Traveling with Anxiety
First I would like to say everyone’s experience with anxiety or own struggle with mental health is different. This is my experience and struggle I had and how I got through it.
I studied in Summer 2016 to London and Amsterdam. I am a Kinesiology Pre-PT Major and I got the opportunity to study the Public Health in the two cities that I have been spending my life dreaming about. This program was the absolute perfect program for me and I felt so fortunate that I got this experience
Before I even bought my ticket I had a panic attack, and then another panic attack, and then another, and then another. 5 days in a row I had panic attacks. I was so nervous and that made me so nauseous so I wasn’t eating and I knew it was a problem so I went to the counseling center.
Two days later I met Matt, who was really good at listening to a shy, not willing to share her feelings, hated crying person that when she did start crying her words became absolute nonsense. There were a lot of things giving me this anxiety but they were all mostly surrounded on the uncertainty of going abroad. Will I make friends? Will I hate it? Will I want to go home? Will I be able to afford it? Will my boyfriend break up with me while I am away? Is this a waste of money? Should I really go? What if I get attacked? All these “what if” questions that I had no control over and was just getting afraid and convincing me that this was a horrible idea because I was feeling so uncertain.
I learned through my 4 months of counseling that I tend to rationalize poorly with my feelings. I tend to think “I shouldn’t feel bad because I have a roof over my head” or “there are people starving in the world and I am worried about not liking the food in Amsterdam”. Basically having the thought that I shouldn’t be feeling this way because I am so fortunate to go on this experience that not a lot of people have the opportunity to do so. This just pushed my emotions away until they all boiled up into this panic attack fiasco. Matt told me that yes, it is very exciting what you are doing and there is a lot of anxiety attached to it. He introduced “and” to me. I was using the excuse “I have these feelings but I shouldn’t because of this”. He told me that I was just cancelling out one feeling because I could only have one at a time.
This all happened before I went abroad and I was of course nervous buying my ticket “did I do it right”, “will I make my connecting flight” and so on and then I was in London and I was having so much fun. There were definitely annoying times and worrying times but mostly there were high points for me. I made friends, absolutely loving my class and enjoying my adventures. But instead of going through every single high and low point of my study abroad I’m going to explain the major panic attack that came at a time I was not expecting.
Now I was so fortunate because, by a stroke of sheer luck I got tickets to see the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London. Now some of you may not know but this was the new 2-part play written about Harry Potter’s children and the tickets were the first things I looked up online after getting accepted to go abroad, and it did not seem at all possible. They were ridiculously expensive because they were re-sale and every show was booked until I graduate college basically. So I randomly got tickets by chance in my last week in London, and it is the top moment of my entire adventure, I saw real magic, I met the cast (again by random happenstance), and it was amazing.
I didn’t just tell you this to brag, but if you want to hear more about it I can tell you later, because I do like to brag about it. This was the highest point of my entire adventure and I got to do a lot of cool things like everyone else when they study abroad. I went by myself to see the plays Saturday and my friend Emma came and met up with me after the final show and we went out for a bit and then we started to head back to our apartment.
I was feeling so confident in myself because I was doing these really cool adventures by myself. I had dinner alone and I knew how to navigate London. My friend was there and we were laughing and joking. And then all of a sudden this man grabs me by my arm and pulls me away from Emma. He is drunkenly asking me “what are you doing tonight” and keeps on pulling me with his friends in the opposite direction of Emma. I, being my Canadian self, am trying to say “sorry no, I’m leaving”. He is not letting go. On my forth “no” Emma just grabs me and pulls me the other way and we just walk faster to our apartment as the man says “Aw c’mon!”
It wasn’t until we were in our building I realized the extent of what happened and I thanked Emma for what she did. However, I immediately felt less confident and less able to be independent.
The next morning, I woke up feeling defeated. It was my last day in London and I had so much more I wanted to do. I had my last official British breakfast and I was by myself because I wanted to write in my journal alone. I starting to write and I was starting to breath shallow and fast. My chest felt tight, I was getting nauseas, and I had that lump in the back of my throat that was telling me I was going to burst into tears. I was trying to calm myself down, practicing mindfulness. I was trying to focus on my breathing while noticing my feelings on the issue. I was calmly thinking in my mind “it is my last day in a city where I feel like I am supposed to be here, I just saw the show I have been looking forward to since it was announced that J.K. Rowling had the idea, I was leaving these friends that I loved, I was tired from staying up late, and I was so happy where I was and with my breakfast.”
