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Reverse Culture Shock Is the Dark Side of Living Abroad

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There are turning points in life that you remember with more clarity than you’d like. One of mine: June 29, 2016, when I was certain I was dying. It was 3 a.m. and I was in Amsterdam, at the end of a six-month study-abroad stint. In just a few hours, I was supposed to board a flight home to Canada, yet there I was. Hot cheek pressed against a cold toilet seat, gasping for air. Shaking so intensely that I was—between bouts of vomiting—grateful for the international student insurance I’d surely need for an ambulance ride to the ER.

It was the first panic attack I’d ever had. I had no idea it wouldn’t be my last. Half a year earlier, I’d gladly left my university’s Montreal campus behind. My school was known for making students feel like success was always just a little out of reach (it’s one of the top colleges in the world…and we were constantly reminded of that fact). I needed a break from the pressure. The Netherlands beckoned, and in Amsterdam, I found the relief I craved. Sure, I took a few sociology classes, but in those six months, what I really did was see the world for the first time. I discovered commonalities that spanned cultures (turns out, we’re all just looking for someone to enjoy an Aperol spritz and reality TV with) and found a family in friends from places I’d never heard of (I now have a couch to crash on in almost every continent). I fell in love with a city, with a boy (spoiler: he’s still in the picture), and with a way of life that was slower, more joyful, and somehow more meaningful than anything I had known.

amsterdam

Hannah Chubb

I never ended up in an ambulance that last night—but I would land in a hospital soon enough. My plan back in Canada was to live in my college apartment for the summer, working on grad school applications and GRE prep. But I struggled to focus and soon slid into an anxiety and depression so severe, I had to move back in 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 being happy felt like. Whenever I let myself acknowledge my hopelessness, I’d panic, run to the nearest toilet to throw up, then eventually rush to the ER.

High on tranquilizers in my local hospital, I told the doctors I had no idea why I couldn’t stop crying. I had loving friends and family, a healthy relationship, enough money in savings, a good GPA at school. Yet my thoughts raced and my heartbeat sped after them, my brain and my body betraying me again and again. After prescribing more tranquilizers and antidepressants, a doctor explained that I likely had something called reverse culture shock, emotional and psychological distress sometimes suffered by those who return home from time abroad. He told me that while it’s not an official medical diagnosis, it might as well be, because health care workers see the phenomenon more often than you’d think. (There are even entire books written about it, including The Art of Coming Home, by Craig Storti.) I was just so relieved to have a name for what I was experiencing—even if it wasn’t a household one.

I was just so relieved to have a name for what I was experiencing—even if it wasn’t a household one.

As a psychology minor, I naturally did more investigating and soon found the work of Janice Abarbanel, PhD. She researched the mental impact of living abroad and claimed that young travelers are often unprepared to deal with the intense emotional challenges that come with cultural transitions. Things like missing the family you made overseas, feeling like you can’t truly explain your time away to people at home, yearning for the freedom of travel, realizing you dislike your own culture—all of this can be overwhelming, wrote Abarbanel. And the resulting emotional stress can interfere with your brain’s ability to problem-solve, making it challenging to put your angst into words or find perspective. That’s likely why reverse culture shock symptoms can set in fast, especially for people like me, who jumped from a slower pace of life right back into an always-on society.

Abarbanel’s advice? Give students—or really anyone who’ll be spending significant time abroad—an “emotional passport” that consists of awareness, access to counseling or therapy, and coping skills before and after they travel. My school didn’t provide any of this, but frankly, I’m not sure it knew it needed to. 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’m hoping to help start that right here: For a long time, I was too embarrassed to speak openly about what I went through, but I want to shed light on how what happened to me could and does happen to others.

I don’t blame Amsterdam for stealing pieces of me—I just wish I had known how to fit myself back together again after the flight home. It’s taken six years, the aforementioned antidepressants (yes, I still take them), and plenty of introspection, but I finally feel like I’m whole again. Traveling continues to feel like the most meaningful way to spend my time—it’s even a big part of my job now—and I do it without fear, knowing I have both my physical and emotional passports packed and ready to go.

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