Information for the first time arriving students to Canada


Dealing with Culture Shock

Culture shock is a well-known phenomenon. Most people who travel abroad experience culture shock to some degree.

Canadian society values integrity, individualism, fairness and equity, and respect for diversity.


What is culture shock?

Culture shock is the experience of anxiety, stress, and disorientation when people are in a new culture and environment. 

There are distinct stages that a person goes through when living in a new environment.


In this first stage, a person is normally very excited and happy about being in the new environment.

Crisis / Shock  

After the initial happy stage comes the difficult crisis stage. People may become irritated about the differences in language and culture. They may dislike the food and weather. They may find the customs and behaviours strange. They start to get homesick and may withdraw from the host society.

Adjustment With time, patience and effort, people start to adjust to the new culture and environment. Learning the language and the culture of the host country is a big part of successful adjustment.


In this stage, people have successfully adjusted to the new environment and feel comfortable with the new language and culture. They have become bilingual and bicultural. This means that they can function well in two languages and cultures. Depending of their background, some people can function well in more than two languages and cultures. Having these additional linguistic and cultural skills will be a great asset to your future success.

Reverse culture shock 

When people return to their countries of origin after a long period of time abroad, they may experience reverse culture shock because they have become so accustomed to the new culture. This is sometimes even harder for people because they did not expect that they would feel uncomfortable in their home culture. It also takes time to re-adjust to being back home.


Some of the effects of culture shock

Some of the symptoms of culture shock can be worrying themselves. For example, you may find your health is affected and you may get headaches or stomach aches or you may start worrying about your health more than previously. You may find it difficult to concentrate and as a result find it harder to focus on your course work. Other people find they become more irritable or tearful and generally their emotions seem more changeable. All of these effects can in themselves increase your anxiety.


How to help yourself

Though culture shock is normally a temporary phase, it is important to know there are things you can do to help so that some of these worrying effects can be minimised. Don’t feel “this isn’t going to happen to me”. Culture shock can hit you whatever culture you come from and however experienced or well-travelled you are.

  • Simply understanding that this is a normal experience may in itself be helpful.
  • Keeping in touch with home is an important part of living in a different country. The internet makes it very easy to maintain regular contact, for example by using web-based chat or voice calls, or by sharing news, information and photos of your life in Canada through online social networks. However, maintaining very regular (perhaps daily) contact with home, especially when you first arrive, or if you are finding aspects of life in tCanada challenging, can actually make the process of settling in more difficult. Try to balance maintaining contact with home with taking time to get to know your new environment. Newspapers and satellite TV will also be an option for some people, again, see what is available for international students in your college or university.
  • Have familiar things around you that have personal meaning, such as photographs or ornaments.
  • Find a supplier of familiar food if you can. Your student adviser or a student society may be able to help. Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Take regular exercise. As well as being good for your health it can be a way of meeting people.
  • Make friends with international students, whether from your own culture or from others, as they will understand what you’re feeling and, if possible, make friends with the local students so you can learn more about each other’s culture. Be prepared to take the first step and find activities which will give you a common interest with Canadian students e.g. sports, music or volunteering.
  • Take advantage of all the help that is offered by your institution. In particular, the orientation programme offered by most colleges and universities can be a valuable way of meeting people and finding out about things that can help you.
  • Use the university or college services, where there will be professional and experienced staff. For example the health service, the counselling service, the International Office or hall wardens will provide a friendly, listening ear. Even if at home you wouldn’t consider such steps, in the UK it is quite normal and they may help when your familiar helpers are missing. If you are finding settling down difficult, your personal tutor probably also needs to know. She or he may be able to help, particularly with adjusting to a different academic system.
  • For some students linking with a faith community will put you in touch with a familiar setting, whether it is a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Many universities have a chaplaincy in which several faiths may be represented. There may also be religious student societies. Many chaplaincies welcome students of all faiths for pastoral or social activities.
  • Investigate the Students’ Union and its societies. There may be an opportunity to learn a new sport or activity or continue an interest from home. A further advantage is that these societies bring together students from different courses and countries with a shared interest. There are often national societies that will celebrate significant occasions such as Chinese New Year or Thanksgiving. For Canadian students, student societies can be one of the many ways of making new friends.
  • Above all find some one to talk to who will listen uncritically and with understanding, rather than isolating yourself.



It is important to stress that culture shock is entirely normal, usually unavoidable and not a sign that you have made a mistake or that you won’t manage. In fact there are very positive aspects of culture shock. The experience can be a significant learning experience, making you more aware of aspects of your own culture as well as the new culture you have entered. It will give you valuable skills that will serve you in many ways now and in the future and which will be part of the benefit of an international education.