I was alone in this café and all I wanted to do was call my mum (because she is my support center) but it was three in the morning to her. So I texted my closest friend there, CeCe, to ask if she wanted to have breakfast. I was trying not to make a big deal out of it, but I just told her that I was feeling really anxious about leaving and I just went through this emotional roller-coaster with this play that I saw. She responded saying that she would head over and she understood and she would be there in a half an hour.
From all these mixed emotions I couldn’t control myself and I started to cry. Then I cried out of embarrassment being in this public breakfast café with people around me which also made me more anxious. I was trying to hide my face, and I didn’t want to leave because CeCe was meeting me there. So I sat in a café for a half an hour not wanting to leave and then somehow I got more napkins, which meant that the wait staff saw me crying, which caused more anxiety and embarrassment crying. Time passed, and CeCe wasn’t there she said everything got delayed she was on her way but it was taking longer than expected. So I waited another half hour. Growing with anxiety, my chest getting tighter and tighter. I texted her again and I got no response.
After waiting for a total of 2 hours and no response for the last hour I just told her I was leaving. I couldn’t get napkins sneakily sent to me for another minute. I was then getting anxious as to why she wasn’t there (she was fine, her phone died and her taxi took her somewhere else). On my way back I decided to text my friends if anyone wanted to go explore for the day and do things we haven’t done yet. I got a response from my friend, Arti, and I would meet with her later. I was just going to sit in my room alone and meet up with Arti.
I got back to my apartment and I was so happy my roommate wasn’t there because I just burst into tears. I realized on my way back I was still trying to push this overall sadness of leaving aside because I got to see this show of my dreams, I shouldn’t be feeling this way, I should be enjoying this moment. The idea kept on coming back to me that what if this was my last moment here. I had done all this planning for this moment and it was almost done. I was just getting more tense and anxious and I couldn’t breathe.
I tried to piece myself back together in time to meet Arti. She was perky and nice and I crumbled in front of her, she didn’t really know what to do and I told her “I don’t want to leave, I am not ready” which she understood. She awkwardly patted my shoulder and explained that I just needed to voice this to someone in front of me. Having someone there understand what I was going through was helpful and we carried on. We were both feeling sad about leaving but didn’t want to sit inside and wallow about it, that seemed counterproductive. We made a plan called “the great good bye to London”. We decided it was going to be sad and also amazing to see these places and to say our theoretical goodbyes to them.
This is just my example of a panic attack and my history associated with this while abroad. My anxiety was relatively new and I learned partly how to accept my issues. Not to get over it, not to push it aside. Everything you do abroad will be special no matter what it was. For example, I just remember “this is the street I ran up to get to my apartment, this is the café I got napkins secretly delivered to me, and this is the last tube rout I was on.” I look back on these moments with a smile because they all happened somewhere new and special. It is hard to explain, but they are just some of the many things that I remember of my study abroad with a reminiscing attitude. Not every single moment abroad will be a positive one and you don’t have to make it a positive one. You are still yourself abroad, you are not a different person. You are more independent, you won’t have your usual support center of friends and family around you. You can’t call your mom because it may be 3am.
If you have those issues, I recommend that you make a plan. I had a friend who had a strong relationship with her therapist that she could call her whenever there was an issue. Have your own techniques, have your parents send a care package. I had a friend who got to have her parents come and visit her but they also brought candy and her favorite boots.
My friends that I made will say that my catch phrase is “you have a right to feel that way” because that is what Matt taught me. It basically means that you may think it is ridiculous that you have those feelings but that doesn’t make them disappear or have any less value. I had a friend who got really bad news while in London and her parents told her to “just enjoy your time there, it will be ok”. I asked her how she was feeling and she just replied with a smile on her face saying “ok” I replied saying “you don’t have to be”. We then stared at the floor for about 20 minutes because she needed a break from being “ok”.
There are going to ups and downs and in-between moments while abroad because you are still you. One of my major fears was that I would get bored enough to watch Netflix. I told my friend who had just got back from Spain, and she was like “Of course you are going to watch Netflix!” in a really matter-of-fact way. I was only in each area for a month so I thought I had to jam-pack every moment not to miss anything. I did that for about a week and almost felt exhausted. I took a complete day off because otherwise I was going to burn out and no moment would be fun, it would be work.
I am not trying to scare you by saying there are definitely going to be bad moments. I am just trying to make you aware that just because you are abroad, life will still happen. There may be some times when you are down, you get knocked out, you feel bad. However, there are definitely going to be those very high moments that you were searching for when you started this process and it is because you worked so hard to get to this point.
My support team abroad.
WWU Counseling Center:
WWU Counseling Center Emergency Services:
How to Practice Mindfulness