The Importance of Practicing Self-Care While Studying Abroad

by Charleen Johnson Stoever

There’s a very extroverted, go-getter narrative in travel and international education, and why shouldn’t there be? Studying abroad takes guts, and it requires you to jump into the unknown. With all of the travel apps, Facebook groups, and travel guides out there, it has become easier than ever to know what to expect from traveling before you even go abroad. Taking care of your mental health while studying abroad is as important as knowing what to pack or how to speak the language, but it isn’t so easy to anticipate what low points will look and feel like.

Girl wearing a backpack walking down a city street at night
It’s easy to get caught up in the go, go, go attitude of most travelers and students.

Practicing self-care is super important, but, like mental illness, it is often stigmatized. Often times we don’t know if we “deserve” to seek counseling or to take self-care days because we don’t want to be seen as weak. I’ve learned the importance of taking care of my mental health and being vocal about it in order to normalize mental health days. The fact that this article needs to be written is enough of an indicator that we don’t break the ice about mental health enough. Self-care is even more important for students and travelers who suffer from anxiety disorders or depression.

We cannot be our best selves without taking care of ourselves.

Whether you’ve never seen a counselor or have yours on speed dial, just being aware of your mental health needs will help you capitalize on your study abroad experience. Here are some self-care tips to help you cope with the inevitable ups and downs of studying abroad: 

Invest in mental health days. 

Everyone has different self-care needs. Some of us need one hour a week, while others need more. Take at least one to two days a month to practice self-care, whatever that looks like for you, and remember that mental health days look different for each individual. I used to go on two-hour runs in the States on weekends, but in Nicaragua, running in a small city full of smog, honking horns, and street harassment isn’t nearly as relaxing as it was for me at home.

Woman with a mug looking at the ocean
Practice self-care while abroad, whatever that may look like for you.

Now, I only run at 6 a.m. on weekends when things are quieter. I still run because I enjoy feeling accomplished, but I’ve turned to other self-care methods to stay happy abroad too.

About once a month, I’ll go get a $5 pedicure done by a 17-year-old high school student. We’ll talk for two hours about what it’s like in my country, and she’ll tell me about her family and her studies. Then, I’ll go to the only hotel in town with a pool and pay $5 for a day pass. I’ll turn on some music (jazz is relaxing and country reminds me of home) and swim, then I’ll do some journaling on the terrace with a panoramic view of my city. I leave feeling rejuvenated.

Write about it.

After a hectic day, journaling helps me decompress and make sense of things. I jot down how I’m feeling, then ask myself why I feel sad or happy. Do I feel sad because a friend who visited from home just left? Do I feel happy because one of my students came over for three hours to draw with me? What can I do about the sadness, and how can I keep doing the things that make me happy? 

Writing letters I’ll never send is also therapeutic. Sometimes, expressing myself is more important than being heard. I’ve written letters to myself and to people who I can’t or shouldn’t talk to, just to get it out. I’ve found that with all the free time I’ve had living abroad, my mind brings back dormant memories (both good and bad) that I was too busy to really comprehend back home.

Writing letters or in my journal helps me let go of the negative and to keep it private, while I write about the positive aspects of my travels on my blog. It’s more productive for me to share most of the ups with my friends and family, and spare them the downsides, because I want them to know that my experience is worth the roller coaster ride.

Two people running in the woods
Go for a run (or don’t).

Join a group. 

Whether you volunteer at an English center or join a Tuesday night salsa class, joining a group is a great way to find consistency in your not-so-consistent life. After the honeymoon phase of studying abroad ends and things stop seeming so amazingly perfect, frustrations will start to set in. You’ll wonder why it’s so hard to understand what the corner store owner is asking you as you’re buying gum. It’s normal to ask yourself things like “What am I even doing here?”, “Why is it so hard to find stable Wifi?”, “Why can’t anyone understand me on the phone?”, or “Why do people stare at me as if I have two heads?”

