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There And Back Again... Re-Entering Reality

jwong's picture

One of the common things I’ve heard from friends returning from their junior study abroad was how much they missed being away in the foreign country. On occasion, a few friends even confessed to feeling a crushing sense of distance between their time abroad and their return to school, that they wished they could have taken a semester off because they did not feel mentally prepared to come back to “reality” just yet. These symptoms surprised me because they definitely seemed a large step beyond the typical post-vacation depression. What exactly was it that seemed to make so many peers coming back from their study abroad to feel stilted and out of place from the real world of home?

Reverse culture shock, or reentry adjustment, is a rather popular variant of depression resulting from being away for an extended period of time. A 1997 study on the psychological impact of emergency evacuations on temporary residents in Liberia, the Philippines, and/or Yeman demonstrated the severe demands of rapid transition between areas of differing cultural and economic strata. The study indicated that swift changes in locale environment led to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety due to individual’s adjustment difficulties. 60% of evacuees reported feelings of depression while 55% reported feelings of disorientation when returning to their home country (Hirshon). This evidence of depression from change of environment is highly relevant in relation to temporary student travelers spending extended periods of time in foreign countries. A major known cause of depression is drastic change in environment, whether emotionally caused by the death of a loved one, or from a prolonged alteration in one’s actual physical surroundings. Thus, an individual’s identification of a familiar environment like one’s home or home country is based on brain cortex regulators in the cerebellum known as central pattern generators. These cyclic networks of neurons create arrangements of rhythmic communication between neurons of the nervous system, generating a motor memory pattern of action independent of motor or sensory feedback from other muscle inputs. As a result, central pattern generators (CPGs) presumably establish familiarity through the continued use of the same neuronal patterns, creating habitual “norms” of brain output and determine what a person is familiar and accustomed to (Belli). The establishment of these norms is significant to maintaining proper behavior of the overall neuronal network; sudden changes in the outside input create disruptions in CPG patterns and create cause for modifications to them. This explains why such abruptly severe changes in location can cause varying emotional responses.

Interestingly enough, research has demonstrated that neocortical circuits in the cortex of the brain could be deemed analogous to CPGs as they have rich spontaneous dynamics that, similar to central pattern generators, are powerfully engaged by sensory inputs, but can also generate output in their absence (Yuste). This fact is significant to understanding the brain’s ability to conform to new changes in its environment because it suggests that cortical circuits of the brain allow for “learning” CPGs and influence brain plasticity. The brain has the unique ability to rewire its pathways to acclimate to new surroundings and fit new patterns of normality. If the brain has the capability to remold itself to these changes, it begs the question as to why depression exists—what prevents the brain from easily adapting to varying levels of chemicals in the brain as caused by trauma or sudden change in experience? The answer lies in the fact that constant structural or chemical modifications to the CPG format of patterning inside the brain requires constant rewiring of this specific type of neuronal activity. Too many irregular changes to one’s existing normal state can lead to aberrations in the regular inhibition and facilitation patterns of CPG movement (Belli). These changes can create disproportion of the brain’s neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, chemical messengers that are considered to be major causes of emotional depression. From this evidence, it consequently seems reasonable to consider frequent and irregular alterations of normal CPG patterns as instigators of chemical irregularity and a clear cause of the dysfunction associated with depression. This can account for the distress often associated with entering a new surrounding for the first time; studying abroad in a foreign setting is initially “infatuating and new,” because of the immensely different environmental changes a student encounters. However, students can fall into brutal depression as a result of the overwhelming amount of change when they realize “that they are no longer at home and therefore cannot think or act in the normal patterns which up to this time they had taken for granted” (Berg 827). An interesting observation in a French magazine regarding American students studying abroad in France implied that after initial disorientation, the semester or year abroad improves via gradual acclimation to the foreign setting. Students then become reluctant to leave their now familiar environment “because they have come to understand the country and the people from the inside.” These changing emotions demonstrate the brain’s plasticity and the organizing function of corollary discharge, a concept of neuroscience where neural signals are forwarded from motor to sensory areas of the brain. An organism naturally adapts their behaviors to a changing environment in a process known as neuromodulation; corollary discharge propagates the changing status of one area of the nervous system to another part in order to respond to sensory inputs signaling changes from what the nervous system had been expecting. Corollary discharge combine sensory input of something in the environment being amiss with experiential data from the brain’s memory bank to creates discharge patterns that over time become regulated, thereby acting as regulators for several central pattern generators.

