I was diagnosed with anxiety eight years ago. This isn’t just “nerves” or “stress,” but it is a debilitating feeling of being overwhelmed and incapable. I have no formal training to be giving advice on the topic other than based on my own experience.
One key note I have learned through coping with anxiety is that it is so different and personalized to each individual. That being said, I created a five-point list of what has helped during my study abroad experience thus far. I hope at least a point or two could bring some help to your experience as well.
1. BALANCE ALONE TIME AND TIME SPENT WITH OTHERS
Alone time and time spent with others are good practices. The challenge? Balancing the two. Within my program specifically, much of the content is group based with a tight-knit cohort. The fantastic side to this is that I am building friendships to take home with people I wouldn’t have without this opportunity. I had to push myself while building these relationships, but the deeper they grew, the more of a support system I formed while being here. I urge you to vocalize your anxiety within these new-found friendships. People may not entirely understand what you’re experiencing; however, it gives them a look into why you may be acting a certain way. Most importantly: let them know how they can help in a high-anxiety situation. They may not know you inside out like your home friends but your study abroad pals may just need some guidance on the best way to support you.
If new friends are so great, why is alone time important? Alone time keeps me sane. I am neither entirely introverted nor extroverted, but about every two or three days I am in need of at least a few hours by myself. I use alone time to journal about my thoughts, feelings, and experiences while abroad and to reflect about how these are impacting me as an individual. Keeping a written log of this is like having another friend to talk to, but the advice you seek comes from yourself. On top of that, it is overwhelming constantly being surrounded by people. Use alone time to recharge your batteries and choose a new place in your study abroad city to explore by yourself! For me, this is one of the best ways to calm my nerves and keep balance in my life.
2. DON’T OVERPLAN
This was a huge mistake that, sadly, I learnt making it. I enjoy keeping myself busy, whether it’s on my own or with others – even at home. However, every now and then I tend to bite off more than I can chew. Surprisingly, it’s even easier to do while abroad. There are so many new faces and places you’re eager to experience and regardless of if you study for a semester or more, your time is still finite. As soon as I arrived in London, I booked practically every weekend of my first two months flying to new countries. Errors I made included not taking my class-schedule into account enough and not carving out time for studying. My mindset was, “if I’m not in class, then I am free to travel.” Booking these trips so tightly and irresponsibly not only impacted my academics and internship interview process, but also my mental health. I barely had room to breathe. As I fell behind in classes, I had difficulty enjoying weekends away. My anxiety to return began to seem uncontrollable.
The reality of my carelessness truly hit me during midterm exams. I realized this added anxiety was COMPLETELY AVOIDABLE. I had done it to myself! Luckily, at this point it wasn’t too late to slow down and turn my circumstances around. I’ve only recently understood this, but I have conducted a game plan that I trust to help soothe my anxious thoughts.
The Game Plan
- No missing class – From here on out, any flights will be after my classes are complete and I am giving myself a bit of time to comfortably get to the airport
- No taking notes on my laptop – I prefer typing my notes because, arguably, I am the world’s slowest writer, using my laptop is a huge distraction. I found myself trying to use class to complete internship applications or other course work, rather than focusing on the content. Paying better attention in class = easier time studying
- Arriving home no later than Sunday evening – Somedays I would land in London at 2 or 3 in the morning and then have class at 9am. This took away from my sleep and made me groggy during class. Believe it or not, 3 hours of sleep does not help with focusing in class (even with coffee)!
- No traveling every weekend – Not only should I be spending time in London because it is one of the greatest cities in the world, but also because slowing down my travels is like my alone time: necessary for my sanity.
- Leave time for studying – Just because I’m not in class, doesn’t mean I need to have an excursion planned! Study time is as important to be scheduled in.*
*All credits for this point of advice come from my professor, Stephanie Grimm
Like I said, this layer of my anxiety was not inevitable. There are precautions to take to avoid bringing an extra level of stress on yourself. Please use my lesson and learn from it!
3. ADJUST TO A NEW ENVIRONMENT
I am a dual-citizen with the U.S. and Sweden. I grew up visiting my family in Europe each summer. Traveling is in my nature. So, why would living in a new environment spark anxiety in me? Simple: anxiety can often be traced back to feeling like a lack of control. Living in a new country with new friends and a new family can feel like a lot all at once. It may be harder to find familiarity in all the change, I challenge you to find the similarities. They may be harder to see but finding areas that remind you of home can help to not feel so lost.
Nonetheless, don’t discount the differences – put a more uplifting twist on them. Keep a list, either in your phone notes or a journal, of positive differences you observe in the country you’re in. It may seem trivial, but little happy thoughts are good for your mind and help redirect your anxiety. You can use phrases like:
“I never expected to experience __________ while studying abroad, but I love it because __________,” or “I prefer the way they do __________ here rather than at home,” or “I learned how to __________ and I can’t wait to show my friends and family when I return.”
If you’re just in a rut: distraction, distraction, distraction. We trained on how to deal with homesickness each year as a summer camp counselor. I’ve never really experienced homesickness myself; however, I believe the approach of distraction can be utilized when dealing with anxiety too. They taught us not to focus on big picture distractions but instead small check-ins. Ask yourself what you are most excited for that day and use it as a motivator to get through the rest. Once that time has come, check-in with yourself. How did you enjoy that? What did you like best? Which activity are you looking forward to next? It may seem childish, but sometimes simple options prevail over the complex. Don’t knock it till you try it!
4. KEEP A SCHEDULE/ORGANIZED CALENDAR
This point will be short and sweet as I’ve already covered several other ways to keep your schedule in line. I could not write advice on anxiety without this as one of the GREATEST preventatives for my anxiety is organization.
Tangent: the planner I ordered arrived two weeks after courses began so until then I felt like I didn’t have one area to write down all of my task/assignments. This led to a great deal of anxiety and disorganization. Don’t do what I did – come prepared!
If your experience abroad is anything like mine, you’ll have assignments to keep track of from four rigorous courses, internship interviews and applications to complete, volunteer hours to participate in, and weekend trips to book. It can be a lot to keep on top of it all! Try to come in with a system already formed on how to keep yourself organized. Whether it be Google calendars, a planner, or the notes on your phone, find something that works for you and stick to it. I prefer using a student organizer and color coding my classes. I also write my appointments on the day they are to be completed, not the day they are assigned, so I can always see what is coming up. Sticky notes, colored pens, dates and times are your friend! Regardless of how you organize your life though, just make sure you do it.
5. REASSURE YOURSELF THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME
Last, but certainly not least, do not allow your anxiety to let you forget just how lucky you are. Studying abroad is a unique experience that truly opens your eyes to a multitude of cultures and experiences. You cannot recreate this learning experience in a classroom. Practice mindfulness – a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings and thoughts. Try to separate yourself from the worry of troubles at home or completely acing class. I mean don’t fail either but try to lessen the pressure of perfection. Be present. Enjoy a quiet sunset. Walk through a new city. Initiate a conversation with a stranger.
Like I said, just don’t forget how lucky you are.
Cajsa Weber is a Marketing Management student from the University of St Thomas, Minnesota studying abroad in London, England through an AIFS Customized Faculty-Led program. This is Cajsa’s fourth time in London but her first time experiencing the city as a Londoner! Keep checking back for future blogs posts here.