Adjusting to a new culture, whether it be from relocating to a new country or a new part of your home country, can bring upon stress that is difficult to manage. Everyone experiences varying levels of stress related to work, family, finances, and health. In some cases, these stresses can lead to symptoms of depression or anxiety. Experiencing a new culture and the demands of a new region, new language, and new way of doing things can exacerbate typical stressors as well as create unique stresses.
How we think, feel, and behave is affected by the larger culture and society, the local community, and the institutions abound. Acculturation refers to the dynamic process of adapting to a new culture. Acculturative stress is a result of stressful life events associated with acculturation which can include learning a new language, adapting to the new culture, or dealing with threats to believes, norms, and values.
There are four strategies that an individual might follow when they have relocated into a new culture. Assimilation refers to the process of accepting the host culture and rejecting one’s original culture. Marginalisation refers to the process of rejecting both the host culture and one’s original culture. Separation refers to the process of rejecting the host culture while retaining one’s original culture. Integration refers to the process of accepting the host culture while retaining one’s original culture.
Regardless of the acculturation strategy followed, an individual can experience significant stressors. For example, one who marginalizes both the host and original cultures can experience isolation and loneliness that can lead to depression. Integrating both cultures, which is often seen as the most adaptive strategy, can lead to stress when one attempts to resolve conflicting beliefs, values, and practices.
Effects of Acculturative Stress
Adults and children can both experience acculturative stress. Adults are often concerned about uncertainty of their status (e.g., immigration, refugee, or community acceptance), unemployment or underemployment, loss of social status, loss of family and community social supports, concerns about family members left behind, and difficulties in language, learning, and adaptation. Children struggle with their family’s adaptation, difficulties with language, difficulties with school, ethnic and religious identity, sex/gender role confliction, intergenerational conflict, discrimination, and social exclusion.
An individual experiencing acculturative stress can experience depressive, anxious, trauma, or psychosis symptoms. Depressive symptoms can include sadness, worthlessness, irritability, loss of interest, disturbance in sleep or appetite, restlessness, problems with concentration, headaches, or thoughts of suicide or death. Anxiety symptoms can include trembling, increased breathing or heart rates, having a sense of impending danger or panic, sweating, agitation, restlessness, and worry. Trauma is the result of exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Symptoms of trauma often include intrusive symptoms (e.g., bad memories, nightmares, flashbacks), avoidance of cues associated with traumatic experiences, negative changes to thoughts and moods (e.g., irritability, negative beliefs or expectations, distorted thoughts), and hypervigilance (e.g., exaggerated arousal and reactivity). Psychosis refers to a loss of contact with reality, in which an individual has difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is not real. Psychosis symptoms can include distortions in thought (e.g., hear or seeing things others cannot, thinking you have special powers), feeling (e.g., sadness, irritability, confusion, paranoia), and behaviour (e.g., talking to self, neglecting appearance, behaving aggressively).
Self-Care for Culture Related Stress
With such varied symptoms, the specific course of psychotherapy to treat culture related stress will be customized for the individual. However, there are five areas of self-care that individuals, and those that support them, should focus on to improve mental health:
Physical Care. Ensure you get proper sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly.
Spiritual Care. Engage with your spiritual and religious believes and experiences.
Social Support. Connect with family and friends who can offer support.
Mental and Emotional Care. Seek appropriate professional assistance.
Lifestyle Choices. Review and evaluate attitudes, values, and behaviours.
Dr. Stephen Rochefort is a registered psychologist in the province of Alberta. For more information on this or any other forensic or clinical psychology topic, contact Dr. Stephen by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (403.986.1044).