Maintaining Mental Health When Studying Abroad

Wednesday - April 20, 2022

Traveling is an exciting time, and when it involves studying abroad, you’re opening yourself up to a whole new country, culture, and experience like never before. You’re also opening yourself up wide to the possibility of feeling homesick.

Whether it’s your very first time away from home or the longest you’ve ever been gone, homesickness can hit hard. Add to that attempts to focus on your studies while abroad, say in Finland, Spain, or Italy, and you have numerous things causing an increase in stress which can weigh you down mentally.

What is Homesickness?

Homesickness itself is defined as a form of emotional distress and anxiety resulting from a feeling of disconnection from family, friends, places, and routines. It can arise from feelings of being cut off from everything familiar and being thrust into a totally new culture that you don’t understand yet.

The most common symptoms include isolating yourself and rejecting invitations from others. You may also feel the need to call and speak with familiar voices far away for reassurance all the time. The more isolated you feel, the more potential there is for unhealthy habits to develop, including substance abuse and addiction.

Studying abroad brings with it many challenges, and maintaining your mental health is essential when you’re so far away from what you know. You can, however, stay connected to home while still learning to adapt and thrive in your new surroundings. In other words, you can work through it and begin enjoying your new country and unique experience in no time.

Tips to Alleviate Homesickness When Studying Abroad

Feeling homesick is common, but there are several things you can do to help. While everyone responds differently when away from home, some of the tips below should help you move past your homesickness or at least help you find ways to cope with it.

1. Create a comfortable space and make it your own

Find a spot in your new home or room and make it your own. Feeling in control over this one space can serve as an anchor for you, knowing you can always return to it whenever you like. Make it a comfortable spot you enjoy returning to at the end of the day or waking up in every morning.

Add family photos and anything else that reminds you of home and those you love. Even if you share a room, you’re likely to have a corner or shelf of your own you can use for this purpose.

2. Make some new friends

Making friends in your new location provides a way to connect with others and feel less isolated and lonely.

When you connect with others, you bring out the best in yourself. Studying abroad already provides a layer of structure to your days and a venue for meeting others in similar circumstances. Others may feel the same way as you and will be grateful if you initiate an outing or gathering. Explore the surrounding area together and get to know a few locals.

3. Confide in others

Holding all your emotions and worries inside and not expressing what you’re feeling can negatively affect your mental health. Once you’re acquainted with a few people, mention how you feel.

They may be struggling with similar issues or be already comfortable traveling and being so far from home. Whichever it is, together, you can get through it and possibly enjoy the experience more knowing you are there to support each other.

4. Practice self-care

Practicing self-care while you’re abroad will benefit both your physical and mental health. There are many ways to go about self-care, so choose the ways that work best for you.

As a coping tool, exercise is at or near the top of the list of ways to keep anxious thoughts away. It also helps you stay healthy in your new environment. Give yourself time to get oriented, then seek out what you need to stay healthy. Maybe it’s a bike to ride to the park or a gym in town.

Also, watch what you eat. Stress can lead to excessive overeating and weight gain. It can also lead you to seek ways to suppress your emotions, such as by substance abuse.

If there is something you enjoy doing at home, find a way to do it in your new location. Love reading? Find a bookstore where you can linger and schedule time there as often as you can. Enjoy yoga? Join a class and make time for it on a regular basis to make you feel like not everything in your life changes at once.

Your mental health is as important as your physical health, so find ways to keep it healthy also. Recognize when addictions and negative feelings invade your mind and have ways to alleviate them. Therapeutic journaling is a helpful way to counter these, as is practicing meditation.

5. Give Cultural Immersion a Try

At first, your new location may feel daunting, but after a short time, give yourself over to exploring what it has to offer. Experience the culture of the country. Try new foods and stay curious.

Once you learn a little about where you are, it can start to feel less foreign and a little more like home. You may even start traveling on the weekends to explore other areas.

6. Find A Familiar Location

Seek out a nearby spot that reminds you of home. It may be a park bench with views of spectacular oak trees, a rock outcropping on the nearby coast or river, a library table and chair, or a quaint café.

Spend time looking around, learning about your new culture, and finding something familiar to anchor you. Whenever you need a small dose of home, return to this familiar location for comfort.

7. Insert Some Routine into Your Day

One reason many students experience homesickness is the feeling of a lack of control. You can circumvent this by establishing a routine.

Inserting some routine into your day helps you feel in control of your life, such as the time you wake for breakfast, when you will exercise, or setting study times.

Part of traveling, studying abroad, and living overseas are the new experiences you can have, so don’t lock down your schedule completely. The longer you are away, the more comfortable you can become at letting go and being open to the full experience.

8. Schedule Time to Connect with Family and Friends Back Home

Set up a schedule for making calls or video chats with those back home. There’s likely to be a time difference between there and where you are now, and this can help you be sure everyone is available.

Try not to obsess about checking social media and emails. Determine when and for how long you will connect this way. Also, instead of seeing only what others are doing, let them see what you’re doing. Share the experience with them as well.

9. Seek Help

If you find you just can’t move past your homesick feelings, ask your coordinator or other official with your study abroad program if counseling help is available. You may be paired up with other students who volunteer to help newcomers, or you may be referred to a local counselor.

Studying abroad is an exciting opportunity of a lifetime, and you don’t want a feeling of being homesick to ruin it for you. You can find ways to cope with it and eventually release it with any of these tips. Above all, take deep breaths and be as kind to yourself as possible. You’ve got this!

Sources – Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Emotional Distress – Find a Rehab Facility with an Oceanfront View – Connectedness & Health: The Science of Social Connection – How to Regulate Your Emotions Without Suppressing Them – Benefits of Exercise – Journaling for Mental Health – Seven Ways to Feel More in Control of Your Life

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