Adjusting to a new culture

Dealing with Culture Shock and Homesickness As An Expat

Post last updated on:


by Cyrus Kioko


Greetings, you brave soul! So you’ve decided to leave behind your familiar abode to explore uncharted territories, only to find yourself neck-deep in what’s known as “culture shock” with a sprinkle of homesickness? It’s not the best of feelings, but the good news is that you hold the reins to tame this wild bull.

Dealing with culture shock and homesickness as an expat begins with knowing which of these two types of emotional distress you’re experiencing. When you know what you’re up against, you can use appropriate coping mechanisms to clear your headspace.

The rest of this post will help you figure out whether you’re suffering from homesickness, culture shock, or both and arm you with the best tips and tricks for dealing with both stressors. Stick around for that and much more.     

Understanding What You’re Feeling

Alright, let’s kick things off with something essential: figuring out what’s going on in your head. Just because you’ve chosen the self-help route doesn’t mean you should skip this all-important step. Any effective healing endeavor, whether self-directed or administered by an expert, must begin with a diagnosis.   

In this context, “diagnosis” means something slightly different from what you usually encounter at the doctor’s office: figuring out whether you’re dealing with culture shock or homesickness.

Knowing whether you’re experiencing culture shock or homesickness will help you choose the most effective interventions and coping mechanisms. These two emotional states have different underlying causes and often require tailored solutions, so knowing what you’re grappling with will determine how well you can deal with it.

Recognizing your feelings and understanding their root cause also gives you emotional clarity, something you’ll need tons of to deal with homesickness and culture shock successfully. It’ll help you rationalize what you’re going through and reduce the confusion that often accompanies these emotional states.

If you haven’t picked up on it already, homesickness isn’t the same as culture shock. Sure, there are overlaps between these two states of mind, but feeling like you want to hop on the next flight home isn’t quite the same as being in a perpetual state of confusion about how things work in your new society. 

To clear things up, let’s take a closer look at what characterizes both emotional states:


The best way to describe homesickness would be deep feelings of longing and nostalgia. It’s like having a heartache for your homeland, family, and the familiarity of your old stomping grounds. So if you’re getting misty-eyed over your childhood pet or missing mom’s homemade lasagna, your hometown friends, or anything else you used to love back home, chances are you’re homesick. 

Homesickness isn’t a linear process; it comes in waves of varying intensity and frequency. It also affects everyone differently. Some may experience homesickness more acutely when they first arrive in a new place, while others might feel it more intensely as time goes on and the novelty of the new environment wears off.

Culture Shock

Feeling like a fish out of water? Confused about local customs or baffled by the way things work? That’s culture shock kicking in. It often brings frustration, anxiety, and even a bit of homesickness (this is one of those “overlaps” I was talking about earlier) as you navigate the new, often bewildering, culture.

Culture shock typically comes in Four stages:

  1. The Honeymoon Phase. Most expats are familiar with this one. You’re buzzing about touching down in a foreign country. Everything is fascinating, and you’re feeling like an adventurous explorer. You’re hitting all the tourist spots, trying out local food, and taking a million photos.
  2. The Frustration Phase. So, after a while, reality hits: You’re not on vacation; you’re trying to live a normal life in a foreign land. You start noticing all the little annoyances and differences, from the language barrier to the strange customs. Frustration starts creeping in.
  3. The Adjustment Phase. Slowly but surely, you start getting the hang of things. You figure out the transportation system, you’re able to buy groceries without feeling like an alien, and you even make a few local friends. You’re settling into your new life.
  4. The Acceptance Phase. Finally, you accept that things are different, and that’s not a bad thing. You’re comfortable with the local customs, maybe even prefer them. You’ve formed deep connections, and your new home is starting to feel like, well, home.

Now, these stages aren’t set in stone. Some people breeze through them; for others, it’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride.

It’s also worth noting that some people experience an additional phase known as reverse culture shock. Also known as re-entry shock, this is a kind of culture shock expats experience after staying in a foreign country for a long time. It occurs as a result of growing accustomed to their host country’s customs, values, and daily life so much that their own culture feels foreign when they return home. 

