Combatting Culture Shock with Healthy Habits

Cali Carper
December 12, 2021

Culture shock is imagined as a big beast, one to avoid at all costs to maximize your time abroad. In reality, it’s difficult to avoid. Certainly there are preventative practices that mediate the effects, but it takes a lot of time and dedication to commit to healthy practices when you’re feeling down.

In my experience, I didn’t realize when I was starting to get bad. And by bad I mean spending two whole weeks with minimal human interaction, poor eating patterns, no outside exposure, and limited memory of what I did. It started with being wholly overwhelmed by my failing attempts to find a work permit to stay in Amsterdam. Add the stress of navigating a foreign education system and simultaneously realizing I’m nearing the end of my academic career. Slowly settling with the fact I might have to go home and spend my last semester doing the same old job in the same old place, I was mentally drained. 

I stole away to my room, spending all my time between Netflix shows and searching for a way to be hopeful again. When I realized how much time had passed, I was even more miserable. How dare I waste so much time inside when I could be out exploring. Of course retroactively I can see where I went wrong. Even the parts of my routine I enjoyed became dreadful. How do you get out of a rut you don’t realize you’re in?

It’s easy to say “go to the gym” and “eat healthy,” but even tasks that seem simple become difficult. I’ve never been good at those things anyway, but they are especially unappealing when I feel miserable. 

I’m most grateful to my program friends who kept reaching out to see me despite my limited public presence. Asking to go for a walk, cook dinner together, or even study together gave me a distraction and reason to leave my room. It also refilled my social meter, and that bettered my motivation to get outside on my own. 

My first blog offered guidelines I used to prepare me to come abroad. Now that I’m here, my insights have changed. I still have a daily to-do list. I still reflect on my goals actively. But I’ve added some general practices that I’m already seeing are benefiting my mentality.

1. Working Out

Realizing physical health requires more than just dragging myself to the gym was a huge upgrade to my opinion on healthy attitudes. I have a lot of admiration for people who make it to the gym and know what to do because I don’t. 

The gym is a place of insecurity for me. “Are people watching me?” “What if I’m doing this wrong.” “I don’t know how to use this machine.” 

For me, my relationship to my body always dictated my opinion of the gym. My motivation to go to the gym used to stem from the negative thoughts I had about my body. I would find things I hated about myself and use that as motivation for why I needed to work out. It took years to recognize that was not the right type of motivation, and it wasn’t even true. I love my body and I appreciate that it supports me more than anyone else. 

Despite my self-awareness, cultivating a healthy mindset is no easy feat. I’m grateful for my friends who offer emotional support and encourage me to be the best version of myself. Even if I’m not confident I know how to navigate the gym, I’ve learned to positively reflect on what I do accomplish by going rather than berate myself for what I didn’t do. 

In the short time I’ve restarted my routine at the gym I’ve seen improvement in my energy, focus, and emotional wellbeing. Incorporating any form of exercise into my daily routine when I was distant would’ve vastly impacted the time I spent being upset and alone. 

2. Short (or Long) Trips Outside

The same is true with being outside. I remember sitting outside on a bench for 10 minutes with my friends one night thinking about how incredible I felt after spending I don’t know how much time cooped up inside. You can never underestimate the power of fresh air. I do take day trips to new cities as an opportunity to provide a healing space and activity for myself. You can check out some of my favorite trips in my other post!

It sounds easy enough, but when it comes down to it, leaving my room felt like a huge burden. Changing out of pajamas, putting on shoes, being seen in public—none of that sounds appealing when you’re feeling down. 

What helped change my mindset was creating a reward system for myself where the reward was a trip outside. This can be problematic if you trick yourself into believing you don’t do enough to deserve a reward. But after enough time sulking, my short trips outside became essential to improving my mood. 

Plus, it’s a lovely reminder of all the wonderful things you can encounter on a simple trip outside. The other day, I wandered around for a bit and ran into people carolling around the city and others dressed up in gorgeous gowns handing out candles and cards! It was such a wholesome experience, and I kept finding more people on every corner. It made me appreciate that I had stepped out of my comfort zone and explored on my own. 

3. Quality Conversations

Something I’ve realized benefits me is stimulating my mind. Much like I value quality time, I value quality conversations. It’s exciting to figure out the different ways my friends can bring out my passions through conversations. 

Having a shared kitchen is a great help. Interacting with people a bit at random times throughout the day is fun, but I enjoy our longer conversations together. 

And of course school engages me mentally, but it has been the quality conversations with friends that remind me how valuable communication is for mental health. Plus, holding meaningful conversations is also a wonderful distraction from the stress of school. My blog about educational differences in Amsterdam can explain a bit more about the differences I've encountered.

4. Eating Better

Oh how I used to despise cooking. Spending 30 minutes running in circles dodging people in a shared kitchen all trying to cook at once just to spend 5 minutes enjoying the food and 10 more doing dishes. Who wants to do that when they feel like not being around people? Instant ramen became my quick fix. Finally embracing the broke college student stereotype. 

Plus, my skill set vastly limits what I’m capable of making. I’ve annoyed myself out of cooking based on the sheer repetition of a few meals I rotate in and out of. But ever since I’ve been cooking with my boyfriend and with my friends, my meals have stepped up. Now, I have an obsession with cutting vegetables because the color scheme always makes me feel like I’m doing something right. I stopped living off of cheap croissants and bugles to start incorporating more fruits and vegetables into my meals. I also stopped paying attention to the time I spent in the kitchen to avoid feeling dreadful. Truly focusing on meal prep and enjoying the time I spend in the kitchen was a huge mindset change, but now I look forward to preparing meals.

I’ve taken to writing down a list of options for what to cook as a tool for inspiration. This way I’m not only deciding once I step foot in the kitchen. This helps me to strive for healthier options in my diet. In an odd way, it also makes me excited to practice a new spin on an old meal.

Thankfully I’m surrounded by people who enjoy cooking and are always creating appetizing meals, so inspiration is never far off! 

Overall, I can see a huge difference in myself from when I arrived. I’ve held onto my favorite pre-trip habits to establish a routine that incorporates the things I know I enjoy. And bringing those ideas here allowed me to Amsterdam-ify them, making them more exciting with new journals, crafts, and hobbies. But the discoveries I’ve made about my new habits makes me proud of the ways I’ve grown during my time with IES Abroad Amsterdam. I’ve had to do a lot of self-reflection during my time here, and I still have a long way to go! 

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Cali Carper

<p>Hi there! I’m Cali Carper, a small-town Wisconsin girl who enjoys her book collection, dance, fashion, thrifting, knitting, and thinking critically. Currently, I’m a fifth-year student at Penn State studying Criminology and Comparative Literature with minors in Korean, Asian Studies, Sociology, Global Studies, and English. When I was a first-year student, I spent a summer abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. In my last year, I’ll be traversing Europe for a semester during my study abroad trip to Amsterdam, where I’ll participate in the Law &amp; Criminology program at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam!</p>

2021 Fall
Home University:
Penn State University
Hudson, WI
Comparative Literature
Criminal Studies
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