Culture (Transition) Shock

At the beginning of any new phase in your life, it is normal to experience heightened levels of stress, even if that new phase has been long-planned and carefully considered. For all CWRU students, wherever they come from, transitioning to their new life in Cleveland can be somewhat of a shock. For those transitioning to CWRU from abroad, that shock can be quite strong.

While this experience is generally referred to as “culture shock”, “transition shock” is likely a more appropriate title, as any transition, large or small, can come as a shock to the mind and body.

Experiencing heightened emotions and other signs of transition shock is completely normal, and we hope that this information will help our students, staff, and faculty better understand how best to manage the symptoms and to adapt well to living in Cleveland.

What is Transition Shock?

Transition Shock refers to the emotional and mental stress experienced when someone moves from a comfortable or known situation to a new, uncomfortable, and/or unknown situation. It includes the shock of being in a new environment, with people who all know each other but whom you do not know, and learning all of the unspoken and unwritten expectations of the new place, like schedules, methods of address, and navigating the physical space.

During transition shock, the brain is forming new connections and processing large amounts of information on a daily basis. Thus, it is normal for those in transition to tire more quickly, to need time to process, or to be more easily frustrated.

Typical Timeline

Unless the transition to a new location is unusually difficult or painful, it is common for someone to feel very happy, positive, and even enthralled upon arrival. This phase, often called the “honeymoon”, is a time when everything feels fresh and new.

After about a week, reality slowly begins to set in. Whether subconsciously or consciously, you begin to realize your normal support network is not near you; you may struggle with physical space and finding your way without help; you encounter challenges that you do not know how to solve; and you begin to realize there is so much you do not know. For some, this takes the form of frustration with self, with others, or with the host country. These feelings of loss, confusion, and frustration are normal.

Approximately 8-12 weeks after arrival in a new location, it is common to “bottom out” emotionally. Your emotions may be stronger than normal or more unpredictable, and you may feel like things will never improve. It is common at this point to consider: “Did I make the wrong choice coming to Cleveland?” Asking yourself that question can signal that you are experiencing transition shock.

As you begin to realize you may be experiencing stress from crossing cultures or transitioning to Cleveland, typically you will also begin to realize that your new support system is growing, you know more now than you did weeks ago about navigating the university, and you are, indeed, in the right place.

After about three months, most people will have fully transitioned to their new home. We call this “adaptation” – you have adapted to living in this new environment while still preserving your own personality, values, and perspectives.

If at any time throughout the process of transitioning to CWRU and to Cleveland you feel stressed or overwhelmed and would like to talk, please contact ISS at or contact University Counseling Services any time at 216-368-5872.

Common symptoms of transition shock or culture stress

  • Homesickness
  • Appetite change – always hungry or never hungry
  • Feeling inadequate or lacking confidence, self-doubt
  • Feeling you are a more “extreme” version of yourself – e.g. excessively talkative or needing of time with people, excessively quiet or withdrawn
  • Comfort seeking behaviors can become extreme – drinking alcohol, eating, sleeping, gaming, etc.
  • More negative than positive feelings: anger, sadness, frustration, depression, fear, confusion, resentment
  • Physical changes – extreme weight loss/gain, crying, unexplainable pains (e.g. stomachache, headache), sleeplessness
  • Lack of motivation, desire to stay home or in bed all day

Factors which can contribute to transition shock

Particularly for new students arriving at CWRU, here are some common points of stress when they first arrive at the university.

Language Environment

For many CWRU students, this is their first time living in an English speaking country, surrounded by the English language on a more consistent basis. This can be a bit jarring to the mind of someone in transition. Speaking and working in a second language can be taxing, particularly when everything else is also new. Additionally, non-standard words and usages are common in the United States but not taught in English as a Learning Language classes. (For example, newly invented words like “staycation” or common words used in new ways like “cancel culture” take time to learn.)

