How to adapt in a new environment?

Image Credit: Mohamed Hassan

As humans, we are able to adjust in constantly moving environments, but it sure takes time and effort. Every individual experience shapes how one adapts in a new environment and overcomes the stress related to the adjusting period. In this article, the focus will be on how to adapt in new situations, including in university, and how to manage study-related tensions.

A new academic study year has begun, and most students feel that they are in a traffic jam full of obstacles, challenges, novelties, and uncertainties, emotionally overwhelmed by all these stressors. However, it is absolutely OK to feel all that, because whether this is a first time experience – being away from home or going back to study after a break – starting university life is a time of great change, but at the end of the day you will learn how to cope with these changes.

Adjustment to change

The ability to adjust to new situations or environments is an important phase in one’s development. Based on the context, this term is interpreted differently. Within this topic, adapting is a process by which an individual is able to cope with the demands/requirements of the external and internal environment, one of which is stress management (Kallasmaa, 2003), as is the process of matching, establishing, and maintaining relationships.

When entering university or starting a new academic year you might face unexpected challenges. To understand and better describe what one is experiencing through the adapting period, several theorists have differentiated phases of adjustment. For example, cultural researcher Geert Hofstede distinguishes four main stages in the adjustment to an unfamiliar environment. The duration and intensity of the stages depends on the person and to what extent the new environment differs from the person’s original place. In addition to the four main stages, the fifth also deserves attention.

Chart which shows adjustment stages upon entering university.
Adjustment stages upon entering university. Chart Credit: Counselling Centre of University of Tartu

1.     Euphoria or “honeymoon”. In this phase, the person feels positive and excited about the new environment, and has high expectations for the future. This is experienced by a person who has wanted to go to a new cultural space, and coming to university is usually just such a free choice.

2.     Disappointment or culture shock. The first difficulties and crises. The new situation may not fully meet expectations; one may not succeed in building relationships and is confused by having to manage large amounts of information and new rules of conduct. This leads to dissatisfaction, impatience, anger, sadness, feelings of loneliness and incompetence, etc.

3.     Acceptance of, getting used to, learning from the new situation. Gradually, one develops an understanding of the rules and norms; is no longer afraid to experiment; is more social and open again; the sense of humour re-appears and a certain psychological balance emerges.

4.     Adjustment or integration with the new culture. One feels confident in the new environment and copes well; the sense of belonging has increased. Self-definition is clarified and the person acts purposefully.

5.     Reverse culture shock may occur on returning to one’s home culture (or city). One may find that things or people have changed, or they themselves have changed to an extent that they no longer adapt to their former life environment.

Hereby, it is important to emphasize that adjustment stages are used mostly in a cultural context where one leaves a home country (city) and starts a new phase in a new culture. Nevertheless, these phases can also be applied to university life.

Signs of adaption problems at university

Below you can find signs that indicate you have adaptation problems. Firstly, when going through a stressful period, it is important to notice what is happening physically and mentally to your body. Secondly, observing your behavioural pattern helps to prevent the seriousness of the symptom or treat it properly on time.

Table showing signs that a student has adaptation problems through the first semester.
Signs showing a student has adaptation problems through the first semester. Table Credit: Sharipha Rzayeva

How to adjust better and easily?

Changes may throw a person’s self-confidence off the usual balance and adjustment means finding a new balance in the changed situation. Adaptation is successful when the person has more (perceived) resources to cope with the situation than anxiety and tension/stress. The formula could be expressed as follows:

A = R > T

Adaptation = Resources > Tension (Stress)

Therefore, there are two ways to support adjustment and decrease the level of stress:

Action-based coping skills – involves knowing and managing your own resources, which can help to deal with the problem that causes stress (e.g. time management, listing and prioritising study-related things, leading your own studies, physical activities).

Emotion-based coping skills – involves a short-term solution where you reduce the stress symptoms without directly dealing with the causes of stress (talking to a friend, recreational activities, etc.).

Academic stress

Academic stress is a process where the body responds to academic-related demands that exceed adaptive capabilities of students. Most commonly reported stressors in the academic environment are related to oral presentations, academic overload, lack of time to meet commitments, and taking examinations (Wilks, 2008). Below are some essential traits to consider in preventing academic stress.

