5 Tips for Practicing Self Care Abroad

Studying abroad is one of the most exciting — and rewarding — luxuries of the modern academic world. Catching flights to international cities, making new friends from different parts of the globe, trying delicious local food and learning from cultures other than your own both inside and outside of the classroom sounds like a pretty perfect gig, right? Right.

 

Although studying abroad is without a doubt one of the most beneficial opportunities available to college students today, it’s not always rainbows and butterflies — as with any new experience, studying abroad can trigger feelings of anxiety, fear and even depression in some students, especially as the rate of mental illness rises on college campuses. In 2018, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America published a study stating that 85% of college students reported feeling overwhelmed by everything they had to do at some point within the past year. 30% of college students reported that stress had negatively affected their academic performance, and another 24.5% reported taking psychotropic (often referred to as “mood-altering”) medication in an attempt to improve their mental health.

 

Why, exactly, are these statistics important to proponents of studying abroad? Well, chances are that if a student is experiencing anxiety, depression or another form of mental illness at school, studying abroad won’t magically make those issues disappear. Mental illness is something that we need to seriously consider when building the narrative around studying abroad, not simply for the sake of representation and solidarity, but primarily for our students and their happiness, comfort and long-term wellness.

 

Though there is no replacement for seeking medical attention and professional support in terms of

living with mental illness, we (and science) believe there are a few beneficial self-care practices all students can adopt in order to keep their mental and emotional health a priority while studying abroad. After all, mental wellness shouldn’t be reserved only for those living with mental illness, right? We’d be silly to think that we wouldn’t all benefit from building healthy habits that ensure a happy mind, body and soul. No one is immune to feeling sad, lonely or homesick while abroad, and these tips may help students experiencing those as well as those living with a diagnosed mental illness. Here are our top 5 tips for taking care of and loving yourself during your trip abroad!


Define your priorities early on.
Studying abroad goes something like this: you get on a plane, you arrive at your location, you move into your apartment, you meet your new roommates, blink, and it’s over. A lot of excitement, learning and traveling goes on in between those moments, but trust us — it flies by. In order to keep your cool and remain present in the midst of constant changes, consider making a list of priorities to focus on during your time abroad. This is especially important for keeping up with your classes! After all, it is called study abroad for a reason… even though you’re abroad, you’re still a real student with classes, assignments and responsibilities. This ain’t Las Vegas — what happens abroad doesn’t stay there. Define what these responsibilities are for you before your departure (and remember, you can always shift them around once you adjust to your ~new life~) just so you can arrive at your location with at least a little bit of guidance toward how to prioritize your time abroad.


Eat as healthy as possible and drink lots of water.
Our basic needs are called that for a reason. Basically everyone needs them. That includes you! Cooking is the most obvious option for those looking to maintain a healthy diet, but we understand that this may be many students’ first time away from home and cooking a healthy meal everyday might not be the most realistic option. We also understand that some people just hate cooking or don’t know how to! That’s totally fine. The most important thing to remember is that as long as you’re doing your best to choose the most nutritious and filling food option — for example, choosing an apple over a bag of chips — at least a few times a week, you’re doing a great job. Our program fees cover a portion of your meals abroad, so maybe make it a point to find one or two other people to share healthy meals with and keep each other accountable. For those interested in upping their fruit and veggie intake, good news: it’s actually proven to contribute positively to your overall happiness. On the contrary, eating junk food or overeating makes you feel worse, especially when you’re already feeling down. We’re not saying you need to do a 180 and go vegan tomorrow, but we do recommend being very conscious of your mind/body connection and how the food you eat influences the way you feel. Remember to accompany as many meals as possible with a glass of water, and always carry around a reusable bottle! You’ll likely be quite active without even trying during your time abroad, so double up on your water intake to insure you’re staying hydrated all day (and night) long.

Sleep/rest. Your youth is certainly the time to stay up past your bedtime. Sure, you’ll sleep when you’re dead, but there’s also nothing wrong with allowing yourself to rest when you need it. This one is a bit harder because college students are not yet accustomed to listening to their own bodies — they’re more used to functioning on a busy, tight schedule and passing out when they can, usually in the few hours between class and the next exciting activity. This is especially true while studying abroad, when every day is literally an adventure full of possibility. Our advice is to simply listen to yourself — do you want to go to the party because you feel like socializing in that way? Or is it more of an external reason, like impressing someone you know will be there… or, the enemy of sleep: FOMO? Either way, listen to that little voice in your head that tells you to stay in every now and then — you might feel lame, but your mind and body will thank you for it! You won’t burn out as quickly when you learn to say no to the things you don’t want to do and yes to those you do.


Get some outdoor physical activity & sun!
A question we get asked often is whether or not our study centers have gyms in them. The answer to that is no — but that doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your fitness routine while studying abroad. Some students choose to purchase a membership with a local gym, but many opt instead to use the city as their gym! Our students go for runs in nearby parks or find places to swim or do yoga. Bringing a friend along for an evening jog is both fun and beneficial for your mental health — studies show that getting outdoors for a workout improves energy levels, decreases stress and has a positive effect on your sense of enthusiasm and aliveness. Now, let’s talk sunshine. Exposing yourself to sunlight during the day helps keep your circadian rhythms on track, which in turn leads to better sleep and higher levels of serotonin, the chemical in your body that helps balance your mood and promotes feelings of happiness. It’s not uncommon for people experiencing depression to stay in bed or indoors for long hours every day, and it’s important to note how difficult carrying out small, everyday tasks is for some of these people. If you find yourself in need of a small, simple way to feel good, try sitting in the sun for half an hour each day. It won’t cure your mental illness, but it’ll deliver lots of feel-good warmth and energy to your body.


Check in with yourself & practice mindfulness. Jeanne Mahon, the Director of the Center for Wellness at Harvard University, defines mindfulness as “the practice of being aware of what’s going on in the moment” and meditation as a “structured disciplined practice, often with some kind of an anchor where you’re resting attention.” No matter how you choose to define either experience, more and more research is showing how practicing mindful meditation can be beneficial for everyone, but especially those living with mental illness. Of course, reaching your ~zen~ isn’t easy — if it was, everyone would do it! The modern mind is not trained to be still, but luckily it is trained to invent the tools that can help us get there. Check out the headspace app for quick and enjoyable guided meditations for everyone from beginners to experts.

 

If you are thinking about suicide or just need to talk to someone, you can speak to someone by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or by texting HOME to 741741, the Crisis Text Line. Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.

 

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