Anxiety Abroad: The Lesser Known Side of a Year Abroad
Talking about her experience of dealing with anxiety while studying abroad, Isi Browning offers some advice that might help show how the rough road ahead will not last as long as you think.
If anyone told me a few years ago that at 20, I’d have moved across the world by myself to study at a university I hadn’t heard of, I would have laughed. Yet, already three weeks into my Year Abroad in Canada and it’s the best, most exciting experience of my university time so far. I’ve met amazing people and enjoyed so many experiences in my short time here, from exploring the local area and getting lost in Walmart to visiting a Kangaroo farm! I already know it’s a year I’m not going to shut up about.
Despite this, when I left Exeter at the end of second year and everybody was telling me that I would have an amazing time, I didn’t believe them fully. I was so anxious, questioning why I chose to do a year abroad because, let’s face it, Canada is a long way from home. Having not been to Canada before, the idea that my first time going would be to move there for a year was daunting . The eight hour time difference was equally as overwhelming and it dawned on me that I was essentially starting university again from scratch: not knowing anyone and faced with a different academic system to the one I had just gotten used to. Everything felt so overwhelming and I had started to panic, not least because travelling during a pandemic wasn’t going to be a stress-free experience.
I was faced with another seemingly endless list. But now I was 5000 miles from home.
The night before my flight, I was incredibly anxious. I was overwhelmed with the endless list of things I needed to bring with me for the flight: PCR test, visa documents, passport, etc. When I finally reached Canada, I was faced with a whole new list of things I needed to sort. Finding my classes, getting kitchen supplies and food, navigating the bus system and city, making friends. I was faced with another seemingly endless list. But now I was 5000 miles from home.
Although the first days were pretty nerve-wracking, I surprised myself by how I started stepping into my new sense of independence. I knew that after a short while, I would feel more settled and I kept reminding myself of that, which really helped my anxiety.
Over time, that’s exactly what happened! After the initial shock subsides, I started having the most amazing time and doing what I was there for, to meet new people and experience a new way of life. I wasn’t without my anxious moments, but there were some things that helped greatly.
1) Take a deep breath. It’s okay to feel anxious.
My number one tip would be to remember it is okay to feel anxious. Exchange years are a big change and there are perfect reasons why not everyone does one. It’s okay for you to be stressed initially but this feeling subsides. When I first went to university, I was scared and overwhelmed, but eventually settled. Now, the same is starting to happen in Canada.
2) Try to get some sleep
Far easier said than done, I know. It’s cliché but try to sleep a lot the first few days, especially if you’re dealing with a big time difference like I was. This will help you be far better equipped to deal with any stresses that may come your way.
3) Keep yourself busy
This almost goes without saying as you’re going to be so busy at first anyway. Nevertheless, keeping your mind busy means you’ll have less time to worry about where you are. My most anxious times were just before I went to sleep when my mind wasn’t occupied. I found watching Netflix to be a great way to ease late night overthinking.
4) Meet other exchange students
Some host universities set up a Facebook group for incoming exchanges, so keep an eye out for those. I found people getting the same flight as me like this and met them at the airport, this made the flight much more enjoyable. More than anything, it’s nice to have people nearby who are in the same boat as you. I found the Exeter Year Abroad buddy scheme was also handy as I spoke to a former student of my host university; she shared some useful information which made me feel prepared. If you can, say yes to opportunities to meet people as its important to build your own little support network.
5) Try not to spend your whole time talking to home friends
This can be hard but is surprisingly important and has a big impact. Although it’s important to keep in touch with home friends, constantly talking to them could make you feel worse. There’s a chance this could make for some difficult homesickness. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) ignore them but initially try to be as present as you can and make friends where you are. Home friends will understand if your replies are slow, and you’ll thank yourself later!
Finally, remember: things are going to get easier. You’ll adapt quicker than you think. However, if you do need help, please don’t suffer in silence. Personal tutors back in Exeter are a great port of call and I definitely emailed mine with questions. Familiarize yourself with any help and support available on your host campus and don’t be afraid to talk to other exchanges or flat mates if you are anxious. Chances are, they probably feel the same. If I can do it, so can you.
Editor: Ryan Gerrett