Conventional culture shock and re-entry shock are two sides of the same coin. They both bring about the same emotions, require almost identical interventions, and come in similar phases. Perhaps the only difference between the two is that most people find reverse culture shock to handle because they’re returning to what was once a familiar environment.

In Short…

Now that you’ve got an idea of what you’re up against, let’s get knee-deep into the actual interventions and coping strategies. 

For clarity purposes, let’s tackle each state of mind separately.

How to Deal With Culture Shock As An Expat

The isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription for dealing with culture shock because everyone experiences and responds to it differently. What there are, however, are a couple of things you can do to manage it and fit into your new society as quickly as possible. 

Let’s look at those “things.”

Embrace It

One of the absolute best things you can do to ease the uneasiness that comes with culture shock is to simply embrace the fact that it’s a natural part of the expat experience. When you’re caught up in worries about doing things the wrong way, offending people, or creating cringe-worthy moments, it’s easy to forget that culture shock is a normal phenomenon for pretty much everyone who finds themselves in a new cultural landscape. That can add to your anxiety, which is the last thing you want. 

So instead of being all uptight about it, embrace the shock. 

Why, you ask?

Well, for starters, embracing this experience can be a catalyst for personal growth and learning. Diving headfirst into your new world of unfamiliar customs, traditions, and ways of life will broaden your perspectives and give your cultural awareness a much-needed boost. It’ll also make you more adaptable, a skill you’ll be thankful to have in your bag of tricks as you come to terms with how things work in your new home.

Embracing culture shock also sets you up nicely to create a treasure trove of hilarious anecdotes and memorable moments. That time you accidentally bowed instead of shaking hands? Classic. The moment you ordered what you thought was chicken, but it turned out to be something far more exotic? Priceless. These stories will become your badges of honor, your “I survived culture shock” badges that you can proudly display to fellow expats.

Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself If You Experience Cultural Mishaps

Cultural mishaps are a natural part of the adaptation process and an opportunity for growth. Rather than obsessing over them, try to adopt a more flexible and forgiving attitude toward yourself. Remember that everyone makes cultural mistakes, and locals will almost always appreciate your efforts to learn and respect their culture, even if you stumble along the way.

Of course, this is easier said than done because most of us suffer from a psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias. Without getting all nerdy about it, here’s what this means: Our brains are hardwired to give more weight and attention to negative information and experiences compared to positive ones. This bias is thought to have developed as an adaptive mechanism over the course of human evolution to help us with survival and threat detection, among other things.

So, how do you stop obsessing over past cultural mistakes when your brain doesn’t want you to?

My go-to move when I want to avoid ruminating over silly mistakes has always been to try to see the humorous side of things, and I strongly recommend it. There’s something liberating about having a chuckle at that one time you got things so comically wrong that it would make a sitcom writer jealous. Embracing the absurdity of life’s blunders can turn even the most cringe-worthy moments into entertaining anecdotes. After all, in the grand comedy of life, we all get to play the leading role in our own sitcom from time to time.

So instead of obsessing over that one time you accidentally bowed instead of shaking hands or mistook a cultural norm for a bizarre ritual, learn to find humor in those awkward moments.  It won’t just put you at ease and allow you to learn from your mistakes; it’ll also help you build emotional resilience, something you’ll need heaps of when dealing with culture shock.

Immerse Yourself In the Local Culture

If you really think about it, one of the reasons you’re feeling out of place is because you’re yet to get a hang of how things work in your new social settings. This is one hurdle embracing the local culture can help you get over. 

Getting up close and personal with the local culture will help you engage more fully with your new environment. It’s a proactive and hands-on approach to dealing with culture shock that can enhance your cultural competence, beef up your adaptation skills, and enrich your overall expat experience.

