Finding Your Emotional Footing While Studying Abroad

You’ve longed for this moment since freshman year of college and now, it’s finally arrived: you've made it abroad and you’re ready to start living the dream. Maybe during the first few days in your new home country, you were running on a mix of adrenaline and jetlag, fueled with excitement and nerves to decorate your room, meet your roommates and memorize your class schedule. Now, however, reality has started to set in; sitting in your dorm room, thousands of miles from home, you feel your stomach sink. You miss your people, you miss your routine and, more than anything, you miss the comfort of “the known.”

If these sentiments resonate, don’t freak out and book your flight home just yet. Feeling lonely or scared or upset are all perfectly natural, justified reactions to a sudden change in your environment. Though at first these newfound, anxiety-producing feelings may be overwhelming, chances are that after a little adjusting everything will be just fine. There are, however, a few ways you can proactively tackle your loneliness and put your best foot forward toward crafting an amazing experience abroad.

Recognize the difference between being “alone” and “lonely”.

There is, arguably, a significant difference in being alone and feeling lonely. Being alone simply means that you aren’t around other people, which can often be a necessary thing! Feeling lonely, on the other hand, tends to come more from a place of sadness; whether or not you're around other people really has nothing to do with being lonely. In fact, you could be surrounded by crowds of people and still feel more isolated than ever. Especially abroad, when a larger portion of your time than ever before will likely be spent alone, it's important to mentally separate "lonely" and "alone". The better you are able to distinguish whether you are truely lonely or are just alone, the more equipped you will be to address your emotions.

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Stay connected with your loved ones.

If it's loneliness that you’re feeling, consider reconnecting to something that you know will put a smile on your face. FaceTime your family, look at photos of your dog or send your sister a hilarious meme you saw on Instagram. Though probably not a cure-all for loneliness, or homesickness for that matter, these little steps will hopefully cheer your spirits and help you make the most of your time overseas. It's important to make sure not to lose touch with the people back home as you’re off galivanting through Rome or soaking up the sophisticated charm of Paris. Being abroad means that your life is sort of in a state of limbo as you’re flitting from one place to the next, and while that can be exhilarating and eye-opening, it can also be hard to feel grounded. There’s no better place to find solid ground than from the people who love you back home.

Now, it isn’t to say that you have to constantly be updating your parents and friends about your adventures (you may just want to savor some of it for yourself), but it doesn’t hurt to keep in touch with a heartfelt text message or phone call a few times a week. By staying in touch with the people who have always been your rocks, you’ll be much more confident that, no matter how lonely you may feel, you’ll always have your people in your corner.

Take a piece of home with you.

If you haven’t left for your study abroad journey yet, consider packing a piece of home with you. A bar of soap that smells like your mom, the friendship bracelet that your sister made you in the 7th grade or a framed picture of you and your best friend. These little mementos are perfect ways to make home seem a little less far away. If you’ve already set off for your semester away in Barcelona, it’s not too late! Ask your family if they can send you a few items, or look for artifacts in your host country that remind you of your relatives. At the end of the trip, you’ll be able to bring back a little piece of study abroad to share with each member of your family.

Put your mental health first.

Though the loneliness you may experience could just be the study abroad blues, if you are feeling consistently down or defeated, it could be time to pay a visit to your program’s health center. Most programs have a department that handles student mental health, and it’s there for you to take advantage of. Studying abroad marks a major life decision, and there’s nothing wrong with asking for a little help dealing with the twists and turns it gives way to.

Talking through your loneliness with a friend or family member back home, or a counselor in your program overseas, can be a positive way to help you understand where your dissatisfaction is coming from and move forward from there. You may be surprised by how effective being heard by someone you trust can be at brightening your outlook, and motivating you to make the most of the semester.

Related: How to Feel Less Isolated If You Live Own Your Own After College 

Maddie Hughes, a senior at Boston University, can attest that loneliness while abroad is totally normal. “It’s inevitable that there’s going to be times abroad when you feel lonely, especially if you decide to go abroad without any of your close friends.” Despite the nerves that living solo in a foreign place can bring, Hughes emphasizes that you will learn to adjust, advising not to “sweat the loneliness” because “it usually goes away within the first few weeks.” Instead, Hughes recommends allowing yourself to embrace being alone. “If you refuse to have experiences alone, you won't get the most out of your experience abroad.” 

It always looks glamorous in the Snapchat stories and Instagram posts that we see, but like anything in life, studying abroad cannot be encompassed only by what’s caught on camera. There's a deeper level to living in a new country than all of the cute coffee shops, gelato carts and historic museums we see in photos. Whether you find your rhythm right away or struggle to adapt to a new environment, try to cherish your experience. Just know that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be meaningful.