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Accepting Anxiety Abroad

When I went abroad to Italy and the Netherlands last summer, it was amazing. I had the best time of my life, I learned so much about other people and myself, and I documented it all through the perfecting lens of social media. When I say I had the best time of my life abroad, there’s always a caveat that I don’t mention to people. I had an incredible adventure, travelled solo for the first time, and met all sorts of interesting people. However, I also spent some mornings hiding in my hotel room or dorm room, too paralyzed with anxiety to venture into the chaos outside. When I came home and told my stories, I left that part out, and I felt like I was deceiving people about my true experience.

A picture of a woman standing on a mountaintop

The pressure to see all the sights, have a plan for what to do, and not get lost while I was alone in a foreign city weighed on me like heavy stones that froze me in place. There were several days when I had planned to get up bright and early, beat the tourist crowds, and do everything on my list for Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, and all the other cities I had the privilege of visiting. Most days I did do just that. But some days, instead of jumping headfirst into the adventure of being abroad, I paced around my room and thought about the things that could go wrong. I could lose my passport, or miss my train. I was afraid of missing out on the coolest place in the city, and that worry kept me from even trying to find it. There was no one there to make plans with, to tell me it’ll be fine if we get lost or our money gets stolen. I didn’t want to leave my room because I felt safe there, and my depression was telling me to get back in bed and ignore the unfamiliar outside world. Most of all, I was terrified of not doing a good enough job of having the most amazing study abroad experience, and this fear was paralyzing.

A picture of a woman taking a photograph of a sculpture, reflected in a mirror

When I talked to my parents on the phone, thousands of miles away, I was torn between telling them the truth or feeding them the lie that was also being carefully curated on my Instagram. When I did venture out and explore, I made sure to take lots of pictures, and I posted them constantly so my friends knew I was still having the study abroad experience of my dreams. I didn’t want anyone to worry about me, and it felt like such a waste to have to deal with mental health problems while I was supposed to be enjoying my short time abroad. I told everyone I was having a great time and that I never wanted to come home, when in reality I felt homesick and guilty. I didn’t understand that it was okay to take a break and take care of your mental health, while also having an equally amazing study abroad experience.

A picture of a woman turned half-away from thee camera, looking out over a palace and cityscape

During most of my time abroad, I had a lot of fun. I did almost all of the things I wanted to do, I met people who I’ll never forget, and there were plenty of times when I really didn’t want to come home. Looking back, I could never call my experience abroad a waste, because I learned so much about the world and about myself. But when I came home, I felt like a complete fraud as I told my exciting stories about the places I went and people I met, and left out the details about feeling lonely, sad, and homesick.

A picture of a woman, almost in silhouette, in front of a canal in Europe

Mental health can be an extremely unpredictable thing, and trying new experiences like travelling alone and exploring the chaos of foreign cities can be difficult for someone who experiences anxiety or depression. Learning more about coping strategies can be helpful, but it’s also important to know you’re not alone and having bad days is normal. I know that I can talk about more than just the good parts of my summer, and I wish I had reached out for more support during that time. For a long time, I felt guilty about not taking advantage of every second of my time abroad, but now I know that I shouldn’t be ashamed of struggling with anxiety while I was travelling. I learned so much through the good and the bad aspects of my trip, and the personal chaos that I dealt with. No one should feel ashamed about their unique experience with studying abroad, because it’s personal and looks different for everyone, no matter how curated your Instagram. I had to learn that for myself when I came home, and I’m still learning from my experiences abroad every day.

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