Going Abroad with Anxiety

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Students with a history of emotional disorders are advised to consider carefully joining the [program]. Such challenges are inevitably aggravated by the new demands and personal responsibilities of a foreign setting… Recent withdrawals from the Program for psychological reasons including breakdowns and panic attacks, attest to the fact that failure to heed this warning may lead to extremely serious complications…

Virtually all of the students who have ignored this advice in the past found that they had to return to their homes part way through the semester, losing a term of course credits and all the fees paid.

So reads the advice on mental health in the bulletin I received from my program before I went abroad. I already had some doubts about going abroad with anxiety,1 but this well-intentioned warning did not convince me to disclose my mental health situation with the program’s directors before I left. In my high-strung mind, the request to “please tell us if you have any psychological issues in advance so we can make sure it doesn’t get so bad you need to go home” turned into “if we catch you with a mental disorder we’ll decide you can’t handle being abroad and must go home.”2 Very, very, misguidedly, I decided to keep it a secret.

And that worked for a while. In fact, I had a noticeable reduction in anxiety symptoms during my first couple of months in Madrid.3 But that break in anxiety, like the secret I was keeping that I had it, couldn’t last for long.

When I started agonizing over homework assignments and repeating my to-do list to myself before I went to bed, I knew my anxiety was creeping back. But it came with some symptoms I had never experienced before. I started getting nervous during solo travel. I remember I had a flight from Edinburgh to Madrid at 1 p.m., and felt a knot in my stomach from before we left for brunch until I got off at my metro stop in Hortaleza. I would sit on planes and tap my fingers, scribble in my notebook, or play my music as loud as I could through my headphones to avoid the feeling that I needed to escape, like, right now. Then I stopped sleeping properly. I’ve always had the occasional bout of insomnia, especially after an 8:30 p.m. coffee, but I consistently wasn’t falling asleep at night. I was falling asleep in every single one of my classes instead. My hands would shake constantly. And then I couldn’t do my homework anymore. I would just go to bed instead of finishing an assignment because I was too nervous to do anything but sit and stare at my papers for hours anyway.

It’s kind of sad, but the schoolwork was what finally convinced me that something needed to be done. I’ve had anxiety for a long, long time, but have always maintained good grades and gotten all of my schoolwork done–what’s a few panic attacks and sleepless nights when you still get the A? But abroad, I quickly saw that I would start pulling much worse grades, maybe just never turn anything in again, if I didn’t change something quickly.

So I caved and finally confessed to one of the directors, somewhat convinced that the conversation would end with me booking a ticket for the next plane home.4 Instead of sending me home or scolding me for not following directions and mentioning it way earlier, the director listened closely and gave me tissues, candy, and an appointment with an English-speaking therapist the next day. I’ll admit it, I cried during that meeting. I cried from relief that I was not getting punished for my anxiety.5 I cried from the relief that someone was here to help me.

A few other people in my program learned that I had anxiety after that meeting. One was my closest friend there, who my therapist suggested I reach out to about my condition. While I had a few school and home friends who knew about my anxiety, it was so much better to have someone I could speak to face to face when I was struggling, rather than shooting off a text to someone in a different time zone and hoping it didn’t interrupt their day. I also spoke to another one of the directors, who encouraged me to think of anxiety in a way I never have before.

She told me to think of anxiety as a difference, rather than a difficulty. She said I should just think of myself as more sensitive than other people, more in tune with my emotions and the world around me. She suggested I accept that part of myself, and stop running from negative emotions. Feeling like I could talk openly about my anxiety, and that it was not something to feel ashamed of or to hide–especially from myself–didn’t make it go away, but it made life abroad an indescribably more positive experience than it would have been if I kept it a secret.

It was frustrating to realize my anxiety would not go away just because I did. It was frustrating to realize that even a breakthrough like the one I had did not mean an instant cure. But, like the bulletin advised me, it was essential to let someone know what I was going through in order to get through it. And that goes for anyone, abroad or not.

If you’re struggling, reach out to someone you feel safe sharing with–or if you can’t think of someone, this is a great resource for hotline numbers that you can call. We don’t have to keep our mental health a secret.


1 In truth, I was so doubtful that I could handle it that I often couldn’t even imagine myself there.
2 I cannot emphasize enough, especially after rereading the bulletin’s advice in preparation for this post, that the program’ message is in reality very reasonable. It absolutely makes sense to give people in charge a heads up that you may experience different difficulties in the program than your fellow students. It absolutely makes sense to give a little more thought than other people before committing to going abroad if you know you have a mental health condition. Though for many people, including (*spoiler*) me, going abroad is totally doable even with anxiety or another mental disorder, for some people it may not be. The program’s warning is a way to remind all students to take proper measures to take care of themselves and to prevent other students from having to leave the program and lose a lot of time, academic credit, and money.
3 I even drafted a blog post back in February exclaiming “anxiety isn’t ruining being abroad!!”
4 I mean, I couldn’t sit through a full class anymore; there was no way they’d let me stick around for a few more months!
5 Which is exactly the sort of ridiculous thing that anxiety makes one expect.

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