What is Acculturative Stress? Living in a New Culture

March 26, 2021

Comfort zones aren’t just a figure of speech. They are a very real phenomenon that allow us to feel secure in familiar locations and circumstances. When these comfort zones are broken, it can cause a lot of stress on the psyche.

Your home should be one of the most comfortable locations for you, and the friends and culture surrounding your hometown is important to keep you grounded during times of stress. When your culture is disrupted upon moving to a completely new location, it can make you feel out of control, angry, and depressed.

Acculturative stress is a common type of anxiety that occurs after shifting into a brand new environment. Here is everything you need to know about it.

What is Acculturative Stress?

Acculturative stress refers to the mental and emotional difficulties of adapting to a new culture or living environment. This stress can be significant, such as moving to a foreign country. But it can also occur in more “mild” circumstances, such as starting a new job or changing schools. It is a more academic version of the term “culture shock.” 

The most severe symptoms are likely to be associated with individuals who have moved to completely new locations, especially when outside of the country.

Acculturative stress can occur before, during, and after a big change in an individual’s life. The symptoms of acculturative stress are almost identical to that of acute stress disorder.

Hometowns, familiar jobs, or schools can all have an emotional attachment to individuals. Friends, restaurants, food, music, scenery, and family can all have sentimental value to a person. When these values become absent for one reason or another, it can diminish a sense of belonging. These feelings of loneliness combined with being in a new environment can cause a great deal of stress.

What Are the Symptoms of Acculturative Stress?

While moving to a new location or starting a new career can be exciting for some people, others may feel immense amounts of anxiety and fear about these huge life changes. Individuals might be at a higher risk of developing acculturative stress if they’ve been confronted by a traumatic event in the past, have a history of PTSD in their family, or have a history of other mental health conditions.

Acculturative stress is a variation of acute stress disorder, which is a temporary condition that affects an individual after a traumatic event. Because of this, their symptoms are similar:

  • Negative mood: Individuals may feel depressive thoughts and sadness as a result of being away from familiar circumstances.
  • Arousal symptoms: Depending on the severity of the acculturative change, a person may be continually on-guard, preparing for worst case scenarios that might be irrational. This can also include sleep disturbances such as insomnia, as well as difficulty concentrating on daily tasks. 
  • Homesickness: Individuals may struggle to adjust to a new environment because of its variation from familiarity. A person may become saddened by this absence, possibly becoming depressed, irritable, or nostalgic. 
  • Social anxiety: Someone might feel like an outsider in a new culture or circumstance, which can lead to hesitations in trying to form new relationships. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are common after a sudden life change.
  • Avoidance symptoms: In some circumstances, individuals may try to avoid new situations, such as engaging with new co-workers, as this added stress is undesired.

What Causes Acculturative Stress?

There are a number of reasons why acculturative stress can be triggered in an individual. The severity of the change can have a large effect on the way that a person reacts. 

Acculturative stress is primarily caused by feelings of “otherness” and inferiority upon moving to a new location. Without a familiar social circle or group of trustworthy people, individuals may have a difficult time coping with a novel environment.

This is especially true for those who move to entirely new countries. Stressors like language barriers add the fear of being unable to communicate during times of need. On top of that, racial and ethnic discrimination can cause some people to fear for their safety or wellbeing while in a new place. 

Performance difficulties in a new locale can also bring about feelings of anxiety in certain individuals. Each job, city, or town has their own set of sub-cultural dynamics and methods of operation. Learning these new skills in order to assimilate can be daunting, especially when someone feels that they are alone and have no one to ask for help.

The moving process itself may also cause a great deal of stress. Immigration status, moving expenses, and transportation can all contribute to feelings of anxiety surrounding a sudden move.

Predispositions to Acculturative Stress

There are certain developmental and mental disorders that might cause a person to react more negatively to acculturative stress, or become stressed over more irrational circumstances. 

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are generally extremely resistant to change. Individuals with ASD show restricted and repetitive behaviors in certain interests and activities. This translates to an insistence on sameness and an inflexible adherence to routines.

Although it is not understood why exactly this occurs, even small variations to an autistic individual’s routine may cause immense stress, often resulting in enormous anxiety.

Additionally, those who experience Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may also feel the effects of acculturative stress to a heightened extent. People with OCD might experience obsessive behaviors related to losing control or perfectionism. When a large shift occurs that threatens these often irrational ideals, it can cause great stress and anxiety.

Anxiety Disorders may also put someone at higher risk of feeling acculturative stress. Individuals who often fear the future and are concerned about events that have not yet occurred, are likely to shut down when exposed to uncertain environments.

Furthermore, race and ethnicity can also put someone at a greater risk of experiencing stress related to acculturation. Racist and bigoted beliefs may cause people to feel especially outcast and unsafe in new locations.

Coping with Acculturative Stress

Acculturative stress, as with any type of anxiety, can be successfully managed. If feelings of acculturative stress become inundating and are consistently affecting your wellbeing, it is essential to speak to a mental health professional.

  • Keep in touch with loved ones: Video calls, phone conversations, and texting make it possible to keep in touch with people you love even when you’re not near them. Devote some time to talk to the people in your hometown or at your old school so that you can still feel connected to something familiar.
  • Validate your feelings: Making a big change is stressful, and you’re allowed to feel sad, worried, and angry. Don’t beat yourself up over not feeling comfortable in your new environment. You’ll adapt eventually, but let yourself do it on your own terms.
  • Search for positives: Moving to a new country or office can be just as exciting as it is scary. Take advantage of your new ability to make new acquaintances, see new sights, try new foods, and experience brand new things.
  • Practice stress relief techniques: When you feel stressed or anxious, practice deep breathing exercises to try to decelerate your heart rate. Additionally, frequent meditation or yoga may assist in minimizing your stress response in the future.

Acculturative stress can also be avoided if an individual is able to recognize that conformity isn’t necessary. However, certain cultures and societies may become unsafe if a person is unable to properly integrate into their environment. 

If you have concerns or feel like you are struggling to fit in, help is always available.

Summary

Acculturative stress refers to the mental and emotional difficulties of adapting to a new culture or living environment, such as moving to a new country or switching jobs. Symptoms of acculturative stress are similar to acute stress disorder, mainly consisting of negative moods, social anxiety, and feelings of homesickness.

The idea of being outcast by a society as well as the process of adjusting to entirely new ideals are huge contributors to acculturative stress. Individuals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds may be particularly susceptible, as language barriers, culture gaps, and racism can affect people differently.

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or Disorders of Anxiety may be more prone to severe and long-lasting symptoms of acculturative stress when compared to others.

Your feelings are valid and completely understandable. But that doesn’t mean you need to feel upset all the time. When you’re ready, help is always here.

YANA is an online mental health clinic that specializes in depression and anxiety. You’ll be matched with qualified doctors who will create a personalized treatment plan based on your specific circumstance. If medication is needed, it can be shipped right to your door. Acculturative stress can affect everyone, so remember: you are not alone.

Sources:

Acculturative Stress, Psychological Distress, and Religious Coping Among Latina Young Adult Immigrants — NIH

Discrimination can be harmful to your mental health — UCLA

What is OCD? — IOCDF

What is Conformity? — Simply Psychology