Tuesday 26 February 2019

Staying mindful when studying abroad

Bethany provides tips to taking care of your mental health when studying travelling abroad.
- Bethany

You’re supposed to feel excited and full of intrigue when you first arrive in a new country, aren’t you? Well, for some people anyway. You see on Instagram all those cool adventures other people have had studying abroad, and your returning friends have told you heaps of amazing tales. So, it must just be you who feels a bit lonely, a bit overwhelmed, and a bit out of their depth upon arriving in your chosen city abroad? 

There’s no need to panic, you aren’t the only one. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed and confused upon arriving in a new country, and it doesn’t mean you’ve made the wrong decision regarding country choice or studying abroad at all. However, if your negative feelings persist, the best thing to do is to have a conversation with your family or close friends, and even visit your new university’s wellbeing centre if they have one. Another good way to share with someone what you are going through is to either phone or email the Samaritans, they’re there to just chat about how you’re feeling and it’s completely anonymously. If you’re someone who already suffers with mental health, and you’re planning on studying abroad, check out the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s advice on travelling and keeping mentally healthy.

Take Shanghai in China for an example. Shanghai is an enormous city, a truly wonderful place where western culture blends with eastern culture to create glamourous skyscrapers and lowkey local restaurants that make the best dumplings. There is so much to do when studying abroad in Shanghai, and it’s a place where you can constantly learn just by venturing out of the house. It’s a place I still consider a home, as I studied there at a British international school from the ages of 15 to 19. However, during my fourth year my family moved back to the UK. Instead of moving back with them, I stayed on and lived with an extremely welcoming and generous Serbian family.

Whilst I was surrounded by supportive friends and teachers, I was often overcome with feelings of loneliness, which I found extremely hard to start a conversation with anyone about. Living in a city as big, fast-paced and populated as Shanghai is no doubt fun, but for some people it can be overwhelming. These feelings, combined with the pressure of doing well academically, can make keeping your head above water a bit of a struggle. Additionally, living with a new bunch of people, be it a host family or other students can be awkward in the beginning and bring to the surface feelings of anxiousness.

Although I know now that the best thing for me to have done would be to talk to someone about how I was feeling, I handled my feelings of loneliness by finding a green space, or somewhere secluded amongst nature in the city, and taking a stroll around. Just being away from the buzz of the city relieved my stress and allowed my mind to relax a little. Going to the gym regularly and getting involved in hobbies, such as theatre, also helped reduce my stress. 

If you are planning on studying abroad, it is important that you are well prepared, especially if the culture you are moving to is different from your own. Being prepared can minimise stress in tricky situations involving visa, passport or health issues and the FCO have a wealth of information on these considerations for countries all over the world. Learning about the laws and customs of your intended country is also highly useful in making your transition as comfortable as possible, as you’ll know what to expect, and a great tool for this is the FCO’s Travel Aware website

Hello, I’m Bethany and I study Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Surrey. Having hid the negative feelings I experienced transitioning to living without my family in a foreign country a couple years ago, I’d now like to share my insight in order to help others in a similar situation. I was never diagnosed with a mental illness, however, I believe negative feelings are just as important to talk about.

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