  • Time management and learning skills play an important role in stress prevention. Although time management is an important skill, saying NO is the most time-saving act.
  • What matters is not the number of working hours, but how you feel during those hours (quality of time devoted). Changing working hours, responsibilities, priorities, or the environment becomes insignificant if it does not change how you feel at work/school.
  • There must be a balance between resources and the goals and standards set. Set yourself goals and standards that are SMART to achieve with your current resources and skills.
  • It is often necessary to change your attitudes and beliefs.
  • Studying at university can be compared to running a marathon.
  • Find some time to rest and communicate.
SMART chart
SMART. Chart Credit: Hydrate Marketing

As was mentioned above, academic stress can be compared to an academic marathon. Here are some self-check questions you can ask yourself.

  • Do you “scoot” or do you choose the pace according to your training?
  • When planning a marathon, would you rely on “old fat” and good luck on the day of the marathon, or would you exercise regularly?
  • Would you watch what you eat during your workout and how you sleep, or go to a workout right from the party?
  • Would you lengthen most of the distance and rely on a powerful finale?
  • Would you quit the marathon as soon as you have a difficult time, or would you choose a pace that you can still finish?
  • In these difficult moments, would you encourage yourself with thoughts that you can succeed and this “dead spot” will pass?
  • Or assure yourself that you can’t and that everyone else is better?

When studying at university, you also have to consider your training, distribute your strength according to the distance, learn regularly, take care of your sleep and eating habits, and motivate yourself to overcome the “dead spots”, otherwise the journey will be unfinished.

Start studying according to your energy, time, and other necessary resources, instead of committing so much that you have to act on the limits of your abilities, time, and skills all the time. No one can do his or her best all the time. It is important to constantly move towards the goal at a pace that suits you.

To sum up this current article, everyone has experienced in their life stages some challenges in adapting to a new environment, situations, or even system; however, when maintaining self-confidence and self-acknowledgment it is possible to overcome any kind of obstacles. Even if you are not able to cope with stress (study, work, relationships) it is important to know that you are not alone. Just give (reach out) your hand and someone will definitely hold it!

Tips for self-help

  • Engage in your hobbies, or why not take up a new hobby?
  • Don’t forget the good things you already have!
  • Don’t forget you always have resources in you that you can use!
  • Be patient; adaptation to a new environment is a process and it can take time.
  • Learn to be constructive. If you find yourself in an unpleasant situation, try to avoid it next time. Don’t be hard on yourself.
  • Don’t try too much.
  • Learn to include a regular form of physical activity into your routine. This helps you better fight against sadness and loneliness. Exercise, go swimming or running, do a workout at the gym or aerobics, etc.
  • Relaxation techniques, meditation, and massage may be helpful for stress.
  • Maintain contact with your ethnic group. This gives you a sense of belonging and reduces loneliness and alienation.
  • Improve contact with the local culture. If your native language is different, study Estonian. Take part in volunteer activities, as this allows you to practise the language you are learning.
  • Allow yourself to feel sad and long for those who you left behind: family, friends, etc.
  • Pay attention to relationships with your family – you will get much support from them in difficult times (emails, messaging, Skype, phone, texts)
  • Communicate with and make friends among the locals. This gives you an opportunity to ask new friends and acquaintances for advice if you don’t understand something. If you have a local family or tutor, talk about your problems with them.
  • Talk to other students. They may have similar problems. By talking to them, you may also find a solution to your problems.
  • Set yourself simple goals and appreciate your achievements.
  • Try to find ways to accept things that don’t satisfy you completely.
  • Maintain confidence in yourself. Follow your ambitions and continue your plans for the future.

If you feel stressed and cannot cope on your own, look for help. Tartu University Counselling Centre psychologists provide counselling if you have any kind of mental health-related problem. Additionally, as a member of the Counselling Centre staff, we also provide short seminars not only on psychological topics, but also on career-related matters. For more information, please visit our website (


Kallasmaa, T. (2003). Isiksus ja kohanemine. J. Allik, A. Realo

Wilks SE. Resilience amid academic stress: the moderating impact of social support among social work students. Adv Soc Work. 2008;9(2):106–125.

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