Overcoming Anxiety Abroad

Having anxiety isn’t fun.

Whether it’s social, general, test or any other kind of anxiety. It’s the body’s natural response to danger, an automatic alarm that goes off when you feel threatened, under pressure, or are facing a stressful situation. It’s basically the body’s fight-or-flight response. In moderation, anxiety isn’t a bad thing; it can help you stay alert and focused, and motivate you to solve problems. But when it’s constant and overwhelming, it interferes with relationships and activities and stops being functional.

At a ceilidhI know that feeling all too well. I struggle with it most when it impedes my ability to participate in school and I find myself shying away from class discussions and projects, or triple-checking deadlines. If I don’t write them down a few times I get paranoid that I’ve missed a deadline, which adds more stress. As a result, I often encounter pressure to use a drug like Adderall. To a “normal” person, it makes them feel like Superman and people tell me they get twice the amount of work done when on it. For me, Adderall is what enables me to just function normally. Without it I am very easily distracted, take twice as long to complete simple tasks, and am physically affected by my fear of change and the unknown. So, for example, trying to pack the night before leaving for Scotland for 6 months was an unmitigated disaster.

In moderation, anxiety isn’t a bad thing; it can help you stay alert and focused, and motivate you to solve problems. But when it’s constant and overwhelming, it… stops being functional.

A little anxiety is to be expected before a big change, but study abroad meant leaving behind an extensive support system of friends, family and health professionals. Everyday anxiety extends to things like worrying about paying bills, landing a job, giving a presentation, fear of a dangerous object, or being in an awkward social situation. I stress about all of those things but also try to avoid social situations for fear of being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated. I have to live with a constant and unsubstantiated worry that causes significant distress and often interferes with my daily life. I also have seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and then am preoccupied with the fear of having another one.

So why even go abroad? I struggled with this question a lot.

Why risk so much? The simple answer is that the bigger the risk, the greater the possible reward. I knew I would be scared leaving everything behind but the opportunity to meet new people, discover a new culture and travel to amazing places was worth taking a risk. I call it a high risk – high reward situation. And so, one of the most important lessons I learned from my time abroad was to trust in myself and to ask for help if I needed it.

One of the main reasons I chose to study abroad with IFSA-Butler was because of their built-in transition system. I didn’t even think to look for a program with the support IFSA-Butler offers until I spoke with an advisor at a study abroad fair on campus. I then went home and stalked the IFSA-Butler website reading up everything I could about what made them so special. And the first thing I did once in Edinburgh was establish a crude imitation of my support system back home.

The pragmatic Scots always seemed to be thinking about ways to help me integrate into their way of life despite these “quirks,” as some called my anxiety issues.

Having confidence in yourself is one of the hardest tasks you can ask of someone; we are all very aware of our own shortcomings and imperfections. It’s very easy to look at someone else and wish we could step into their shoes. I spent half my life wishing I could be a “normal” person. But what is “normal”? Is there a “normal”? The answer I discovered was no. In the US, we stereotype people and call them “different” or label them as “having problems”. Scotland was different. Scotland isn’t perfect but was more accepting of my differences. People didn’t treat me differently or try to write me off. The pragmatic Scots always seemed to be thinking about ways to help me integrate into their way of life despite these “quirks,” as some called my anxiety issues. To them, anxiety isn’t just a medical issue that they can give you pills to help deal with it. To my surprise, they stress the importance of the human touch. They’re very hands-on and all about talk-therapy and life tips. Trying to trust someone to accept you for you and look past all the baggage that comes with having multiple forms of anxiety disorders is excruciating. Anyone who tries to tell you something different probably rhymes with “pants on fire”.

Always use the resources provided.

With the fabulous IFSA-Scotland staff, who helped me manage my anxietyI worked with and really got to know my wonderful program staff over the course of my semester. Not only were they there to help when I had a severe panic attack over my term paper, they also didn’t stop until I got the help and resources in place to ensure that I had a successful experience abroad. Positive reinforcement has positive effects, and is one of the best ways to help build up self-esteem. The Scottish “get ‘er done” and go-getter attitude in itself was a actually huge boost to my self-esteem.

I thought I’d have a difficult time with the cultural differences or that perhaps I’d develop seasonal affective disorder (SAD) due to the lack of warmth and sunlight. But Scotland was in fact, the very best place I could have gone. I was encouraged to try the “fake it ‘till you make it”/ “stiff upper lip” approach, and to my surprise despite my reservations and my skeptical opinion, I gave it “the old college try” – and it really worked. This was never more apparent than the day I finally “let it go” during a walk along the beach while on an excursion to Inverness and the Highlands. I let the worry and anxiety I was harbouring wash away when I stepped into the water. The immensity of the ocean is intimidating. Yet, my problems in comparison were so minute that the juxtaposition of them to the vast recesses of the deep was incredibly liberating.

The most honest piece of advice I can give to anyone is to find your resources and then use them.

These approaches don’t necessarily work for everyone, but the Scottish attitudes for trying to help people with anxiety, as well as developing solid relationships with people like the IFSA-Butler Scotland team and friends I made along the way, were instrumental to the successful implementation of my temporary support system abroad. I didn’t let the fear stop me from pursuing a lifelong aspiration.

Goofing around of a Game of Thrones tourIt was the first time I experienced every phase of the “W” curve of culture shock — the first couple of weeks were perfect and wonderful and magical like traveling always is. But once it hit me that I wasn’t going home after a while, I began to feel distressed and out of sync with myself, which caused a blowup of anxiety. I no longer fit in. Everyone, it seemed, was changing. My American friends were busily adapting to their new lives abroad, and our UK and international friends were still learning to accept us into their circles. When that happened, something as simple as taking a walk in a beautiful place or Skyping my family back home really helped me.

But the most honest piece of advice I can give to anyone is to find your resources and then use them. They’re there to help you. IFSA-Butler Scotland was there to help and I entrusted them with my worries despite my occasionally melancholic temperament. Once I did that, I had less to stress about and my time abroad felt much less daunting. I was truly able to enjoy my experience in Scotland because I had a safety net to catch me and give me the confidence and resources to work through my anxiety.

Lexie Henning is a Classics major at the University of Missouri and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She represents IFSA-Butler on her home campus through our Global Ambassador Program.

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One thought on “Overcoming Anxiety Abroad

  • June 16, 2016 at 3:10 am

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this post and also the rest of the site is really good.


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