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Understanding Transition Stress

5 key areas affected by culture change

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If you have ever found yourself unpacking suitcases with your belongings somewhere far from home, you are probably familiar with a peculiar feeling that often accompanies change. It dwells on the continuum of excitement and anxiety, elation and dread, and depending on the hour, can leap from one extreme to the other. Then, as the fog of jetlag wears off, you meet your new neighbors and figure out where to buy food, this feeling settles deeper in your stomach as lingering low-grade stress.

A widely used framework for demystifying the stress of cultural transitions is Kate Berardo’s 5Rs of Culture Change. According to the 5R model, the main areas that are affected when we move across cultures are Routines, Reactions, Roles, Relationships, and Reflections about ourselves. The strength of the model lies in helping individuals understand the causes of transition stress and as a result, adapt their coping strategies accordingly. Berardo (2012) explores the significance of each of the areas affected by change, outlines a list of potential impacts on individuals, and offers suggestions for their management. Given the psychological significance of routines, reactions, roles, relationships and reflections for our wellbeing, the 5Rs can also be a valuable tool during change in general, guiding us towards a better understanding of ourselves and our responses to stress in times of transitions.

Below is a review of the 5R model, together with some practical tips on how to manage each aspect of change.

1. Routines

Routines guide behavior through predictable structures. Their significance has been established at various stages of life - from contributing to the cognitive development of preschoolers, to facilitating wellbeing among older populations. In family settings, routines and rituals promote adjustment, foster a sense of belonging and are vital for the psychological wellbeing of family members. During cross-cultural moves routines are usually among the first to get disrupted, as everything from the foods we eat to our weekend activities undergoes change. As a result, feelings of being not grounded or anchored may arise. Since routines and rituals can have protective qualities and can act as buffers against stress, their maintenance during vulnerable conditions such as transitions can ensure better adaptation.


  • Keep old routines where possible and work on creating new ones
  • Incorporate hobbies that help you relax into your daily activities
  • Realize that establishing new routines takes time
  • Cultivate non-place-based routines that can be practiced anywhere (e.g., music; deep breathing)

2. Reactions

The way others react to us can be impactful on our emotions and behavior. Moreover, the feedback we receive from social interactions influences how we see ourselves (our self-concept). In new cultural environments, interactions can result in unexpected reactions from the people around us, even for everyday conducts that we are accustomed to at home. Various social scenarios, from how much we tip at restaurants to how we address our colleagues at work, can provide numerous opportunities for linguistic and cultural differences to manifest as unpredictable reactions during our communications. The discrepancy between expected and actual feedback may reduce confidence and lead to high levels of uncertainty. As a result, some may withdraw from social situations to minimize the occurrence of negative feedback, while others may adopt an overly critical attitude towards the new culture.


  • Gain an understanding of others’ reactions by learning about the new culture
  • Identify people (e.g., local acquaintances; other expatriates) who can help you make sense of the unexpected reactions
  • Learn skills (e.g., language; sociocultural rules) for effective communication
  • Give yourself time to understand the new cultural ways
  • Remind yourself of your strengths

3. Roles

Our roles are part of our identities. They give us meaning and purpose, while enhancing our resources, social connections and sense of gratification. Having multiple roles is associated with greater psychological wellbeing, as well as with mental and physical health benefits, including lower levels of distress, anxiety and depression. A greater involvement in our roles leads to greater wellbeing. Moving across cultures can result in changes in our roles and responsibilities. For some, it may include expanded professional responsibilities, while for others it may mean giving up a career to become a stay-at-home parent. The meaning individuals attach to their roles is important for understanding their psychological impact and how they may react to role changes. For example, excitement and anticipation may result from newly acquired roles and responsibilities, while unwanted roles may trigger feelings of pressure and defensiveness. Roles that had to be given up may bring forth sadness and a sense of loss.


  • Gain clarity on your new roles and responsibilities as quickly as possible
  • Manage expectations on how to live out the new roles and reflect on the roles that you are no longer fulfilling
  • Strategize how to keep the same roles in the new culture

4. Relationships

As part of our basic psychological needs, relationships are crucial to our wellbeing. Positive, stable and satisfying relations with others promote human flourishing and increase resilience. In stressful situations, relationships serve as a function of support and have a detrimental role in adaptive functioning. Moving affects our relationships in various ways. For instance, our relations with those who move with us may deepen from shared experiences, while at the same time may require additional efforts as we adjust to transitions together. Some relationships may drift apart, while others may thrive from the distance. New relationships can produce positive feelings such as enrichment and satisfaction, while changes in existing relationships can result in worry, guilt and a sense of loss.


  • Determine the most important relationships for you and find ways to maintain them (e.g., through social media; regular communications)
  • Keep an open dialogue about hopes, needs, concerns within existing relationships
  • Be proactive in making new connections and building a new support network

5. Reflections about yourself

Reflection is a higher-order mental process referring to the cognitive and affective exploration of one’s experiences, in order to categorize and make sense of them. As a key to adult learning, reflection provides a framework for new interpretations while reinforcing established frames of reference. Cultural transitions can instigate changes in the way we think about ourselves. Our values may become more pronounced as we discover what is important for our own wellbeing and what stress-management strategies work best for us. With prolonged stays in other cultures, we may recognize changes in our own behavior, including a collection of new habits, gestures, and even ways of thinking. Moving fosters self-reflection - as individuals and as members of our cultures. As we confront questions of self-identity, such as where we feel at home and where we belong, we may experience a range of emotions towards the new culture and the way it is affecting us.


  • Acknowledge that these changes are a natural step of cultural transitions
  • Self-reflect about the changes you are experiencing (e.g., keep a diary)
  • Seek support from other expatriates who may have shared similar experiences

The process of transitioning through cultures is very complex, with numerous factors influencing our adaptive outcomes. In novel cultural contexts, often times the predictability of our action-reaction patterns is broken, routines are disrupted, relationships evolve, roles shift, and we begin acquiring a new sense of identity. Such changes can be overwhelming. A good place to start with the management of transition stress is to identify its causes, understand its roots and start making small adjustments to our ways of thinking and behaving. In the end, one of the biggest insights that the uncertainties of transitions can offer is finding the balance of accepting the changes we cannot control while remaining a “psychological activist” for the maintenance of our own wellbeing.

The 5Rs of Culture Change was created by Kate Berardo of Culturosity and was featured in her book Building Cultural Competence.


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