Reverse Culture Shock

If you have been on international assignment, adjusting to life back home is not easy, especially if you had a meaningful experience. Counsellor JOANNE ELSWORTH demystifies reverse culture shock, and shares useful strategies as you settle and plan your future.

Cowering by the radiator in my mother’s home, wrapped in my large pink fluffy dressing gown, was my first experience of reverse culture shock. In my early twenties I had spent time living and working in a South East Asian Orphanage for children with disabilities. Being immersed daily into poverty, desperation, injustice and pain had a profound impact on me. It was my first experience in such a setting and it had shaken me to the core of my being.

Coming home to spend Christmas with my family I had been looking forward to connecting with people who knew and understood me, eating rich English food, being cold again and relaxing in beautiful English countryside. 

Instead I found that I could no longer go out with my friends to the pub. The warm fires, light banter, and the familiarity of it all was no longer appealing to me. It had become scary. The long country walks, the delight in perusing the aisles of the supermarket and the ability to connect with my family and friends had gone.

The people, places and delights had not changed, I had changed.  I had left my heart in the orphanage and my home did not feel like the safe, comfortable place it used to be. So, I spent weeks cowering in front of the radiator thinking about all the children I had left behind and hoping that I could go back.

I wonder if this sounds familiar to you? The sense that:

  • ‘I don’t quite fit in any more’ 
  • ‘People talk about such trivial things’ ‘
  • ‘There is too much in my head that other people don’t know about’ 
  • ‘I don’t enjoy the things I used to’

What is Reverse Culture Shock?

A surprising number of people say they find it more difficult to return home than to go on international assignment in the first place, especially after any long, challenging, or very meaningful experience. When you travel internationally you expect change. Most people prepare for the change with energy and focus. When you return home, you are thrust back into an environment of family and friends who have expectations of you which you may find insensitive and frustrating. You have an experience which sets you apart, concerns and thoughts which are not shared or easily understood by people at home who probably have not changed their perspective.

“When you return home, you are thrust back into an environment of family and friends who have expectations of you which you may find insensitive and frustrating.”


Overseas workers often comment on feeling isolated, listless, anxious or depressed; angry at the materialism, decadence and pettiness they perceive in people’s’ lives; feeling confused about themselves and the future. This is the normal transitory condition of reverse culture shock.

Experienced international aid workers and faith based agency personnel report a wide variety of coping strategies developed over time to deal with the challenges of returning home. As the above quotes show these strategies may not always resolve the issues but they are felt to be needed to cope with things which otherwise seem to be unmanageable.

Even if you feel ready to finish your assignment, you are losing the way of life you had on the field. Your imagination, your thoughts and concerns are attuned to the field location rather than home, so you need to allow for a period of adjustment. What you wear and what you eat are different, the climate and the language are probably different, and your purpose will all change, so there is a lot to come to terms with.

Useful Strategies

  • Plan for a period of adjustment.
  • Be patient with yourself and allowing the process of phasing back into the everyday life gently.
  • Rest – catch up on your sleep and spend time with no agenda.
  • Write up reports, or process notes to reflect on your experience and close any unfinished business.
  • Reconnect with family and friends, remembering that you may have changed, and they have not.
  • Encourage your family and friends to engage with your life abroad through updating them, sending photos or getting them to visit you if possible – this means that they will have a sense of understanding to support you on return.
  • Talk your experience over with someone you trust who is willing to give you time and help you to deepen your reflections.
  • Seek out opportunities to spend time talking with someone who may have worked or volunteered internationally too. 
  • Explore other mediums to express your reflections or release tension through, journaling, painting, baking, sport, dancing, yoga, drawing ect.
  • Access support on offer from your agency.

Usually people settle as time goes on. For some people this happens quite quickly. Others may take up to three months or more and longer for families with children who may be adapting to a ‘home’ culture they hardly know at all.

Shapes your future

When I needed to return to my own home I felt as if all I had been learning, how I had changed, and my perspective would need to fit back into my old self. There was a fear that I would forget the profound experience, that I would be overcome with my privilege life again. This wasn’t the case. After a period to adjust our international experience can continue to have an impact on our thinking, perspective, life choices and future roles. Just because we must physically move away from that experience it doesn’t mean that it all goes away.

  • How can you take some of the things you learnt and developed into your next setting?
  • Will your politics, human rights perspective change?
  • Will it influence your future life choices or roles?
  • Will it give you a greater sense of delight in the simple parts of life like having running water, electricity that runs, good Wi-Fi, being close to family or having the freedom to move around safety?
  • Will it urge you on to keep fighting for causes that touch your heart?
  • Will you be able to support others who are going into a similar field?

The different perspectives from your international assignment are gradually incorporated into your ways of thinking, your values and the way you live. Whatever influence, both positive or negative, the experience has had on you, you will have been impacted by it. Take the time to be patient with yourself and those around you as you adjust. Most people will be able to reintegrate but the things that they have learnt and the people that they have interacted with will be carried in to the next role. It wasn’t all for nothing.

If you continue to feel troubled after three months, or sooner if your functioning is impaired, you are advised to seek professional advice from a doctor or psychological health specialist. You may decide or be advised to seek some counselling.

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