional changes you have undergone as a result of your time abroad. 
  • Understand the needs of others: Be patient with your friends and family who are trying to understand your experiences. Listen to the changes they un­derwent while you were away. 
  • Expect to have different feelings or views about your "home" culture: You are viewing it, perhaps for the first time, from the perspective of a foreign­er. A common tendency is to be highly critical of shortcomings you did not see before. Remember there are positive and negative aspects of all cultures. 
  • Plug into international activities: Find ways to keep the "international" part of you alive. Become involved in clubs or activi­ties on campus or in the community to maintain your language skills; volunteer to work with ethnic or multicultural groups to use your cross-cultural skills, or host an international student.  
  • Use your skills: Use the cross-cultural adaptation skills you developed abroad, e.g. keep active, maintain a sense of humor, find a support group, expect differences, allow yourself to make mistakes, stay flexible during your readjustment home. 
  • Set goals for your development. Set some long-term goals, which may involve finding ways to return abroad. Participate in another Education Abroad program, work abroad, volunteer with the Peace Corps, and more.    

Pro-Tips & Resources

Here are some resources that you may find helpful. They focus on a variety of different strategies to develop resiliency including happiness, sleep, and mindfulness.  



  • Insight Timer - a free app with extensive options to help with sleep, anxiety and stress 
  • Healthy Minds Innovations - a free app for well-being podcasts and meditations 
  • Headspace - an app for meditation, sleep, stress and mindfulness that includes a 14-day free trial and special student rate  
  • Calm - an app to aid with sleep, anxiety and focus that includes a 7-day free trial 
  • Liberate – includes a 7-day free trial 
*These resources are suggestions and are not officially endorsed by CU Boulder or Education Abroad. 
Last Updated January 2023
Photo, New Zealand by Alex Opipari