Additionally, if someone has studied British English, that can cause some stress upon arrival in the United States. Common words like “lorry” or “rubber” may have a different meaning here, or no meaning at all. Spelling and pronunciation differences can also cause confusion, e.g. check vs. cheque or aluminum as “al-u-min-i-um”.


Despite the excellent food services offered by CWRU, for many students, even the best foods do not taste like food at “home”.  Whether it is different spices, cooking techniques, or simply nostalgia, food can be a trigger for feelings of sadness and homesickness.


Cleveland’s weather is highly unusual! The daily changes in temperature, and the unpredictable nature, make Cleveland an outlier when compared to many other locations globally. Newcomers often find it challenging to adapt to checking the weather daily and may forget that, while it was 90*F yesterday, it may be 70*F today.

Cleveland’s winter is also shockingly cold and snowy. For those coming from warmer climates, snow may be little more than a concept for them until they experience a true “lake effect event”. Others may not understand just how warm a “winter jacket” should be. It can be helpful ask for advice on what to look for when purchasing winter gear. Here is some advise from ISS.


For as separate as Americans hold themselves from the government (at least at times), the United States’ system of governance is, at best, extremely confusing. The freedom and responsibilities given to states to make their own laws, combined with local and federal laws, can be bewildering. The United States is unusual in its practice of allowing states to make their own traffic laws, run their own decentralized education systems, and write their own tax laws.

Values and Beliefs

The United States is somewhat unique among nations – it is quite heterogeneous in nature, has no state religion, and places the highest value on treating each individual member of society equally. Americans’ beliefs and values are influenced and impacted by the US being a very young, highly individualistic, and mostly geographically isolated country. Additionally, those who have immigrated to the US have brought their values and beliefs to this country. This creates a culturally rich and diverse society, but the diversity of opinions and beliefs can be difficult for new arrivals to navigate.

Social Norms and “Rules” of Behavior

Each country has its own social norms and learning them takes time and effort. It is common for newcomers to make blunders when they first arrive. How these mistakes are handled can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to adapt, as well. When handled with kindness, understanding, and patience, new arrivals feel more welcome and safe to take risks.

Relationship Stress

Some new students come to Cleveland alone and knowing no one, and for them, loneliness can be a particular point of stress or agitation. It can be helpful for those who have been here longer to reach out to new colleagues or classmates simply to check in or to invite them for a meal or similar connection point.

For those who travel to Cleveland with spouses and/or children, it can be stressful to help everyone in the family transition together to their new schools, new neighborhoods, and new routines.

What can you do?

If you are experiencing culture shock, or if you know someone who is, please reach out to ISS at or contact University Counseling Services any time at 216-368-5872.

In the United States, we place a high value on privacy, which means, even if someone thinks you might need help, they are unlikely to ask because it is an invasion of privacy. So, if you need help or you feel sad often, please ask for help. Someone can only know what you need if you tell them, so please advocate for yourself – ask for what you need.


  • Try to have realistic expectations – e.g. I’ve only been here a week, it’s normal to not have close friends yet
  • Be extra understanding and kind to yourself – your brain is going through a lot, so give it time to rest, and give yourself time to “recharge”
  • Challenge yourself to go beyond your comfort zone – ask someone to eat lunch with you, go for a walk around campus, join a club, or try something new
  • Stay curious – observe others’ behavior and learn from them how to adapt to your new environment
  • Remember, you are strong.  Even when you feel sad or lonely or frustrated, you are still strong.
  • Keep your sense of humor – “If you will laugh about it later, laugh about it now.” That little saying means, if, in 10 years, you will look back on this situation and laugh about how silly it was or how little you knew, go ahead and laugh now. Many points of stress are not as serious as they seem.
  • Be an ambassador for your country – share your thoughts, wisdom, and experiences with others.
  • Reach out – remember, if you need help, ask for it. Ask your classmates, advisors, ISS, or Counseling – we are all here to help.