It’s been exactly 37 days and four hours since your study abroad adventure ended (not that you’re counting), and life hasn’t been the same since. You miss your study abroad friends, the laid-back way the newspaper vendor called hello to you every morning, the daily coffee stops after class, and even your host sister’s habit of borrowing your favorite shoes.
In a nutshell: You miss every single thing about your time abroad, and coming back has been so much harder than you ever imagined. Short of selling all your worldly possessions to return to your dream city across the sea, what can you do about post-study abroad depression?
Not everyone reacts the same way when returning from study abroad, and how you deal with it can be totally different than someone else. What is true for everybody, though, is that you will get through it. Remember, your study abroad experience was just the beginning to a whole life of travel and adventure. You’ve got this!
Is post-travel depression the same as reverse culture shock?
Reverse culture shock and post-travel depression can both make you feel like crud, but there are some subtle differences between the two. While nearly everyone will experience reverse culture shock after spending time abroad, not all travelers will experience the signs of post-travel depression.
Before you went abroad, you were probably very well aware of culture shock. You knew about the ups and downs you’d experience, that your emotional instability was normal, and that it would all settle down eventually. You were prepared for it, and while it may have been uncomfortable at times, you knew that if you powered through, you’d find that comfortable feeling in your new city.
Reverse culture shock can make you feel the same way: like you’re riding an emotional roller coaster, with your once-familiar surroundings now feeling very foreign. It’s easy to recognize that you’ve changed while you were away, but keep in mind your home country was changing too. Things feel different because they are different, and the adjustment to those changes takes some time.
It can be helpful to react to your re-adjustment to your home culture like you did when you were abroad. Recognize that you may need to re-build relationships, adapt to different habits, and incorporate your new sense of self into your environment. You may need to adjust your expectations of what it’d be like to return home and recognize that it’s ok for things to feel funny for awhile.
Just like culture shock, reverse culture shock will eventually fade. If this is the first time you’ve spent time away from home or if you were gone for a long period of time, it may take longer to adapt to your surroundings, but eventually you’ll find a sense of equilibrium.
What are signs of post-travel depression?
Some returning students seem to seamlessly slip right into their pre-travel lives, which might leave you wondering what you’re doing wrong. You don’t want to be moping around inside your apartment, constantly refreshing your social media apps to find out what your new friends are doing in Dublin. Why can’t you just get on with it?
Sometimes these feelings can’t just be attributed to reverse culture shock, and they indicate that something else is going on. Post-travel depression is real, and you should take it seriously if you’re experiencing any of the signs below:
- Withdrawing from your friends or feeling like they don’t understand you anymore
- Spending too much time on social media instead of participating in activities with those around you
- Inability or unwillingness to leave your house or dorm room because you don’t want to engage with others
- Letting responsibilities like homework slide while spending too much time online looking for ways to travel or live abroad
- Comparing your home culture with your host culture, and constantly criticizing the way things are done in your home country
- Gaining or losing weight rapidly
- Feeling like your life will never again be as fulfilling or fun as it was while you were studying abroad
- Trouble concentrating on school or work responsibilities
- Sleeping too little or too much
Feeling sad, worried, or empty much of the time
If you can identify with several of these points, don’t ignore them. Post-travel depression can be hard to admit to, but it is still a serious issue and should be addressed. Getting your mental health in tip-top shape will help you get back out there for more adventure.
Tips for when those study abroad blues kick in
While there’s no magical formula for eliminating post-study abroad sadness, there are some concrete things you can do to feel better. Crying into your pan of crêpes is probably not going to fix anything, so try out one of these tips instead:
1. Take a walk.
Get up off the couch, close out all of those “How can I move to Spain?” internet tabs, and get dressed. Just like you enjoyed walking around your host city and noticing the details in every street, you can do the same thing now. Find a new area of the city to explore, hit a nearby trail, or just stroll around campus. Being aware of your surroundings and discovering what’s changed since you’ve been away will help clear your head, and you just might discover a cool new café that’s popped up while you were away.
[Download our Ebook on Mental Health & Self-Care while traveling]
2. Go on a (friend) date.
You may be texting with people all day long, but nothing replaces an old-fashioned, face-to-face hang out. Call up a friend who you haven’t seen since you’ve been back and spend time catching up, or ask out a buddy who’s also spent time abroad and commiserate on the harsh realities of homecoming. Research shows that spending time with others reduces the risk of depression, so shut off your phone and spend some quality time with those around you.