Wondering how you can immerse yourself in the local culture? Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn the local lingo. Language is your golden ticket to culture immersion. Sure, you can get by with some basic phrases, but digging deeper into the local lingo can make all the difference. Not only does it help with everyday tasks like grocery shopping and asking for directions, but it’s also your bridge to local hearts and minds. Want to learn the local language as quickly as possible? Check out this guide
  • Savor the local cuisine. Food is a universal language. When you dive into the local culinary scene, you’re in for a treat – literally. Trying out the local dishes isn’t just about satisfying your taste buds; it’s about understanding the culture’s history, traditions, and way of life.
  • Celebrate like a local. From Holi in India to Carnival in Brazil, every culture has its own set of vibrant festivals. Don’t be a spectator; be a participant. Join in the festivities, dance to the local beats, and wear the traditional attire. You’ll be surprised how much these little things can fast-track your way to cultural understanding.
  • Make local friends. Local friends are the ultimate cultural tour guides. They offer insights, invite you into their homes, and share the inside scoop on local customs and traditions. Building friendships is like having a cultural GPS for your new life abroad.
  • Ditch tourist hotspots for the lesser-known gems. Go where the locals go. Wander through neighborhoods, visit local markets, and uncover the hidden treasures that don’t make it into guidebooks. This is where you’ll find the soul of a culture.

How to Deal With Homesickness As An Expat

Just like dealing with culture shock, dealing with homesickness isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation; you’ve got to mix and match different strategies to make things better.

Here’s a rundown of the most effective (and somewhat underrated) ways to kick homesickness to the curb:

Create a Home-Away-From-Home

This simply means sprinkling your new pad with mementos or stuff that reminds you of your old home. Having a comforting haven amidst the unfamiliarity can help you cope with homesickness in a couple of ways:

  • It provides a sense of familiarity and comfort. Whether it’s decorating your space with items from home, cooking your favorite dishes, or following some of your home routines, these acts can be like a warm, familiar hug.
  • It’s great for emotional support. Surrounding yourself with stuff that holds sentimental value can be a real emotional lifeline when you’re missing home like crazy.
  • It helps you stay connected to your roots. This connection can serve as a reminder of who you are and where you come from, which can be particularly soothing when you’re feeling adrift in a foreign culture.
  • It strikes a balance between embracing your new culture and keeping ties to your old one. As much good embracing your new cultural scene can do to your personal growth and adaptation, you still need to strike a balance between staying connected to your roots and trying to fit in. This balance is essential for your mental and emotional well-being as an expat, and creating a home-away-from-home can help you find that sweet spot. 
  • It reduces stress. Having a place that feels like home can be a real stress buster. When you’re swamped by all the strange stuff in your new country, your cozy spot can be your go-to for chilling out and taking a breather.

Maintain Healthy Contact With the People Back Home

The keyword here is “healthy” because there’s a fine line to be walked. On one hand, communicating regularly with friends and family back home can come in clutch when you’re feeling a tad lonely. On the other, overdoing it can make you miss home even more. 

So, how often should you connect with the folks from the motherland? 

Well, it depends. Some expats thrive on a daily chat, while others find a weekly catch-up just right. My two cents? Keep it to a couple of times a week – making exceptions for special occasions, of course. It’s regular enough to keep you in the loop and maintain that emotional connection, but not so often that it feels like you never left your home country.

Ultimately, there’s no magic number. It’s all about what feels right for you. Trust your gut, and if you find yourself yearning for more contact or feeling a bit smothered, adjust your communication frequency accordingly.

Seek Support From Other Expats

Expat communities exist for several reasons, and helping fellow location rebels cope with homesickness is high on their agenda. They’re an unorthodox support system you can lean on when the nostalgia and loneliness won’t let off. 

Expat groups are made of folks who get what it’s like to be far from home. Oftentimes, they’ll have gone through the same rollercoaster of emotions you’re feeling, meaning they can offer tips on how to cope with homesickness from lived experiences. 

Even if you’re not big on relying on other people’s experiences to solve your issues, simply joining one of these groups can give you a sense of belonging (which is what most of us are actually craving when we’re missing home). Plus, these communities organize events and meet-ups that can help you make friends. 

Finding an expat group shouldn’t be too hard. You can take the digital route by joining online forums and social media groups, or use word of mouth to find local expat clubs. If it was up to me, I’d be leaning more toward locally-based groups because proximity is important when you’re trying to build a support system.

