How to Deal with Anxiety while Studying Abroad

4:15 AM

In Bruges, Belgium. 

I have to admit that I was scared to come to Paris.

Despite the fact that I am living with my host family and my best friend is studying abroad here at the same time as me – an amazing feat of planning! – I knew that I would be ‘alone’ most of the time.

Meanwhile, since January, I had been experiencing moderate-to-severe anxiety attacks and I had no way to predict whether they would continue in Paris or not. Eek. I was worried about dealing with anxiety in a foreign land, where I would be less familiar with my surroundings, might not always know how to get home as quickly as possible, might not be able to contact someone I know to talk to, might not be able to explain what I’m feeling to a new friend or in French, etc...

But the semester is coming to an end, and I'm still alive and loving Paris! 

If you're considering or currently studying abroad with anxiety, first, I'd like to say that being in a new place has completely changed the game. Way less anxiety & anxiety attacks than I was having back at home this summer, and I've spoken to others who have had similar experiences. I think we are very much creatures of habit, and shifting the routine so dramatically can hit the 'reset button' on anxiety if you still make sure to take care of yourself and build up better ways to respond to it. 

You can do this. 

I've figured out some strategies that work for me in dealing with anxiety abroad, and I thought I'd share them in case it might help anyone else in a similar situation.

  • First of all, do not keep it hush-hush... 
  • Let the director or a staff member of your program know – just so they're aware & can check up on you & provide you with resources as needed. Trust me, they have dealt with all kinds of people and situations and will not judge you. 
  • If you are staying with a host family, do not be afraid to let them know what is going on either before an anxiety attack happens or if one happens while you are home. They want to make sure you are safe and happy, and you are not "imposing" or "burdening" anyone if you turn to them for help. I had an anxiety attack in my French home once, and I was flipping out, mumbled incoherent things in half-French, half-English about having a heart attack to my host mom – but she surprised me and instantly got it. She immediately asked, 'Are you stressed about something? This seems like it's related to nerves...' Who knows? Maybe she or someone she knows has gone through this before, but she was very helpful.
  • Keep at least 1-2 friends in the loop and have their contact info on hand so that if you're out and about and not feeling great, you know where to turn. Shout-out to my friend who I made "tell me stories" over the phone for the length of a métro ride so I wouldn't have an anxiety attack on my way from Point A to Point B. Also, Hallelujah for cell signal on the métro.
  • Consider how you want people to help, and express it. One of your fears might be that you would have an anxiety attack with someone you don't know very well and they wouldn't know how to react. That is reasonable, but most people are more than willing to help if you tell them exactly what you need. It is perfectly ok to say, "Hey, I'm feeling a bit anxious right now, can you go for a walk with me / bring me a glass of water / tell me a story about your trip to Thailand to distract me / accompany me on the subway / etc?"
  • Make sure to keep meeting your basic needs to feel healthy. When you're studying abroad, you might be going out more, drinking more, pushing yourself hard to sight-see...but it is not only ok but critical that you take care of yourself first. Especially since factors like sleep, exercise, alcohol, caffeine and sugar consumption have been strongly linked to anxiety and other conditions. Skip the drinks invitation when you haven't been getting enough sleep. Buy some vegetables and try to cut back the pastry consumption if you feel gross. Feel free to get Perrier or Coke or whatever at the bar if you know that alcohol makes you more anxious. You're too old and too cool to be judged by anyone for doing what you have to do to stay happy. 
  • Determine a few things that make you feel safe or that would allow you to feel in control should an anxiety attack strike, and carry your 'safety blanket' items with you. For me, the minimum is my phone (to reach people/to play games), my headphones (to listen to Jack Johnson), and anxiety medication (in case of attack). A good book (more distractions) is a bonus item. For many people like me who don't take medication regularly, the simple knowledge that you have something on hand that would stop an anxiety attack in its tracks can make you feel in control and secure even if you never end up taking it. 
  • Re: listening to music, I've found that what helps is picking a few chill/relaxing songs you like and listening to them a lot when you are feeling good. Then, when you put them on in a moment of stress, they will be associated with a calmer state of mind and help you out.
  • Know the words for "anxiety attack" or whatever else you might think is necessary in the language of your country. Fun fact: in French, it's "crise d'angoisse" - more literally translated as "crisis of anguish"...a bit dramatic, but sure.
  • Have a good sense of how to get home from wherever you are in the city. Memorize at least a few métro stops on different lines relatively close to your home base. 
  • Have a plan to deal with the situations that are most likely to cause you the most anxiety. For example,  I know that if I feel anxious in the métro, I will put in my headphones and listen to a podcast or my 'chill' playlist, close my eyes, and breathe for a few minutes and I will be ok. Planning also means that I try to leave for a rendez-vous earlier so that I don't feel rushed and add to my own métro stress. Finally, this is a more parasitic strategy, but I honest-to-God scan the métro car and think of someone who would help me in case 'something happened'. (Surprise: anyone would!) So, if exams in French are what stresses you out...don't leave studying until the last minute, and so-on. Make your own life easier; have a plan. 
  • Stay in touch with professional resources as needed. Can you Skype or phone your therapist? Can you find a new one where you are? Is an anxiety workbook (only $12 and super helpful!) the best idea for you? 
  • More to make yourself feel secure rather than because any serious medical crisis is going to happen (because we all know anxiety is good at making that shit up), know the emergency/medical response numbers for your country. 112 in France. 
Finally, my last tip is to feel proud of yourself for facing the fear of going to another country and doing it anyways. It's important to recognize that anxiety makes us fear certain things irrationally and when we back away from them, we reinforce the cycle of fear in our minds. When we charge on and go through them, we can certainly feel certain levels of discomfort but they eventually fade away and leave room for amazing experiences. Always remind yourself, when you're feeling iffy, that "this, too, shall pass" – anxiety can be considered like a headache, or a stomachache. It's annoying but fleeting, and definitely does not define you as a person. 

Good luck, cheers to adventures, and feel free to contact me with any questions! 

*Please note that I am not and am not claiming to be any sort of medical professional; this advice is simply based on my own experiences and you should always consult a professional for advice with mental or physical health conditions.

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