Feeling Stressed Out? Then This One's for You!

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Culture Stress & How to Cope with It

by Lauren Vitrano-Wilson
with ideas also from Monique Arritt, Paul Thomas & Becca Hirt. Thank you!
Living outside of your native culture and learning a new language makes life full of different types of stressors and, if you’re feeling stressed out, you’re simply not going to learn as well or enjoy life to the full. This tip is dedicated to helping you to determine some strategies that will work for you to manage the stress that comes from ministering cross-culturally.

What is the Difference between
Culture Shock and Culture Stress?

Culture Shock[1] is a type of exhaustion that results from the extra effort, mostly mental and emotional, required to live ordinary daily life in an environment that is new to you. You experience frustration from not knowing the rules or having the skills for adjusting to a new culture due to an inability to predict what will happen and to understand the things that are happening. Culture shock can often come from a particular experience, be somewhat short-lived and, well, rather shocking. See footnote for an example.[2]
After some time, or after you have moved back and forth between two countries, you may not feel “shocked” or surprised by the differences you are experiencing, but there is still the continuing Culture Stress of adjusting to a drastically different culture. Culture Stress builds up slowly from “encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving or valuing things” in a different way which may “threaten your basic unconscious beliefs that your enculturated customs, assumptions, values and behaviors are ‘right.’”[3] See footnote for an example.[4]
The number of cultural differences a person can handle depends on his or her prior cultural experiences and coping skills. Some people can often handle one or two differences, but have difficulty coping when many differences collectively descend upon them at once.