General Tips for Dealing With Both Homesickness and Culture Shock as an Expat

So far, we’ve discussed the specific interventions for dealing with each of these two states of mind. Those work, but there’s a little more you can do to speed up your progress when dealing with culture shock, homesickness, or both: 

Keep Your Hobbies Alive

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when culture shock and homesickness hits you like a truck is foregoing the little passions that made life worth living back home. I get it: when you’ve got a lot going on emotionally, it’s easy to think things like, “Do I even have time for hobbies?” or  “Wouldn’t I be better off dropping everything and facing homesick blues/culture shock jitters head on?”

But here’s the truth: the last thing you want to do when you’re in emotional distress is to retreat into your shell and forget about your leisure pursuits. Instead, this is when you should be actively trying to indulge in your passions and interests. 

Think about it. When you engage in your hobbies, you’re in your happy place, and that’s like a mini-vacation from all the emotional rollercoasters you’re dealing with. Whether it’s painting, dancing, cooking, or collecting rare coins, hobbies offer a safe haven where you can be yourself, reconnect with your passions, and forget about those homesick blues or culture shock jitters for a while.

Plus, they can be your built-in social life. Join a local salsa class, a cooking group, or a gaming club, and you’ll find yourself bonding with people who share your interests. Making friends who share your perception of “fun” can be a real game-changer when it comes to adjusting to a new culture.

So, don’t ditch your hobbies; embrace them like the lifelines they are. They’re your go-to when the going gets tough, your companions when you’re feeling a bit lost, and your ticket to sanity when homesickness and culture shock try to gang up on you.

Stay Fit

Exercise is the ultimate stress reliever. When you work out, your brain releases endorphins, which are essentially magical mood boosters that can turn a gloomy day into a sunny one. Since homesickness and culture shock are essentially forms of mental stress, why not relieve both with the added benefit of sculpting that expat bod?

Embrace the Simple Pleasures

Never underestimate the power of small joys. It’s okay to savor a delicious local snack, binge-watch a cheesy TV show, or have a good laugh over a cultural faux pas.

These simple pleasures are like little nuggets of gold in the expat adventure, and they’ll keep you grounded. Plus, they give your mind a much-needed break from thinking about what you miss about home and how things work in your home-away-from-home. 

When to Seek Professional Help

Let me preface this section with an important message: seeking professional help doesn’t mean you’ve failed in any way. We’re all different, each with varying degrees of tolerance and ability to process emotional and physical distress. Some people may be able to fend off the stress that comes with homesickness and culture shock using self-help guides like the one you’re reading right now, but others might need a bit of expert help. Either is fine.

Deciding when to speak to a professional can be a little tricky if money is an issue. On one hand, you don’t want to pay when you can DIY. On the other, you don’t want to underestimate the severity of your emotional distress and end up with bigger fish to fry than homesickness/culture shock. 

So, when should you throw in the towel and consider professional support? Here are some red flags to look out for:

  • Persistent, overwhelming symptoms: If culture shock or homesickness symptoms persist and escalate into overwhelming anxiety and depression despite attempts at self-help and coping strategies, it may be time to consult a mental health professional.
  • Isolation and withdrawal. Are you increasingly avoiding social interactions to the point where it’s causing distress or impacting your functioning? That’s your mind crying out for professional help.
  • Physical health issues. Sometimes, the emotional toll of culture shock or homesickness can manifest in physical health problems, such as insomnia, frequent headaches, or digestive issues. When these issues are linked to your emotional struggles, you’re overdue for a consultation with a healthcare professional.
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide. This is a no-brainer; any thoughts of self-harm or suicide should be taken extremely seriously regardless of the underlying cause. 
  • Impact on daily life and relationships. If your emotional struggles start getting in the way of your daily routine, making it hard to get along with the folks you love, or even messing with your job and self-care, that’s your mind putting up a neon sign saying, “Time to talk to a pro!”
Cyrus Kioko
Cyrus is a seasoned blog post writer with over five years of experience in crafting and editing articles spanning technology, lifestyle, and finance niches. Fueled by an authentic passion to contribute valuable insights, he has invested thousands of Netflix-less hours in research for this site. Each piece he writes is aimed at empowering readers to make well-informed, real-life decisions. Holding a degree in commerce and armed with ample copywriting courses, he brings both expertise and a touch of nerdy flair to the table.
Photo of author