This definition of post-travel-abroad depression, whether it is an equivalent to reverse culture shock or not, is a clear indication that significant alterations in depression-related chemicals in the brain occur as a result of neuromodulatory alterations in behavior. The relationship between neuropsychological changes and biology is critical to understanding this combination of physical change and emotional depression. Studies have determined that forms of complex psychological trauma have been proven to effectively alter the synapses, neurotransmitters, and cortical pathways of the brain, inexorably changing the coordination of brain patterns altogether (Wilson). Extending from this belief, depression can be seen as weakened neurological state as result of unexpected alterations in pathways of the brain that the brain must continually work to redefine as regular and understandable for the individual. When students study abroad they experience a myriad of changing emotional states, ranging from elation to isolation and even hostility to their peers and to their surroundings as a whole. Feeling an overwhelming sense of discomfort with reality seems to make sense in relation to the idea that these students no longer possess a clear sense of normalcy in their lives. An interesting reflection on the topic of drastic environmental changes and disconnect between reality and one’s expectations is the concept of solastalgia. Cointed by an Australian philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, the recently formulated term defines a form of depression or homesickness that combines the concepts of nostalgia, solace, and desolation (Skatssoon). Albrecht uses this term to explain the sometimes overwhelming sense of distress over a loss of “community” or “endemic sense of place” as a result of environmental change; however, these same emotions and the depression caused by imagining a lack of control over one’s destiny are emotions and brain patterns that can also be associated with the concept of re-entry shock after being abroad. It seems ironic that such an emotionally based idiom has been contrived to designate the rewiring alterations of the brain, because it is the brain itself that conceives these pathway patterns to explain one’s surroundings. Thus, this creation of the word “solastalgia” parallels the emotional distress and inability to cope with returning to “the Bryn Mawr bubble” after studying abroad, because they are both ways of the brain attempting to classify and organize specific inputs it receives in order to make sense of the world it is in. Readapting to reality seems daunting and rather impossible to successfully grapple with until one realizes that there never is a “normal” reality. Perhaps because the brain has the capability to adjust anyway, there never is a way of “getting back” to what was, but always a way of “getting used to” what is.


Belli, Richard. "PRIMITIVE POSITION MUSCLE TESTING AND." Spectrum Applied Kinesiology. Spectrum Applied Kinesiology Health Care Office, Sacramento CA. <>.


Berg, William J. "The Year Abroad in France: an Inside Look." The French Review 48 (1975): 820-835. JSTOR. <>.


"Depression." MedlinePlus. 03 Apr. 2008. National Institute of Health. <>.


Hirshon, Jon M., Thomas R. Eng, Katherine Brunkow, and Nedra Hartzell. "Psychological and Readjustment Problems Associated with Emergency Evacuation of Peace Corps Volunteers." Journal of Travel Medicine. 1997. Blackwell Synergy. <>.


Skatssoon, Judy. "Drought Prompts New Type of Mental Stress." News in Science. 22 May 2005. ABC Science. <>.


Wilson, Elizabeth A. "Melancholic Biology: Prozac, Freud, and Neurological Determinism." Configurations 7.3 (JHU Press Society for Literature and Science) (1999): 403-419. <>.


Yuste, Rafael, Jason N. Maclean, Jeffrey Smith, and Anders Lasner. "The Cortex as a Central Pattern Generator." Nature Reviews Neuroscience (2005): 477-483. <>.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Reverse culture shock (among other things) and depression

I hadn't heard of "reverse culture shock", and am very intrigued by a possible link between it and depression (and that in turn to other examples of a mismatch between expectation and input, such as motion sickness and jet lag). What seems to me worth exploring further is why returning to a familiar environment from an unfamiliar one would be more troublesome than the original movement from a familiar to an unfamiliar one. I wonder if the difference might have to do with the presence (in going to an unfamiliar environment / absence (in returning) of a conscious ("I-function") expectation of a mismatch.