Amanda only just returned home from her semester abroad in Spain, which turned into a three month summer backpacking trip through Europe, two months ago. Now, sitting in her very common American dorm room, she starts to imagine what she’d be doing right now if she was still in Seville.
She catches herself, searches for the report she should be focusing on and gives it about ten minutes of attention before returning to the internet to look for a way to live, travel, intern, study, or really do anything possible abroad again.
This is a scene that is oh too common in modern day universities across America — a “first-world problem”, for sure, but without a doubt a real one. As study abroad programs rise in popularity and more and more US students spend semesters abroad, we’re starting to see and understand the effects of reverse culture shock better. It comes in the form of losing focus on the present and your studies, not wanting to mingle with peers and more.
Post Study Abroad Depression (PSAD) is a very real problem amongst students returning to their homeland, and like any other disorder or illness, people at risk should be aware of the effects and know how to treat or even prevent it from happening in the first place.
Many things can spark depression in life, whether it be the loss of a loved one or an abrupt change, such as moving from one culture to another. Study abroad students feel some amount of culture shock no matter where they spend their semester abroad. Things are unfamiliar and that can be scary. You need to learn a different way of living from day to day. But because it’s a new land and you’re fully aware it’s going to be different from your own, you’re more prepared for those differences and often excited to experience them – otherwise why would you choose to travel in the first place?
Unfortunately, what first time long-term travelers abroad, which most study abroad students are, fail to realize is that they might experience that same shock in reverse upon their return home. You lived life for six months to a year one way and became accustomed to it, even if you know what life is like at home – you may not be fully prepared to convert back to it. Plus the thrill of adventure that comes with travel feels completely lost upon returning home. This change might feel like a step back. PSAD will come in many different forms depending on the person.
It’s not easy to admit that you are depressed and it’s especially hard when you’ve just come back from experiencing something that only a lucky few have the money and support to do. But no matter how big or small a problem is – it is a problem and you shouldn’t to ignore it but should try to resolve it. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, you may have PSAD.
- Spending unusual amounts of time searching for opportunities to move or travel abroad long term.
- Talking constantly about your time abroad.
- Comparing everything to your travels or the foreign country where you studied abroad.
- Criticizing the way things are done and home and others for being “close-minded.”
- Loss of attention towards things you used to enjoy, like going to coffee shops with friends, sports and more.
- Not wanting to get to know new people at home or be involved in non-work or school activities.
- Rapid weight gain or loss.
- Fear to leave your house, because you don’t feel like you fit in anymore.
- Feelings of withdrawal from all things study abroad.
- Feeling “stuck” or worried that you’ll never have the chance to travel abroad again.
Once you recognize that you are actually dealing with PSAD, getting better becomes easier. Really, the best way to treat your PSAD is to face the symptoms head on. If you are spending a lot of time looking into travel or opportunities abroad, be proactive and actually make that happen. Create a travel goal and start saving towards it or applying for it. Whether it be studying abroad again or applying for a teaching position abroad for after you graduate – start taking the baby steps to achieving that goal rather than just frantically looking at “ways out”.
Remember that characteristics of one culture to the next are not better or worse, just different, and that includes your own. Be open to what is happening at home with your friends and your own life. The people around you will want to hear about your experience abroad and just because they don’t know something about a place you’ve traveled to doesn’t make them close-minded, just the perfect candidate to learn something new. Put extra effort in being involved in your studies, work, and extracurricular activities. Try something new, go out, mingle and engage in conversations with new people as well as with old friends.
If you are really struggling with the motivation to do everything mentioned above, seek advice from a school counselor, teacher, family member or even a stranger who you know has studied abroad in the past. Chances are that there are people who have traveled like you in international clubs on campus, which is a great introduction to meeting people in the same position now or who have been in the past. No matter what, remember that there is always someone out there who will listen to you and try to help.
It will be hard in the beginning, because, to be blunt, you’re not in the place you want to be. But this effort will pay off in the end. You’ll remember the things you loved about life at home in the first place and maybe even form relationships, a routine and/or hobbies incorporating your life abroad into your life at home. And of course, there’s always the option of studying abroad a second time, even if it’s just a month-long summer study abroad program or two weeks on your spring break, it might be just the thing you need to help you get over your post study abroad blues (and a few bonus credits in the process!)
Photo credit: Paola Chaaya via Unsplash
Of course the best form of treatment for any problem is to prevent it in the first place. You may not have heard about reverse culture shock or PSAD before, but you have now. If you are returning home from studying abroad try the following to help prevent PSAD:
- Decide on your next travel goal or ambition, like an internship or teaching position abroad, before you even return home and start to look practically into how to make it a reality.
- Become involved in travel or international groups on campus.
- Keep in touch with study abroad friends and anyone you met while you were abroad.
- Focus on getting healthy through your diet and exercise. This will give you an activity to throw yourself into and also make you more ready to take on any issues that arise with coming home.
- Talk to your friends and family about PSAD. Explain that you might have some problems with reverse culture shock and acclimating to life at home and that you need their support to get through it.
- Change things at home to adjust to the new you. Travel changes people. You may discover something about yourself or how you want to live your life while studying abroad. Do whatever you have to at home to go along with this realization, whether that be something as big as changing your major or as small as riding a bike from place to place instead of driving.
- Share your experience in fun ways. People don’t really want to listen to you go on and on for hours, days on end about your travels, but they do want to learn about what you were doing abroad. So show them by cooking a meal or putting on a party that is common in the country you were living in.
The Take Home Message
It’s never easy coming home after spending time abroad. Study abroad is an extremely special experience that people are lucky to have just once in their lives. But just because you had to come home, doesn’t mean you won’t be on the road again one day. If you loved your time abroad so much, you’ll find ways to get there again. The most important thing to realize after your first big trip abroad is that, unlike PSAD, the travel bug has no cure. Enjoy your time in your own country with the people you know best and love the most, because you’ll be off on the road again in no time.