You will feel out of place. It’s natural. The good news is that you do have some control over this feeling by being proactive and joining a daily or weekly group. I’ve started taking free sign language classes on Saturdays, during which I don’t feel like a fish out of water and I can learn a language in a quiet environment. It’s also a great chance to see friends. 

Be creative. 

Studying abroad exposes you to a new cultures and languages, pushing you to use parts of your brain that may be lying dormant until you walk out of the airport and hear everyone gabbing in French. Now that you have to be creative in navigating life abroad and living, speaking, and listening differently, why not use this creativity to your advantage? Maybe you wanted to pick up the guitar, but didn’t have time with that pre-med course load you had in college. Now that you’re abroad, why not pick up lessons and write a few songs? 

Being creative is all about expressing yourself, and you don’t have to be the next Jimi Hendrix to do it. It could be as simple as sitting in a park and sketching a fountain, or as meditative as making a collage with photos of your friends back home. I like to sketch and paint portraits of the Nicaraguans I’ve met, whether they’re my students, my host grandma, or my neighbor. It’s fun discovering which of my students are also budding artists. 

Person sitting with an open book
Curl up all day with a good book, if that’s what you need.

Exercise...or not.

After a long-distance breakup, I was so depressed that I didn’t want to exercise. I usually go crazy without a daily workout. I had to be okay with not being okay for a while, but eventually, I made myself go to a Zumba class because I remembered how much I loved dancing. Those Zumba classes were the highlight of my day, because it felt like I was clubbing with the lights on. Seeing the other people around me having fun and shaking it off made me feel better, if only for an hour a day. 

The fact that I felt emotionally better after a workout highlights an undeniable body-mind connection. I’ve been hard on myself for not wanting to exercise, but then I remind myself that I need to listen to my body. When I don’t feel like exercising, I’ll just stretch for a bit to get the blood flowing, then I’ll do a healthy alternative like reading. 

Plan a trip to look forward to.

I almost always have a trip planned, whether it’s a day hike with my best friend or a trip to Colombia. After I’ve had a bad day, it’s comforting to know that I have a fun trip planned to put things into perspective. It’s something to look forward to that keeps me motivated and moving. The excitement leading up to the trip is akin to the adrenaline rush I feel during my travels. Study abroad programs often plan group excursions, that range from museum visits to hiking trips, so mark these in your calendar! 

Write hand-written letters.

“I’d rather get an email than a beautiful postcard from Rio de Janeiro” said no one, ever. When was the last time you received a handwritten letter? It’s an old fashioned gesture that never goes out of style. Your loved ones will be thrilled not only to hear from you, but to receive a tangible memento of your study abroad destination. Giving feels just as good as receiving, and after they get your postcards, chances are they’ll be excited to send you a care package full of chocolate bars and other treats you didn’t know would be so hard to find.

Cup full of paintbrushes
Take time to be creative, and really let it all out.

Use your program’s resources.

Some programs have counselors who can help you navigate culture shock and keep you mentally healthy. Your program’s staff members are there to support you, whether you just need to talk through a bad day or you need help dealing with culture shock. The hardest step is reaching out for help, but once you do, you won’t regret it. Don’t treat your resources like an emergency room because it’s never a good idea to wait until the last minute to get help.

You are one of 4.5 million people studying abroad, and you definitely wouldn’t be the first to reach out. Keep telling yourself that if you need to! 

Everyone’s version of self-care is different, whether it’s staying in bed watching House of Cards or spending the day at the beach. Taking care of your mental health is one of the most crucial yet underrated strategies to ensure you have the best study abroad journey. If you or someone you know is going through a rough time abroad, share these tips with them. It shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea to take care of yourself, but until articles like this one are no longer needed, let’s keep normalizing self-care. You keep doing you, boo

Download GoAbroad's Free Ebook - Meaningful Travel Tips & Tales: Mental Health & Self Care for more information.