When I arrived in Dublin after a full 24 hours of travel—little sleep, and no concept of where I was, in the midst of new people—culture shock hit me hard. Arriving at my apartment, I collapsed onto the stiff, non-bedded mattress in the tiny room I would call mine for the next five months and wondered how I would survive. I needed food, but I didn’t know the area, and I wasn’t up for an adventure. My hunger fought with my anxiety, the roar of a hungry lion in my stomach against the quiet, yet persistent thumping of exhaustion and confusion in my brain. In the end, anxiety won, and I fell asleep, telling myself I would wake up and deal with the world later. Half an hour later, I woke up with the same struggle, and culture shock won again.
After being here for almost two months now, I’ve found that this scenario has played out in apartments all throughout Dublin, and I would imagine these experiences are common. Luckily for me, I snapped out of this feeling in a day, but sometimes it can last much longer if it’s not handled correctly. From my own experiences, I’ve found some particularly useful tips to fight culture shock:
1. Make Your Bed
I’m serious. I didn’t make my bed at first. This allowed me to look at the ruffled sheets and see an invitation to sleep rather than to seize the day. Now I make it every morning, and I swear that doing so has helped me cope. It sounds like one of the smallest possible things that anyone could ever do, but that’s what makes it so brilliant. Getting up in the morning and making your bed not only tells you that sleep is off-limits for the rest of the day, but it also creates a sense of normalcy and habit. Even though it’s small, the action of making your bed is something you can control in the midst of so many things you can’t. This can extend toward other simple tasks such as grocery shopping, doing laundry and preparing meals, but making your bed is especially crucial because it’s a morning task. It starts you off on the right foot so that you feel like you can tackle an overwhelming day.
2. Keep Yourself Busy
Part of what made it so hard for me when I first arrived in Dublin was the fact that there wasn’t anything motivating me to adjust. On the second day, I dove right into orientation, and from there, everything was smoother sailing. There were talks I had to attend, administrative tasks I had to complete and social events which I was advised to attend. With so much to do, I forgot that I wasn’t in my normal, Wellesley habitat. I didn’t have time to think about how scary and new Dublin was, and when I did get that chance later in the week, it wasn’t so new and scary anymore.
If, unlike me, you have a lot longer to wait before activities start up, plan some for yourself in advance. Preorder tickets to an exhibition nearby so you feel obligated to go once you get there. Make a list of places you want to go or tasks you want to complete in the days leading up to the start of your program. If necessary, have someone abroad with you or back home keep you honest about whether or not you are following through, which leads me to my next point:
3. Reach Out to People
I know this can be a lot easier said than done, but having even one familiar face while abroad can make all the difference. During my night of hungry anxiety, the change that began my transition back to a properly functioning human was entering the kitchen in my apartment. I was just trying to sneak in to refill my water bottle unnoticed, but one of my apartment mates caught me and asked if I wanted to go with him to the grocery store. I’d been telling myself to go already, but the power of my own suggestion wasn’t enough. I needed to hear it from somebody else. Without him, I might have convinced myself to go hungry until morning.
My approach was not the best (please don’t avoid people until they reach out to you in your discomfort), but it gives you the right idea. It’s possible that the first people you talk to won’t end up being your lifelong friends—I hardly talk to my apartment mates now for more than a couple of sentences at a time—but they can lead you to the people that will. And having companions of any form serves as a terrific distraction from the stress of being in a new country.
4. Go Outside Your Comfort Zone
A week ago, I was bold enough to travel further outside of my comfort zone on a weekend trip to Galway. As part of the experience, we visited the Aran Islands and hiked the cliffs there. At the top, the jagged rocks jutted out and then dropped suddenly into the sea below. As part of the experience, I was encouraged to lie down on the edge with my body pressed against the rock, but my head hanging over the side. Testing it out, my heart pounded a little faster, convinced that I would fall headfirst from the cliffs to the raging waters below. In reality, however, my body was firmly planted on the rocks, and once I accepted that, I enjoyed the experience fully.
Being abroad is like that. Sometimes, because your head is over the side, it’s hard to convince yourself you’re safe. But just wait it out a bit, breathe a little deeper, and the experience will be incredible. Rather than falling, your body will stay strong. In the moment, it’s always harder than that, but you’ll come back up with a unique, rewarding view unlike anything you could possibly imagine. I certainly know that I have.