3. Read the news.
Just because you’re back home doesn’t mean that you need to shut off everything related to your host country. If you made it a habit to watch the nightly news in Japan while abroad, continue to see what’s going on in Tokyo online. Knowing what’s going on in your adopted city will help you feel connected to your experience, and as an added bonus, will keep your language skills fresh, too.
4. Look for support.
Think about it. There are tons of other students on campus who are probably going through the same thing right now. They’re missing their study abroad friends, their host city, and feeling utterly out of place in a town that was once familiar. So go find these people! Check with your study abroad office to see if they have any returnee get togethers. While it’s not a ticket back to your host country, surrounding yourself with people who get it can make you feel less alone.
5. Find a new hobby.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut when you’re wishing that everything was different. So get out of your comfort zone (you’re a pro at that now, remember?) and try something new. Sign up for a knitting class, go on a backpacking trip with your campus rec center, or teach yourself how to cook your Indian host mom’s famous dal dish. At the very least, you’ll have distracted yourself for a moment, and if you find something you’re passionate about, that’s even better!
6. Keep your skills fresh.
You just spent nine months perfecting your Mandarin tones, and it makes sense you don’t want to forget everything you worked so hard to gain. So make sure you keep using your newfound language skills! Look for a cultural center, student club, or conversation circle in your city where you can speak with natives and participate in cultural activities. Not only will it soothe your homesickness for your host culture, but it’ll keep you feeling connected to your exchange.
7. Take up a cause.
Whether your study abroad program focused on improving food security in rural Tanzania or you spent your semester learning about environmental sustainability in Norway, it’s now time to take that knowledge and act on it. What clubs, groups, or organizations can you contribute to as an extension of your time abroad? Research local nonprofits and find volunteer opportunities that can use your skills and experiences to improve the world. Instead of feeling like you’ve lost something now that your study abroad is over, you’ll feel invigorated through serving others.
8. Reflect on what you’ve learned.
Take some time to remember all that you’ve gained from your time abroad. Even though you’re looking at your experience now with rose-colored glasses, it wasn’t easy all the time, right? You made it through culture shock, homesickness, and language faux pas and came out on the other side as a more confident, well-rounded, and adaptable person. Don’t forget the things that study abroad gave you, and use those skills as you move into the future.
9. Plan your next trip.
You might be feeling down after returning from study abroad because you feel trapped in your home country. To put it simply: this isn’t true! Now that you’ve been abroad, it’s even easier to get back out there again. Sure, you may not be able to head out for another year in South America right away, but taking short trips can keep your wanderlust from becoming overwhelming. Start saving and comparing programs with MyGoAbroad to build your own wanderlust wishlist. If money is an issue, check out short-term volunteering trips or even an internship, which are often more affordable travel options.
10. When all else fails…
Head to reddit.com/r/aww and watch some cute animal videos on repeat. There’s nothing so grim that a pile of pandas going down a slide can’t fix.
Resources to help you battle post study abroad depression
If you’ve tried out a handful of the suggestions above and still feel like spending all day snuggled up with your cat instead of heading out to class, you may need to connect with some additional resources.
Talking about what’s going on with a counselor or therapist can help you work through why you’re feeling down, as well as find ways to re-adjust to life at home. Check out on-campus offices like the counseling center or student health center to make an appointment. These options are usually low-cost or free and provide confidential services. If you’re not currently a student, you can also find therapists in the community.
In the end, the most important thing to do is talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Whether you speak with a professional, a fellow study abroad friend, or a family member, having a strong support system is crucial to getting through this time.
Remember how awesome and independent you felt while abroad? You still have all that strength and resiliency inside of you, and it’s gotten a lot of practice recently. Make time for self-care, practice compassion toward yourself, and start thinking about all of the amazing things you’re going to do with your post-study abroad life.
Post-travel depression: 0. You: 1.
When you’re in the throes of post-travel depression, sometimes it feels like you’ll never feel better, like you’ll never fully be the person you were abroad. But, the truth is, this is just a feeling and it’s only temporary. Some days will be easier than others, but you’re strong. Traveling has made you resilient, and there’s no doubt that you’ll overcome this challenge just like you overcame everything the world had to throw at you. Besides, you know that at the end of the day travel is worth it.