Don’t Let Anxiety Keep You From Studying Abroad

Last January, I finally was able to fulfill one of my goals in university which was to study abroad. Since high school, I dreamed of living somewhere in Europe.

As my acceptance to attend the University of Copenhagen in the Spring of 2019 was confirmed, a feeling of great excitement set over me. However, with this excitement came a large feeling of uncertainty and anxiety. 

Since my first year, I had been dealing with an unhealthy amount of generalized anxiety from which I did not know the cause. One minute I would be sitting in class trying to listen to the lecture, the next I was outside hyperventilating and trying to convince myself that I was freaking out for nothing.

These uncomfortable feelings of panic would come at random moments, without warning, creating a cycle of constant fear of when the next time I would not be able to handle the emotions coming at me.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen

This uncertainty made me avoid most extracurriculars and going out with friends, for fear that I would fall into an uncontrollable state of panic.

I constantly reminded myself that these thoughts were in my head, that the chances of something bad occurring were minimal, and that none of my panicked thoughts had ever come to fruition before.

Still, despite my attempts to exercise more, meditate, take more vitamin supplements, eat healthy, and force myself to confront my anxieties, I was never able to feel free from the looming panic attack on the horizon.

Therefore, being accepted on my exchange created even more anxiety as I would be dealing with these issues in a foreign country.

I wanted so badly to travel to different countries but something in the back of my head was thinking about how to deal with these thoughts while travelling.

This created even more anxiety for me and questions surrounding whether this was a good idea invaded me. However, I had already accepted the program and knew that not going would be one of my greatest regrets.

Flash forward to October of 2019. I went on exchange and it was the greatest experience I’ve ever had. And yes, I still felt anxious at times.

There were moments when it was difficult, however, none of that could have taken away the memories I have that I made travelling and living in Denmark. Thanks to many blogs and self-help stories from others who suffer from depression and anxiety, I was able to take away many tips that made a large difference in how I was able to manage with anxiety.

While I was never able to take it away, I was able to manage how these panicked thoughts controlled my life. A number of things really helped me along the way and allowed me to study abroad in the way I wanted.

Having a support group and balancing your alone time

Lisbon, Portugal

Being worried about not making friends is a valid concern that fuels the anxiety of many people. I had this thought as well but I quickly realized how silly this was.

Everyone participating in an exchange program will be facing the same thing and making at least one friend will be inevitable as you will inevitably find yourself talking with many other exchange students.

Making friends who traveled with me and understood the issues I was going through was a huge help. It is also really helpful to talk openly about what you are going through with the friends you make, as it will help others help you through your struggles.

Being open will also make you closer to your friends as others will become more comfortable sharing their own insecurities or issues, which will open up friendships that can last after the exchange is over.

Scheduling some alone time away from your friends, however, is also a perfectly okay decision to make. Do not let people make you feel badly about not wanting to go out or travel with them. Your exchange should make you feel at your best. Take at least a small part of each day to unwind and develop healthy activities on your own.

Talking to a doctor or therapist before leaving

Big changes in your life are sure to bring about some level of anxiety no matter who you are. For those who suffer from anxiety disorders this can be an especially large burden.

Talking through these issues with a professional before embarking on big life changes will reassure you of your decision and allow them to make recommendations based on your personal anxiety experiences.

I sought the advice of both before my exchange and let them know my concerns. I was able to take away a lot of tips and was reassured that my concerns were normal. This helped a lot as I felt like having a professional opinion of my situation aided in reassuring me that I was not alone in my situation, and that many students need a bit of extra support when living abroad.

Also check in with your home university and do research on what options are available in your exchange country. Universities often understand that mental health is a particularly important issue for international students. Therefore, it is highly likely you will be able to access therapeutic or medical services through the healthcare system or through your university.

Leaving the house at least once a day

A walk along The Lakes, Copenhagen

Anxiety often puts us in a place where it becomes difficult to take on daily tasks as we are thinking about the next panic attack.

This often just makes it easier to stay inside and not have to face the fear of your own thoughts. This was a reality for me, and continues to be something I struggle with to this day.

