Panic Attacks and How to Stay on Track

Picture this: you’re hanging out with a group of your friends when suddenly you feel as though you can’t breathe. A minute ago you were perfectly fine, but something small set you off and now your chest is being crushed by the weight of your anxiety. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself, but you can’t stop sobbing. You don’t want to push your friends away, but you can’t explain to them what’s happening inside you. You don’t quite know what’s happening inside you.

Anyone who has ever experienced a panic attack will understand this feeling, or, more accurately, this jumble of feelings. Although I’ve been having panic attacks for nearly my entire life, they’re still almost impossible to anticipate and even more challenging to explain. I’ve noticed, though, that my attacks are often prompted by stressful scenarios, uncertain situations, or big life changes. And studying abroad encompasses all of the above.

We can’t let our attacks define us. They shouldn’t hinder us from trekking across the world and embracing the exciting uncertainty that comes with living in a foreign country.

When I was still in the process of applying to study abroad in Melbourne, I didn’t consider the fact that it would be a perfect combination of panic-inducing components. Jumping into the unknown can be nerve-racking for anyone, but especially for those who are prone to panic attacks and anxiety. But we can’t let our attacks define us. They shouldn’t hinder us from trekking across the world and embracing the exciting uncertainty that comes with living in a foreign country.

Of course, there will be good days and not-so-good days. Before those bad days arise, here are some ideas to help you stay on track. (Note: I know people who have panic attacks often have their own unique coping mechanisms and methods of dealing with them. These are just some general tips that have helped me and others I know. Hopefully, they can help you, too!)

1. Make your space feel like home

After my most recent panic attack, I longed to curl up in my bed back in Pennsylvania. Obviously, though, being over 10,000 miles away from home makes that desire a bit difficult to fulfill. When the comforts of home are inaccessible, the next best thing is to make your current living space feel as homey as possible.

Pack lots of photos of whatever you love most—your family, your pet, your favorite band or sports team—and stick them on your walls. Bring a stuffed animal or your favorite childhood blanket for your bed. Keep your space clear of any clutter or rubbish that might be distracting. Do whatever you need to do to make your space more comfortable and calming (with respect to the apartment/dorm and to your potential roommate, of course).

2. Try a stress-reducing hobby

Panic Attacks and Staying on Track
Don’t forget your passions and hobbies when studying abroad.

Although you can’t necessarily cure panic attacks, you can often channel the stress that might trigger them into something productive. The University of Melbourne and its various clubs are always offering fitness classes to help students de-stress while staying active. UniMelb has a yoga club that holds multiple classes each week for its members, as well as mantra meditation sessions. The student-run Gravity Initiative also provides free yoga (along with fresh pressed juices). If you prefer something more upbeat, the university provides weekly free Zumba classes that are open to everyone. There are tons of clubs—both for fitness and other activities—that you can join to keep your stress levels in check.

Don’t forget about your passions during your time abroad. If you love to paint, find a canvas and some brushes and create. Love cooking? See if your apartment or dorm has a kitchen and make some scrumptious treats. Doing what you love most can ground you when life seems to be getting out of hand.

3. Keep on top of your assignments

Between traveling around your chosen country and getting involved in your host university, it can be tough to find time to work on school assignments. The thrill of being somewhere new may dissuade you from studying in favor of exploring.

Panic Attacks and Staying on Track
Hanging out prior to a yoga session at UniMelb.

Try to find a balance between the two. Though you may not notice it outright, getting behind in your studies will subconsciously stress you out and leave you frazzled at the end of the semester. This is especially true at a school like the University of Melbourne. Students here don’t have many assignments, but the ones we do have are lengthy and challenging to complete. If you don’t start working on them in advance, you won’t get them done in time; or they won’t be done to the caliber your tutor expects. It might be (as in, it totally will be) tempting to spend every single night out on the town, but think of the long-term benefits of spacing out your workload. Getting more work done now will help you avoid extra stress during midterms and finals.

4. Join a support group

I find that when I have panic attacks, I want to isolate myself from everyone around me. Of course, it’s healthy to have space to cope with your emotions on your own. But when you’re looking for people who can help you deal with your feelings, support groups are there to empathize with you. The University of Melbourne Student Union runs many wellness programs, one of which is an anxiety support group that meets every Monday afternoon. There, you can discuss your emotions and mental health in a safe, non-judgmental environment. UniMelb is also home to multiple faith communities whose members are always willing to support a fellow student, religious or not. IFSA-Butler is also incredibly supportive, with staff who are always willing to listen to you and help you in any way they can.

Don’t let anxiety stop you from experiencing one of the most incredible and unique opportunities you will have in your life. Enjoy the good days, and use the resources available to you to help you cope with the bad ones. Live every moment to its fullest, and you’ll feel stronger and more confident by the time you finally do return home.

Danielle Zabielski is a Communications student at Saint Joseph’s University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2016. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.

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