Studying abroad is scary, even for those without severe anxiety. However, anxiety exaggerates the experience into something seemingly impossible. Studying abroad is not, however, impossible. Anxiety can feel debilitating and can convince people that certain situations are terrifying or undoable, but realistically, you can still study abroad.
Being prepared helps. Knowing what steps to take while you study abroad is also important. Here are some things to know about coping with the anxiety of a new culture, environment and situation while studying abroad.
1. Know your program
Studying abroad can take you anywhere in the world, and every program is different. Be sure to choose a program that fits your needs. Understand the housing set-up, the Wi-Fi situation and the environment. If walking in nature helps clear your mind, you probably should avoid a program in a large city. If you need freedom to roam, a secluded campus is not ideal. If privacy is important for conversing with friends and family back home, do not apply for a program that only has Wi-Fi available in a few public places.
One program may expect you to purchase an international phone plan to remain in contact with the coordinators. Another may only have Wi-Fi turned on for specific hours in the day. One program may not allow you to travel beyond your campus or city, but another may have a travel seminar component embedded in the program. One program may have 200 students each semester, and another could have 12. Whatever the situation is — know it before you go.
The program may only release tidbits on its policies and procedures, but you can find the email to contact regarding concerns because you should be confident that the program you choose is going to work for your needs.
2. Stay in touch
You might believe that studying abroad requires branching out and focusing more on new relationships rather than old; while that is true, studying abroad is also an opportunity to build on already-established relationships. Your friends and family back home feel comfortable to you. While studying abroad is intended to push you into the uncomfortable, the security of your relationships at home will help you adjust. They will be there to comfort you through the stress of meeting new people and learning a new environment.
3. Write it out
Journal. Write down your thoughts and feelings. Elaborate on the activities of the day and on upcoming events that excite you. Talk about superficial activities and intense emotions — whatever you write will help. Getting the words out on paper will release some of your anxiety, and with that, you will be more clear-headed for the next day.
Maybe you are not a journaling person; in that case, make yourself a journaling person. Set time aside each day — mine was right before I went to sleep — to write out your anxieties.
Writing down your emotions is important for coping with anxiety, but you also need to dive to the root of the emotion. Are you angry but unsure why? Solve the puzzle and find out because emotions do not come from nothing. You will feel better understanding your emotional self.
Journaling also provides you with a cool souvenir record of your abroad experience.
4. Come prepared
I would never advocate for anyone to spend an excessive number of nights alone in their room, but sometimes self-care is a necessity. Bring a comforting object from home — something completely unnecessary for studying abroad — but be mindful about its size: Bag space is limited, and you will want room for souvenirs on the way back.
Bring books or download TV shows and movies that provide you with some sense of joy for the moments when the anxiety overwhelms you. Familiarity is comforting. If your study abroad country’s Netflix does not have the one thing you really want to watch, remember VPNs. Chances are that your school provides one for free.
5. Embrace change.
You may study abroad in an English-speaking country, or you could be in a place where no one knows English. No matter where you are, you will experience some culture shock.
You may be shocked that religious ideals are intertwined in the government or that your clothing choices do not fit the customs of the region. Or you could be shocked that public transportation is completely silent even during rush hour or that hot dogs are served on slices of white bread rather than buns.
Embrace the differences in this new country because you will learn a new perspective on life, work and culture.
6. Cherish alone time
You may be sharing a room or apartment with multiple people. Living with others is not the end of the world, but you need to continue to stay present in your body and mind. Save time to do things alone.
Maybe, the solution to the loss of privacy is to wake every day before others and take a walk. Or you could organize a schedule with your roommate to allow each of you private time during the day. Whatever the solution is, alone time is necessary even for extroverts.
7. Remember that it isn’t a competition
Depending on your location, some individuals in your program may take it upon themselves to visit a new city or country every weekend. Others may try to earn the highest grades. Another group may want to learn how to efficiently communicate with the locals, especially in countries where they speak a different language.
You also need rest. Being abroad, you may think that constant activities are necessary to fully appreciate your experience, but rest shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Do not go to every single activity available to you. You may find that contradictory to the idea of studying abroad — why should you not attend everything? If you can attend everything and not feel overwhelmed, great, do it, but chances are that attending every activity or event your program offers alongside local events and activities and schoolwork will spark your anxiety. You may feel that you are losing something by missing an event; you may even feel guilty for it. Don’t. Studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but if you break your back to attend everything offered, you may come away not with wonderful memories of your time abroad but with memories of stress and anxiety. Allow yourself room to breathe.
Study abroad is not a competition. You need not do the most or work the hardest or visit the most places. The experience is yours — take it, make the most of it and do what you want.