One suggestion I came across from someone was to leave the house at least once a day. Whether it be to go to class, bike to the store, or walk around a park, breathing in the fresh air will create a distraction from your thoughts.

This strategy has really worked for me as it keeps my mind stimulated. Staying inside the house all day may seem like the most comfortable way to avoid fear but it actually ends up making it worse.

Our bodies are meant to move and if you find it difficult to exercise because of financial or scheduling reasons, taking a small walk can be a great way to lessen anxiety.

Maintain stability

Despite the travelling, eating, and exploring that comes with studying abroad, I found that I needed to continue some of the habits that I had back home. This is especially true in the first few weeks, when everything is brand new and can make you feel dissociated.

I found that keeping some of the same daily routines of what you eat, hours you sleep, and methods of studying will make you feel more naturally comfortable in your new home.

Of course, it’s important to try different things as that is the benefit to going on an exchange. For those who suffer with anxiety, however, having a good balance of stability and new experiences will allow for a better adjustment.

Begin by taking things slow and allow yourself to take in your new country before making extensive travel plans. Not only will this keep your anxiety a bit more stable, but it will allow you to explore your host country or city first before venturing further away.

Staying in contact with relatives and friends back home can also work for some who are struggling with homesickness. Maintaining the relationships back home is also one way to keep yourself from feeling alone.

Say yes

Day Trip to Roskilde, Denmark

The most important thing about an exchange is that you are having new experiences that you will not be able to have in your home country.

Saying yes to going out or travelling to a new country will be a distraction from negative thoughts. Despite my anxieties, staying busy was the best way for me to face my fears and make better memories of my time abroad.

Even if anxiety became a problem, the memories I have from my exchange revolve around the things I did and not the things I didn’t.

At the same time, your exchange should be at your own pace. Studying abroad does not have to be constant travelling and partying.

Make a list of the things that make you happy at home and things you would like to try in your new country. Work from there, and try to expand on it when you arrive. You will probably find that there are new opportunities that arise as soon as you start getting used to living abroad.

Try to understand the things that make you anxious and work around from there. I am a relatively nervous flyer but I knew that flights were inevitable if I had to travel. I made sure that this did not stop me from travelling and I, therefore, came up with strategies of coping.

I made sure my travel companions knew about it so that they would be able to distract me when things got difficult. While this can never take away the anxiety fully, it played a much smaller impact in how it affected me long term because I was prepared and had a supportive friend group to talk me through my thoughts.

Resources and strategies

There are plenty more strategies for how to cope with anxious thoughts. Everyone has different triggers that will require you to work around certain fears. Most of all, it is important to talk with people about your mental health challenges, as more than likely others are facing the same thing as you.

Opening up about these thoughts made it easier to connect with people in the long term and allowed me to make more meaningful relationships. Having prepared prior to my exchange with my doctor and therapist was also a big help as I was able to work with CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) skills that reconnected how I reacted to certain situations and provided steps for bringing down the unraveling thoughts in my head.

I do recommend doing research and talking with others who can provide advice on your particular situation. I think that going on exchange was one of the best decisions I ever made and no mental health challenge was going to take that away from me.

I felt that the new pace of life that comes with living in a new country actually kept me busy and allowed me to take back control of my fears. Breathing, eating well, surrounding myself with friends, and taking a walk every day worked for me and allowed me to remember the great parts of my exchange over the anxious parts. Remember to go at your own pace and reach out if you need any help.

Some resources that I find helpful:

  • Anxiety Canada – A website full of extensive advice, coping mechanisms, and meditation audios that can explain the thoughts you are having.
  • Headspace, Calm, and Aware Apps: I have used these apps for different reasons. Meditation is something that takes practice but I found that it is a really great way for me to calm down while staying productive. If it’s not your thing, however, these apps have breathing exercises that can also be very helpful when you feel on the verge of a panic attack. My personal favourite is Headspace
  • UVic Counselling Services
  • Studying Abroad With Anxiety: A great blog post on going abroad with anxiety or depression.

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