Re-Entry Syndrome

Submitted by Moira McCreesh on August 6, 2003 - 12:00am.

What is Re Entry Syndrome? 

Re Entry Syndrome (RES) or Reverse Culture Shock is a psychological response experienced by many people returning home from field work in a different culture. RES does not only impact on the sufferer, it also affects the returning worker's family and friends. As well as being experienced by aid workers, it has been recognised in people who have been released from jail or soldiers returning to civilian life.

What are the symptoms of Re Entry Syndrome? 

After an initial couple of days of euphoria, many returned aid workers experience feelings grouped around a number of major themes. These are mainly feelings of loss, bereavement and isolation. You can feel that no one really understands what you have been through and, what's more, most people aren't that interested. You may feel frustrated that you just can't seem to communicate the magnitude of the experience you have undergone - or the sense of loss that you now have.

Working in a different culture can also affect your view of your 'home' culture, and you can become critical of the values of the people around you. You may also find that you miss the friends you left behind, or miss other aspects of the place you left. Strong bonds are developed between people working in stressful environments, and you may experience feelings of guilt for leaving colleagues behind. In addition, you may feel disconnected from your home - situations will have changed in your absence and you may feel you no longer belong. The lack of an immediate goal may also affect you, leaving you bored by the absence of purpose. This will compare poorly with your time away - overseas aid work is often totally engaging and the urgency and adrenaline can be addictive.

Combinations of the above experiences can lead to feelings of frustration, disorientation and depression. Everyone's experience of Re Entry Syndrome is different, and may involve combinations of the above themes to varying extents.

Why is RES a problem? 

RES is a problem because it is associated with a number of negative consequences. Some people will turn to drugs or alcohol to 'cope' with the feelings of frustration and isolation and some will indulge in risk taking behaviour that may affect their health, career and family. It is worth stressing that the returned aid worker is not usually the only one suffering - you can be a very difficult person to live with during this time and your friends and family may be affected.

Coping with Re Entry Syndrome

Every one is different, with different levels of engagement with their host culture and with their own. It follows that there is no prescriptive set of coping methods to fit everyone. Some tactics you might find useful are listed below:

Awareness

Don't think it won't happen to you! A study of returned British aid workers revealed that 60 per cent reported feeling predominantly negative emotions on their return home. The most common experiences reported are feelings of disorientation, confusion, devastation and bereavement. Prior knowledge of RES can be very helpful in preparing for how you may feel when you return.

Before you go - Prepare yourself by learning more about RES. You should also ensure that your loved ones are aware of the condition and how it may affect you upon your return. This may help them to be more understanding of how you are feeling and to be able to offer support.

While you are away - Keep up to date with events and in touch with loved ones at home whilst you are away.

Before you go home - Reflect on how you have changed and how this may affect your homecoming. If there is an offer of any kind of farewell, take it. Any sort of farewell can only help you move on and, importantly, it also helps those who are left behind.

End of assignment - Finish off all the loose ends of post assignment reports, handing in of equipment and ID cards, etc. If the organisation you have been working for offers any form of de briefing, take it. Some organizations give you the opportunity to do a presentation about your experience. This can be therapeutic and you may find it is one of the few times you will talk to a group who are genuinely interested.

When you return home - Take a couple of days off when you get home you deserve to relax, so indulge yourself in moderation.

Describing your experience - Finding a form of words to describe your experience can help you to work through it emotionally. Local papers are keen to have an interesting article about one of their community member's experience overseas. This may be a good opportunity for you to think through your experience and what it has meant to you. Also, look for groups of returned workers similar to yourself. You may find people who can understand what you are going through and who are genuinely interested in your experience.

Re engaging with your own community - Catching up on what has happened whilst you are away is important, Browse old newspapers or chat with friends over a cup of coffee and catch up. I am often asked to do presentations on my experience for groups like the local Chapter of the Red Cross or the Rotary Club. I always accept these invitations because they give me the opportunity to advocate for the people and the causes I have recently been working with.

Avoid

Avoid going overboard in self indulgence - alcohol, drugs, food - all these things feel good for a short time, but the consequences are rarely worth it. Also avoid rush decisions - you might feel so low that you immediately accept another assignment without taking your home life or emotional state into account.

What next? 

Maybe you already have a job to return to or have prospects of getting one. Don't jump into a new job too quickly if you can avoid it - you need to recognise that you probably are going through a cultural transition and in many cases you may also need time to physically recuperate and recover. If you don't take this time now, you put yourself at risk of negative consequences later on.

Where can I find out more about the causes of RES? 

For those who would like to read about the cultural transitional cycle causing RES, Nan M. Sussman has authored a good article available on the website of the Centre for Cross Cultural Research, Western Washington University: www.ac.wwu.edu/~culture/sussman.htm. Sussman also provides a list of references and links to related web pages.

 

Moira McCreesh of Antares Consulting is based in the tropical north of Australia. She specializes in health, training and counter disaster planning and balances consultancy work with international aid work.

 

Have your say ...

Do you have a story that you would like to share about your experiences? Any good tips about how you, your family or friends coped when you returned?

Email exchange@aidworkers.net or join the discussion online at Aid Workers Forum.

 

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