Common Symptoms of Culture Stress
Circle or highlight the ways you are carrying stress so you can begin to deal with them.
  1. Physical
    1. fatigue/exhaustion (wanting to sleep a lot more than usual) OR sleeplessness
    2. Lower white blood cell count (lowered immunity to disease/illnesses)
    3. Headaches
    4. Increased blood pressure, pains
    5. higher heart rate (
    6. Lack of appetite OR Overeating
  2. Spiritual
    1. Questioning
    2. Anger
    3. Numbness
  3. Emotional
    1. Anger flare-ups
    2. General feeling of anger “I hate everything!”
    3. Withdrawal
    4. Crying more than usual
    5. Dreaming often of / pursuing a different reality
    6. Inability to maintain previous level of self-control
    7. Overspending / Over-shopping
    8. Overeating
    9. Compulsive Cleaning
    10. Temptation to go to prior addictions
    11. Grief over losing some relationships
    12. Crankiness
    13. Complaining about local customs/conditions
  4. Social
    1. Repeatedly hiding from people.
    2. Connecting only with expats
    3. Spending excessive time with people "back home" via skype, FB, email, etc.
  5. Psychological/Mental
    1. Processing time slows down
    2. Inability to communicate
    3. Past issues flare
    4. Self-image may diminish
    5. Anxiety
    6. Fear
    7. Depression
    8. Blaming others (host people/other expats) for your negativity
    9. Obsessing about favorite foods (Am I the only one who loves cheese more than ever?)
    10. Irritability
    11. Critical attitude
    12. Doubts
    13. Bargaining: “I’ll accept ___ but not ___.”
    14. Feeling lost: “Things are so different—this will never be home.”
    15. Feeling homeless (you may feel neither bound firmly to your native culture nor fully adapted to the second one yet)
Coping Strategies to Prevent Excessive Culture Stress
Skim the list below and CHOOSE only 2 or 3 to FOCUS on at a time.
  1. Relationships
    1. Build or rebuild them.
    2. Speak with a professional counselor.
    3. Find a friend to debrief with informally.
    4. Learn about cross-cultural conflict management
    5. Be compassionate to your colleagues…they are experiencing culture stress too!
    6. Recognize that your colleagues come from different cultural backgrounds as well
    7. Take initiative in reaching out and caring about the needs of others (e.g., volunteering at an orphanage, helping a neighbor in need, assisting a colleague, etc.).
  2. Health
    1. Get plenty of rest.
    2. Stay physically active.
    3. Get professional advice when necessary.
    4. Eat a well balanced diet.
  3. Spiritual
    1. Pray. Turn to God and talk with Him about the things you’re experiencing.
    2. Go on a personal retreat.
    3. Practice the presence of God. Remember He is always with you to help you.
    4. Find a prayer partner or meet with a spiritual director
    5. If you’ve always enjoyed being part of or leading a Bible study, see if you can be part of one or start one abroad as well.
    6. Remember that Jesus ministered cross-culturally (so did Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, Daniel and Paul, to name a few!)
    7. Read a book to help you grow in your faith.
  4. Routine & Professional Life
    1. Establish some sort of daily routine.
    2. Develop reasonable goals: one step at a time.
    3. Find productive things to do that you enjoy the most.
    4. Identify expectations and re-examine your list periodically to see if they are realistic.
    5. Take a course on language & culture learning (email me to find out about a course near you).
    6. Continue to take language lessons--understanding how to communicate can decrease the number of misunderstandings.
  5. Emotional
    1. Learn how you personally handle stress.
    2. Make a list of de-stressors.
    3. Give yourself permission to not do as well as you had expected and even to fail.
    4. Work through major unresolved issues with a counselor or in some other way.
    5. Process changes.
    6. Journal.
    7. Attend a transitions seminar if one if offered in your area or by your organization.
  6. Personalize Your Private Environment
    1. Take a bit of home with you (paintings, photos, music, kitchen tools, etc).
    2. Make your home “work for” you (decorate, fruit tree/garden, appropriate security, a few things that make you feel “at home” and comfortable).
    3. Continue family and personal traditions.
    4. Get a fish, dog, bird or cat, if culturally appropriate.
  7. Personalize Your Public Environment
    1. Get to know your surroundings well.
    2. Adopt yourself into a local family.
    3. Adopt yourself into an expat family.
    4. Join the community.
    5. Ask people to give you a local name. (If you live in Thailand you probably won’t need to ask, they usually just start trying to give you a new nickname). :)
  8. Whatever You Liked to Do Back “Home” Continue to Do These Things in Your New Home! As they are part of your natural coping skills
    1. If you used to be in a choir, find a local singing group.
    2. If you like to play instruments, keep playing or take music lessons to learn a local instrument.
    3. If you like to dance, learn the local dance style.
    4. Go fishing, shopping, out to eat, etc. with local friends.
    5. If you love languages, learn proverbs, jokes, stories and/or tongue twisters in the new language.
    6. Teach a hobby you’re good at (e.g. photography, knitting, quilting, fixing cars, how to play an instrument, how to read, etc.)
  9. Local Culture
    1. Gather more information (Withhold judgment--If you’re new, listen and ask questions).
    2. Seek logical reasons behind everything (Withhold judgment).
    3. Don’t disparage the host culture (Withhold judgment).
    4. Find a culture broker (someone who has been in the culture for many years and knows your native culture too. This person can explain some of the differences and even help you to avoid some faux pas).
    5. Participate in local events, activities and holidays when possible.
    6. Help with a preexisting project.
    7. Do whatever the people are doing alongside them!
    8. Adopt some new customs.
    9. Show appreciation.
  10. Culture Stress (Management approach suggested by Duane Elmer’s book Cross-Cultural Connections)
    1. Write down: What frustrates you most?
    2. Why?
    3. How does God think/feel about it?
    4. How does God see that person (those people)?
    5. What does [your view of them] do to the image of God in them?
    6. How does it affect your relationship with God?
    7. How might you begin to change your attitude?
Remember: As you become more and more involved with people from the host culture and discover value and temperament differences, your stressors will change and you may need to find new coping strategies.
If you have any questions about the Cultural Adaptation Cycle, Culture Stress, Reverse Culture Shock, Acculturation (…or anything else Language & Culture Learning related), let me know. I am happy to discuss any of these things with you and, if needed, direct you to someone who can help further.
God bless you!


[1]Parts of this definition were compiled from different culture shock definitions by Cornelius Grove, Duane Elmer, Carol Orwig & Becca Hirt.
[2] E.g. Let’s suppose that after only one month in Thailand, you go to the post office and are about to lick a stamp (as you have done for 27 years of your life) when suddenly the postman behind the counter waves his hands frantically and loudly and screams something just before the stamp touches your tongue. You, after nearly dying of a heart attack from shock, discover that in Thailand you are not supposed to lick stamps since the king’s face is often on stamps. (Never mind that this stamp had a picture of silk on it). You go home, heart still racing, and wonder what other things you’ve done for decades that could get you in trouble. So, you decide not to leave the house the rest of the day because you think “these people are kind of crazy” and “If you’re not supposed to lick it, then make the sticker kind!” This is all purely hypothetical though, of course…
[3] Robert Kohls, Survival Kit for Overseas Living.
[4] E.g. While you’ve always been a calm driver, you find more and more that you are getting angry at the other drivers on the road for doing things that seem to you, unsafe and reckless (like cutting you off, running red lights, driving down the incorrect side of the road straight towards you, not pulling over for ambulances, etc.) You even shout at the other cars sometimes and your body feels tense when you return home after your commute. You think, "Who am I?"
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Copyright ©2012, Lauren C. Vitrano-Wilson. All rights reserved.
Language & Culture Learning Coordinator Serving in Mainland SE Asia