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Living abroad with anxiety can be tough.
Having expat anxiety can be seriously uncomfortable.
I remember the first time I shared my anxiety with someone while I was studying abroad.
“Hey, this is kind of awkward,” I said to my 3 flatmates in London.
We had only been there a few days, and we were all new study abroad students in London.
“But I get really anxious around lots of people and in noisy settings, so I probably won’t be joining you when you go out at night much.” (I said ‘much’, but meant ‘definitely not ever, are you even kidding me, not over my dead body’)
They understood and spoke up that it was totally fine, we could still do other things together.
I felt an instant self of relief.
I didn’t want my new friends to think I was a complete loser when I denied their offers to explore the coolest clubs in London or stay out past 2am in crowded places, but I would 100% not be doing that, thank you very much.
Moving abroad to the UK as an American can be scary enough as it is, but moving abroad with anxiety can be TERRIFYING.
My own anxiety has manifested itself in different ways through my childhood and adult life, but in general, I’m actually not a worrier.
I had no problem with the general uncertainties of life or what would come after my first semester in London. I dealt with culture shock, but was overall happy.
I knew I could handle it if my plane got delayed or I had to change my travel plans, or if everything fell apart with my internship and needed to find a new one (oh, that happened!).
But as soon as I was in a large group of people (think: pub, club, large event) with varying degrees of music and conversations, I was OUT THE DOOR.
Goodbye, see you later, not interested.
My heart would start racing and I couldn’t breathe and I felt so uncomfortable in those moments that it was easier to just avoid it altogether.
And sometimes, removing myself from it wasn’t even enough if I could still hear it happening.
I remember crying on the phone to my dad in college once when there was a party going on next door because I felt so scared and so out of control (am I making myself sound fun yet?).
So when I told my parents I was going to study in London, I’m sure their first thought was more along the lines of: “Excuse me, what did you say?”
I didn’t exactly seem like a recipe for someone who would thrive during a study abroad program, but here I am, eight years later, enjoying the UK (mostly) and having conquered a lot of those issues.
Whether you have anxiety over social situations, life in general, or anything else, here are four tips on having a successful move abroad.
1. Prepare Before You Go
I knew before I went abroad that I dealt with anxiety, and I was thankfully a forward-thinking enough 19 year old to decide to make use of my college’s counseling center and go talk to someone about how to deal with it abroad.
(By the way – going to talk to someone does not mean you’re weak, it means you are brave and self-aware, so don’t let anyone else make you think otherwise).
I was assigned a nice grad student who chatted with me through a few sessions on how I would handle anxiety abroad, in an unfamiliar place without my usual safety nets.
I even went to an anxiety coping group where you were meant to talk to other people about their experiences, which is hilarious in retrospect as we were all too anxious to say anything.
But, okay, it’s the thought that counts!
2. Find a Safe Place in Your New Neighborhood/Town/Country
One of the hardest parts of moving abroad is that you can feel like nowhere is ‘safe’ – everywhere is new and unfamiliar and that’s not really helpful when you’re struggling with anxiety.
Especially if you’re living with other people, you’ll want to find a place that you can go to when you need to ‘get away.’
It helped me find my place in the city and I knew that if I was overwhelmed or needed a ‘time-out’ from life, I could head there.
3. Be Honest
Especially among people you’re going to be living with, be honest about what you struggle with if you feel like it will help (and it almost always does, particularly when making friends as an expat).
I think my roommates would have had a different reaction to me if I just constantly turned them down without explaining why as I would have come across a little stand offish, but being honest meant that they were happy to ‘meet me where I was’ and plan to do other things together.
One of those girls was a bridesmaid at my wedding five years later, so all in all, it worked out!
4. Have a Coping Mechanism in the Moment
Sometimes, you’re going to find yourself stuck in a situation that traditionally freaks you out.
The first time I celebrated his birthday with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, he wanted to get together at a dark and busy pub with his friends.
Literally my worst nightmare at the time.
But I wanted to be able to go, so I concentrated on a few coping mechanisms I had learned in my pre-trip prep and made use of them when I was there.
And when it all became LEVEL 10 MUST GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW, I just walked out onto the sidewalk outside for a few minutes before I felt ready to go back in.
No one noticed, except my boyfriend who knew what I was doing because I had told him, and I was able to collect my thoughts before heading back in and talking some more.
The bottom line is that living abroad is not just for traditionally adventurous people who thrive in new settings – it can be an amazing experience for anyone.
Have you had an experience studying or living abroad with anxiety? Tell me your story in the comments!