There’s a narrow idea that exchange is all Instagram posts, crazy clubs, and Aperol Spritzes but, as we all know, there’s a lot that the interweb doesn’t see. It’s not all French baguettes and cute conductor hats, kids! Take it from me – I was not so quick to publicize all of the anxiety I experienced during my time abroad.
During second semester of this past school year, I went to Edinburgh on exchange and my mental health really suffered. There were many days when I felt anxious to the point where I didn’t even leave my room. Sometimes I made my mom – an absolute angel on earth – stay on FaceTime with me as I went about my daily business (to class, to the library, to the airport, to the grocery store), even with the seven-hour time difference.
I’ve dealt with anxiety since middle school. For me, a typical anxiety attack includes a lot of crying and over-analyzing, and it usually results from a small problem that I’ve turned into a monstrous issue. More often than not, to calm down, all I need is a glass of vino and a reality check that whatever I’m so worried about will be utterly insignificant in five years. In any case, my issues always resolve themselves, and rarely do I ever reach an untamable state of panic.
Exchange was a whole new beast.
It came in waves, I suppose. I would feel semi-okay for a while, but in the weeks that followed, I spent my time lying on the floor in res, screaming and clutching my gut, tears streaming down my face. It went on like that, ebbing and flowing. I would finally breach the surface and get a grip, but then I didn’t have a second to breathe before the next wave overcame me. The smallest hiccups felt absolutely unbearable. When an obstacle – a missed flight, a lost item, an upcoming deadline – presented itself, it felt like a tiny human inside me was hooking an anchor to my heart and I was sinking into the twilight zone.
Now, I’m not trying to say that exchange was all suffering, because it so wasn’t. Exchange was one of the most wonderful, crazy, beautiful experiences of my life. I stood at the top of a mountain in Chamonix (in COMFORTABLE ski boots, I might add), overlooking the spectacular Rhône-Alps of France. I ate charcuterie and macaroons underneath the Eiffel Tower on my 21st birthday with my mom, dad, and two best friends. I spent St. Patrick’s day IN DUBLIN and Irish-jigged my butt off all day long, pitcher of Guinness in hand. I drove with the top down along the coast in Lagos, beach hopping and cave exploring and relaxing in the cleanest, whitest sand ever.
I guess it’s only fair that the most amazing moments of my life be paired with some of the worst. You know, what goes up must come down and all that.
I don’t even fully understand it to this day – why I suffered to such an extent. But it happened. Though, at the end of the day, I’m glad it happened because it taught me so much about myself – what circumstances push me to the breaking point, what mantras centre me, what calms me down when I’m feeling overwhelmed (um, ASMR!!!!!). I was lucky enough to have friends on exchange and family who let me call them at 3 AM, but if I didn’t have the support system (or my past experience with mental health problems), things could have been a whole lot worse.
SO, I’m calling all prospective exchange-goers! This article is not to scare you, but to ~gently~ prepare you for some of the feelings that you might (!!!) experience while studying abroad. Exchange is magical, but it can also be really f*cking hard. Here are some tips for staying mentally healthy while studying abroad:
- 24-hour phone lines are awesome – use ‘em. They are confidential, safe, and actually super helpful. Plus, they’re a great option if you’re not as comfortable as I am with calling family in the wee hours of the night. (Sorry ma!)
- The IPO is not a one-and-done type institution. They are with you every step of the way during your exchange process, and their top priority is your mental health. Also, they can put you in touch with other people from Queen’s who are attending your exchange school.
- Become friends with the people on your floor! You never know what besties might be right next door. Put yourself out there and, if need be, make it known that you’re struggling. People are usually really accommodating and supportive if you make yourself vulnerable like that.
- Research your school and get in touch with a mental health supervisor in advance so they’re familiar with you when you arrive. Establishing that relationship early can speed up the process if you need to talk to an advisor or get an accommodation when you arrive.
Not everyone struggles or finds exchange challenging at all, but some people definitely do. However, if you are heading off to exchange soon, please don’t worry – French baguettes, conductor hats, and countless Aperol Spritzes are all part of the experience, too.
Header Image Credit: https://www.theverge.com/2016/5/5/11592622/this-is-fine-meme-comic