Don’t Freak Out: How to Deal with International Trauma While Studying Abroad

by Megan Lee

It’s never settling to hear of horrible, traumatic events that are happening to our brothers and sisters around the world. It’s even more unsettling when these tragedies occur in places we’ve been or in places we love. And worse still when it’s in the country we live in or share a continent with.

Study abroad students in Belgium, Turkey, and greater Europe will understandably feel shaken by the unfortunate attacks that transpired this week in March 2016. Just four days after the capturing of the Paris Attacks suspect in Brussels, the airport and nearby metro fell victim to multiple bombings. And unfortunately, yet again, Turkey’s capital Ankara was the target of a bombing.









A kindergarten mural in Belgium

A kindergarten mural in Belgium celebrating diversity and acceptance.

Students abroad who experience trauma of this scale will likely experience a wide range of responses. Please note that your response might look different than your best study abroad buddy’s response. It might be more internalized. It might be more tear-filled. It might make you shut down or expose coping strategies that you didn’t even know you used. But it’s okay - all responses are NORMAL.

There are inherent risks to studying abroad, but they don’t always mentally prepare you for the dealing with the reverberations of tribulations. Here are some normal reactions, both physically and emotionally, that you might be feeling in the wake of the attacks.

PHYSICAL REACTIONS

Here are common physical reactions to trauma:

  • sudden anxiety, sweating, or irregular heartbeats
  • bodily aches and pains (such as headaches, stomach aches) and more prone to common illnesses
  • changes in everyday patterns (sleep, appetite, sex drive, bowel movements)
  • you may feel more easily frightened, startled, or alarmed
House decor in Bruges, Belgium

One of the many examples of artistic house decor in Bruges

Pay attention to not only how you physically respond to the attacks, but also how you physically REACT to the attacks. If you are prone to rely on alcohol, drugs, overeating, or other potentially harmful and addictive behaviors as you manage the aftermath, alert friends and family to help keep you accountable and healthy. There’s no shame in admitting you’re struggling.

EMOTIONAL REACTIONS

While physical responses to trauma are more easily seen, emotional reactions take a bit more self-awareness or intuition to recognize. You might find yourself having feelings of...

  • mood swings
  • shock and disbelief
  • a short temper and with increased susceptibility to outbursts of anger or rage
  • fear and/or anxiety, intense worry, or nightmares
  • anger towards a religion or belief system
  • grief
  • minimizing the experience in your memory
  • isolation and emotional detachment, restricting your range of feelings
  • concern over burdening others with problems
  • survivor guilt and a desire for revenge
  • difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • diminished interest in everyday activities, depression
  • suicidal thoughts
People washing their hands and feet in Ankara, Turkey

In Ankara, it's a sign of respect to wash hands and feet before entering mosques

It is important for you to know that you are not alone. Your immediate support networks are plentiful and reliable. You can lean on your friends, your study abroad resident director, your program advisors and university staff back home, not to mention your family (P.S. - be sure to call Mom & Dad ASAP to let them know you’re okay). Heck, if you want to talk to me, I’ll listen.

SOME HELPFUL COPING STRATEGIES

While each person will find their own way to deal, here are some tried and true methods from grievers-past.

1. Connect with others.

Now’s not the time to hole up and kickstart another “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” marathon. Talk with people. Talk with your other study abroad program participants. Talk with those who've shared in the stressful event.

But it's okay if you’re tired of reliving the experience with your Europe cronies. Instead, lean your [virtual] head on the [virtual] shoulder of an empathetic listener back home. As the old adage goes, Skype calls make the heart grow fonder.

2. Write your feelings out.

Shut your laptop, switch your iPhone to “Do Not Disturb,” and kick it old school with a pen and paper. Jot down whatever comes to mind. Tune in to your inner self. Are you feeling angry? Confused? Pressured to feel something even though you don’t? All these insights are helpful to flesh out on paper.

3. Don’t hate, meditate.

Grab your Lululemon and hit the mat. Or quiet the noise with a few minutes of silence in your room. You don’t need a candle or a shaman. Here are some free guided meditations for our less warrior-posed friends, and DoYogaWithMe is a 100% free online resource for students in need of a namaste.









Man sitting on a street in Ankara, Turkey

For a few liras, you can check your weight as Ankara life bustles around you.

4. Hugs

They’re important. Give ‘em, receive ‘em, squeeze ‘em. Pets included.

5. Whatever else works!

Exercise, music, art, humor. There’s no “right” and “wrong” way to deal with a tragedy. Your reactions are yours and yours alone, and it is up to you (with the help and insight of the people you love!) to decide which coping mechanisms are most productive.

To conclude...

Don’t be hard on yourself. It can take weeks, months, or even semesters to fully feel at peace with the past. You might find yourself triggered in unexpected ways, from unforeseen associations. It is all part of the process.

Our hearts go out to those affected by the Brussels Attacks and Ankara bombings of 2016. We can only hope that through increased communication and interactions (like those offered in study abroad) will lead to more concrete understanding and unity in years to come.

Experience the aftershock. Experience it full on. But try to not disrupt your daily activities too much. If you keep a routine or structure, your feelings will be more structured and calm as well. Rest. Take some quiet time. And then make a plan of action to make this world a better place.

For more information on student safety while studying abroad, refer to this excellent and insightful report from the Forum on Education Abroad titled: Insurance Claims Data and Mortality Rates for College Students Studying Abroad.