Written by Maddie Ryan (Arizona State University), CET Brazil, Fall 2022
When discussing mental health and study abroad, a phrase that is commonly repeated is “wherever you go, there you are.” Before departing for Brazil, actually before I even applied to study abroad, I had been forewarned numerous times that changing my environment would not magically make my problems disappear. Despite hearing this, I wasn’t extremely concerned about my mental health abroad – at the time I felt pretty mentally and emotionally stable. Little did I know the ride I’d be in for.
The beginning of this trip was extremely challenging towards my mental health, especially with my anxiety. Everything was so new and unfamiliar, and for anyone with anxiety being in uncomfortable situations where you have no control can be an absolute nightmare. Things I’ve never had issues with felt like an uphill battle: I struggled with panic attacks on flights and bus rides, the language barrier felt extremely overwhelming, and not having a system of support that I trusted was initially incredibly difficult for me.
You may be wondering, “Maddie, you’ve now been in Sao Paulo for two months. You’ve obviously found a way to cope and adjust there so how did you learn to handle your mental health issues while studying abroad?” Here are some tips that have been a godsend, and have helped me enjoy my time abroad despite my struggles with anxiety. Note: this is what has worked for me – take what you like, and feel free to leave the rest!
Tip #1: Make a List of Goals and Positive Affirmations to Reflect on when you Begin to Feel Triggered
Coming to Brazil, I had a panic attack on my first connecting flight from Phoenix to Dallas. I’ve never had any issues with flying previously, but something about the pressure of my first international move (and my first move PERIOD) caused me to crack. When we deboarded I was hysterical and was convinced that I changed my mind about moving to Brazil, and that I wanted to return to Arizona. Thankfully, I had a friend I made on the plane and my therapist on the phone – they both were reminding me of all the goals I had for going to Brazil. They gave me a list of all the things I wanted to do and experience, and encouraged me saying that giving up now is also giving up all the good that is yet to come. When experiencing a panic attack, your thoughts start racing and it’s very difficult to think straight – making a list of things to remind you why you are doing what you are doing helps you refocus. Have a list of goals and positive affirmations to reflect on when you begin to doubt yourself.
Tip #2: Be Aware of Situations that Trigger you, and Prepare for Them
Something new for me that I’ve had to adjust to after moving here was dealing with travel anxiety. After my experience coming here, I’ve prepared before every long bus ride and flight so that I do not spiral out of control again. I make sure that I’m with a travel buddy and that I’m not alone. I take Dramamine to help with my motion sickness (which feeling physically jolted absolutely worsens my anxiety), and I have a breathing app to help calm me down when my breath accelerates and I start panicking. You obviously cannot always predict when anxiety arises, so just try your best to be in tune with yourself. When you need help or to take a break, allow yourself the space to do so.
My notes that centered me enough to get on the plane to São Paulo
Tip #3: Find Sources of Support
As one “I can do it myself” type person to the rest of y’all, it is okay to ask for help. There can be so much shame and guilt for emotional expressions and vulnerability, but just know that it is completely normal to experience this when studying abroad. It is difficult to open up to new friends in the cohort, but from my personal experience, the moment I allowed myself to be vulnerable and honest about what I was experiencing was the moment so many friendships bloomed for me. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to support you, and how many people are going through the same thing you are. Of course, trust is established with time, and if you are not comfortable going to a friend for support, CET also offers counseling services for their students. There are also numerous online resources for support groups if that is something you’d prefer. Find whatever works for you, and know that you are not alone – you don’t have to carry the world on your shoulders, you have people who are eager to help you.
Tip #4: Take Care of Yourself!
Something that has been stellar for me in maintaining my mental health while in Sao Paulo is making sure I’m taking care of myself. The way I check-in is by going through the love languages to see if I feel depleted or empty in any area. For instance, with Acts of Service: Have I cleaned my space? Are my school things organized? Have I done my homework or am I neglecting any pressing responsibilities? Or for quality time: Have I been going out too much? Do I need a night in to recharge and watch a movie? Do I need to go get lunch by myself and be alone with my thoughts? Don’t forget to fill up your own cup, it’s easy to neglect yourself with the excitement and constant movement of study abroad.
Tip #5: Meet Yourself Where You’re At
Study Abroad can be very glamourized and it can be disappointing when the romanticization wears off. You can have grandiose goals and want so much when you’re here, so when resolutions and goals begin to be let down it can be discouraging. Be realistic with what to expect from yourself and how much time you have. I know this sounds like you are settling, but you are not – in fact being realistic can significantly improve the quality of your experience since it allows you to focus on your commitments and is not as overwhelming. If you are a beginner, then stop putting pressure on yourself to be advanced within a month. Take it slow and appreciate your little victories. Wins can be having the courage to buy something at the store and have an interaction. Take your wins where you can get them, it’s the little wins that lead to big victories.
Left: my favorite breathing app – breathwrk. Research shows that breathing help controls panic attacks. Right: xhalr.com is another website to help with breathing during panic attacks!
Yes it’s true that wherever you go there you, and yes it’s true that a change in environment doesn’t always solve your mental health issues – HOWEVER you deserve to have this experience with or without mental health issues. In fact, studying abroad has been one of the most positive experiences I’ve had in learning how to accept and handle my anxiety. It has taught me to not let my fear and anxiety rule my life. I no longer avoid situations that illicit panic, I now try to be resourceful and see how I can navigate through it. Anxiety does not make you weak, it is human to be anxious and struggle with anxiety. What is brave is daring to do despite your doubts.
Whatever you’re going through, I hope you take a risk for yourself and go on this adventure. You deserve it.