Anxiety. Depression. Travel. Three words that have had an impact on my college experience and shaped my life.
I have struggled with depression since I was very young. I am sure I was the only fifth-grader in my class that had anxiety attacks and bouts of depression so strong that it prevented me from going to school some days. Over the years I’ve learned to manage it, thanks to therapy and writing, but it never went away.
My depression was never the ridiculous commercial kind where I couldn’t tie my sneakers or my dog sat staring at me with those sad eyes. In my experience, depression manifests itself as a general sadness, almost grief-like, that you learn to live with. It isn’t constant. No, it seeps in like an unwanted house guest, making everything cloudy—an emotional Instagram filter if you will.
Sounds fun, yes? Well imagine taking these “issues” with you to college out of state. It makes conversations with your new roommates… interesting. Over my four years of college, I got much better about talking about my anxiety and depression, but not until I returned from study abroad. Experiencing anxiety while studying abroad ultimately taught me a lot about myself, including how resilient and strong I can be.
Here’s my take on the mind game of studying abroad with anxiety and depression, in the hopes that you, like me, won’t let study abroad and mental health be a barrier to a grand adventure.
My personal experience studying abroad with social anxiety
My struggles only intensified when I decided to hop on a plane and head to a new country. I was a naive 20-year-old girl from a suburb outside Portland, Oregon, who used humor as a defense mechanism to hide her insecurities. When you struggle with social anxiety and depression the way I did, you try to protect yourself by building up walls cemented with sarcasm and situational humor.
Travel unravels all that.
Studying abroad forces you to try things that are unfamiliar and perhaps a little scary. How was I going to shield myself with quick-wit when I barely spoke the language? Humor was my life vest and without it, I felt like study abroad depression would wash over me and swallow me whole. I was terrified, but there was this need I had to see the world. No one was making me go, but I had dreamed about seeing the Eiffel Tower since I was nine. I had to go. I had to go to prove to myself I could do it. I had to face the possibility of depression + study abroad.
It was terrifying making that final decision to go, but doing it made me feel like I was in control of my life, not my depression and anxiety. Before I signed the paperwork, I spoke with my parents, my therapist, and the professor who was leading our study abroad. All of them had sage advice that helped me make the decision.
While your therapist and family may already know your fears, telling your professor and the program you are going with seems like a hard thing to do. I promise it’s not; it is painless and necessary. Everyone wants to make sure that you are able to enjoy your time abroad and they will do their best to help. Deciding to go is daunting and exhilarating, but the lessons that study abroad teaches you, not just the ones in the classroom, make it worth it.
5 helpful ways to handle study abroad depression
You will find a bunch of advice online about traveling or studying abroad with social anxiety or other mental illnesses like depression, but most of them are variations on these points:
1. Take your medication if you’re on it
If you take medication, DO NOT STOP TAKING IT. That’s just a rookie move. Please make this the first thing you pack, and have a copy of your prescription just in case. Studying abroad with anxiety is all about managing your triggers, and it can be extra-hard to do if you suddenly stop your medication or opt to self-medicate outside of your recommended medications.
2. Keep the lines of communication open
Make sure you have access to Skype, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp so you can video chat with your loved ones back home if you need to. Most programs have wifi in the contracts, but McDonald’s is also always an option (speaking from experience here). Thank you, Golden Arches!
It may sound counterintuitive, but being able to stay in touch with your favorite people will make the potentially long, lonely days abroad feel less intense. They can provide a word of comfort (in the way only loved ones somehow know how) and empower you to make it through another tough spell.
3. Bring along a few cherished possessions from home
Take some photos, a favorite sweatshirt, or even a pillowcase you love. Take something that is a little piece of home. When I packed for France I thought I would become a fashionista so I consciously didn’t pack my favorite pair of sweats and this ended up being one of my biggest regrets.
Having your all-time favorite comfort items at arms length just makes sense. Sometimes a good cuddle is all it takes to snap out of an anxiety spell!
4. Know your limits
Don’t be afraid to say no. Turn down that invitation to the bar if all you want to do is read a book or catch up on Netflix. You do you. I never realized my need for some alone time until I was on a trip with three of my closest friends, standing on Fleet Street in Dublin when this urge to flee came over me. I needed to not be there. I needed to run. I needed things to be quiet. If I had just spoken up earlier, it would have saved me some embarrassment.
Your time abroad does not have to double as an experiment in “Yes Man’ing” the activities that come your way. Splurge on a private room if you’re doing a weekend-long cultural excursion. Find a yoga studio down the street from where your classes are. Studying abroad with anxiety can be a little easier if you know—and hold—your boundaries.
5. Jot down your experiences & intentionally process
Journal. It sounds cliche and like something mom would suggest (mine did. Thanks, Mom!), but this is the cheapest form of therapy there is, and in all honesty, you will want to remember everything about your adventures, even the not-so-great parts. Carve out time every day to identify new challenges or even the things that you thought might be hard, but ended up being kind of easy! This type of processing will help you more intentionally nudge your comfort zone so it will stretch and grow as much as possible.
My life today
Study abroad wasn’t all weekend trips to Rome or London. Sure, that was part of it, but a very real, tangible part was the little things that made my time abroad so special. It was dinners with my host family, finding a favorite cafe to call home when I studied for exams, or figuring out how to exercise outside when it’s snowing. Study abroad helped me appreciate the little challenges of daily life and how to get through them without getting lost.
Today, I still struggle with depression and battle semi-frequent anxiety attacks (and even experienced a bout of post study abroad depression), but when I am in a battle with myself, I have those memories of my adventure overseas. See, the entire experience made me stronger, but it also made me aware of how important it is to take care of your mental health—study abroad and mental health go hand in hand.
After college, I had a hard time (like a lot of post-grads will experience in the first year). When I had the chance to take my first solo trip I jumped on it. I boarded a plane bound for London all by myself. I relied on all the skills and strengths I learned about myself during college and studying abroad with anxiety and as I wandered through London. I talked to strangers for directions (because HELL NO I wasn’t paying for an international plan), took tours of Piccadilly Circus, and wandered down Oxford Street for a spot of tea and a bit of shopping.
It rained five of the six days I was there, but I loved every second of it. I don’t fear solo travel because I know I am strong enough to do it and I don’t fear talking about my depression.
In short: Studying abroad made me empowered AF
Study abroad helped me learn that depression and anxiety is not a curse, it is an illness that I shouldn’t be ashamed of. It is part of me, but it does not define me.
Depression tells you that the only way to make it stop is to quit.Anxiety tells you that you can’t handle this.Travel teaches you that you can.