Coming home from an overseas placement is a mentally and emotionally challenging experience.
Many volunteers and development workers, especially those returning for the first time, experience reverse culture shock.The experience is different for every person; whether feeling disconnected from family and peers, a loss in self confidence, lacking a sense of purpose, feeling guilty towards those left behind, experiencing negative thoughts about oneself, work, family or the future and the world, having difficulty sleeping, a loss of appetite or tearfulness.
The symptoms may not always be the same but the cause is. For some people it can take a couple of years before they feel ‘at home’ again in their home country; but no matter how long or short it takes, it is important to remember that reverse culture shock is a process that has a beginning, middle and end. Although we cannot necessarily prevent ourselves from experiencing it, there are strategies that we can use to try to manage reverse culture shock and prevent it from becoming a more serious condition.
Strategies for coping with reverse culture shock:
- Look after your physical health – go for a tropical medical check up if you feel unwell, ensure you are eating healthily and getting some exercise.
- Share your experiences – if you feel your friends or family have got bored listening to you talk about your experiences, meet up with other returnees or get in touch with us in Comhlámh to help you make those connections.
- Attend a Comhlámh Coming Home Weekend – to give yourself the space to bring closure to your overseas experiences and to start looking forward.
- Avail of, or seek out, a personal debriefing from your sending agency. Research shows that a debriefing can help to relieve symptoms of reverse culture shock.
- Take time out to reflect on your experiences.
- Be patient with yourself as you process your feelings and adjust back to life at home: it is normal to experience symptoms of reverse culture shock on your return.
- Be patient with friends and family: their lives have carried on while you were away and although they may be interested in your experiences, they may also struggle to relate to them.
- Keep in touch with friends from overseas.
- You may find writing a blog or keeping a diary is a rewarding outlet for you.
- Find your own means of taking care of yourself – some find mindfulness, meditation, journaling, yoga or reconnecting with nature to be important ways of supporting their mental well-being.
- Don’t hesitate to look for further support if you think it would benefit you – Comhlámh offer a range of support services specifically for returnees.
Evelyn Donohoe was a teacher in China for one year.
“My initial happiness about returning home soon turned to shock. On my return I was constantly asked what China is like. Words cannot adequately describe my experience there, the culture, the environment, the people, the mindset, the attitudes. Having been away for three years, I had left all talk of recession behind me. Suddenly, I found myself in an environment mired by disillusionment, disenchantment, and apathy with our political system and life in general. I found myself overwhelmed with the choices on offer in shops, and restaurants here. I struggled with the alcohol culture. My family, and many friends, couldn’t understand my feelings or perspective. Close relationships disappeared while, fortunately, others strengthened.”
She returned in 2013 and since then she has been interning with Boardmatch and volunteering as a co-ordinator of Child Aid Ireland-India.
To find out more check out our Coming Home Book.