On the 27th of August, 2016 I found myself sitting in Helsinki Airport, completely exhausted, trying to remember the address of my new student flat for my upcoming exchange year abroad. “ Have I made a mistake?” I thought to myself as I found my thoughts beginning to race, my chest tightening. I remember imagining that the signs, timetables, advertisements all around me that had now changed from my familiar native language to Finnish were laughing at me for even stepping out of that aeroplane. They echoed the sinking feeling I had. My mind and my bloodstream were cemented with the unshakeable feeling that I was now completely alone. Everything was unfamiliar and my body began to ache with nerves.
I have lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember just like many people. Studies show that it’s the most common mental health disorder in the U.S. I remember when I was sixteen and I was completely petrified to get on public transport alone, or I could be surrounded by close friends but never shake the feeling that something bad was about to happen. I can never be fully relaxed because of my overthinking tendencies or the irrational situations I make up in my head and as I got older I watched myself transform into this unrecognisably tense character. Of course, an experience like this is daunting for anyone but my anxiety disorder is a state rather than just a fear. It’s not just that nervous or anxious feeling people get before a public speech or just before you tell someone life-changing news; it’s all the time, day in and day out. It’s a force that is uncontrollable and unfortunately for me defines and moreover cripples much of my life. As a naturally extroverted person, it’s strange to reflect on a concept that is so intangible and so indescribable yet has this omnipresent and colossal influence on the person I am.
Anxiety is wholeheartedly the main reason that I sit here, two months into a ten-month study abroad exchange in Helsinki. I wanted to have the ability to reach further then the lens anxiety attempts to trap you in. To be independent of this force that has been attached to me for too long. Below, you can find three tips that have helped me on my quest to end this interrelationship, and while of course by no means universally fitting, they have definitely helped me in avoiding some difficult situations.
1. Prepare to fail.
So you’re thinking you have arrived at your flat, and therefore gotten over the biggest hurdle of actually leaving your home country and moving away. Well, think again. I would actually say I have had more things go wrong for me then right but that’s okay. That’s what it’s all about. By remaining somewhat organised in your approach to settling in and beginning course work has enabled me to stay calm when things don’t always go my way. Not usually an organised person, I forced myself to make folders of what important files I need whilst living abroad along with separate coursework folders. I also make to do lists which are my go to stress relief when I find myself beginning to feel overwhelmed.
Also, make use of your time. Personally, I had no courses on a Friday so I would (that is if I hadn’t had one too many drinks the night before…) push myself to make use of that day off. Whether it is a small thing like grocery shopping or something more important, this can really aid you in avoiding stress. From a person who tends to let work and errands build up, you have to be determined when you’re on an exchange to not allow it. By taking control, it allows you to dictate your experience, rather than your anxiety doing so.
2. Find comfort in familiarity.
Before coming to Helsinki I read up on what YouTube, studies and articles say about moving abroad with anxiety. Of course, there is the “eat healthy, sleep well” kind of advice which seems manageable enough but what I didn’t factor in is the unshakable feeling of unfamiliarity that could in some ways manifest itself into an anxious framework. I have completely submersed myself into Finnish culture and pushed myself to go to numerous events especially the ones ran by Erasmus Student Networks. I have settled in pretty well and met some truly amazing people. Everything on the surface can seem completely right but not having my family and my culture around me affected my mood and moreover my nerves. While this is hard to just escape, by scheduling particular Skype times with my parents or friends or finding a comfortable zone within Helsinki other than my flat (my particular favourite is Café Regatta) made a huge difference in how I looked at my time here in a positive way, even on the darkest days. It allowed me to truly be within the experience, rather than counting down the days until I returned home.
3. Reach Out.
I must admit I am guilty of being too closed off about how I’m feeling but it is certainly a necessary step whilst abroad. By lightly letting your flatmates, roommates or close friends know about your anxiety it will help with the onset of a panic attack. Try also going that one step further and seeking a link to a doctor whilst abroad. I have my anxiety relatively under control but that’s not without the aid of seeing a doctor on occasion. Try to find a doctor through the student health services wherever you are to know that if something does happen you have a direct link to a specialist. Do this as soon as you can; it made me feel a lot safer in the new surroundings knowing that a doctor here knew my situation. Don’t let it get to the stage where your issues are negatively affecting your experience, seek some help. There’s nothing wrong with asking for a little guidance once in a while.
The worst thing about anxiety is that it allows you to create this level of doubt in your mind that you can no longer do certain things. I for one have not taken certain opportunities in the past in order to avoid the onset of a panic attack or even feeling slightly uncomfortable. While anxiety does drive your doubt it’s actually you that makes the decision so it is actually you that holds the power to visualise yourself in a more positive place. It would have been easy for me to say “so, I can barely talk on the phone, how on earth am I going to cope with moving abroad?” This doubt nearly disabled me from enrolling in one of the best experiences of my life. Whether it sounds clichéd or not, by pushing myself out of the patterns I was so comfortable in at home I feel as if my anxiety couldn’t keep up and my confidence overtook it. I urge anyone with anxiety who might be considering studying abroad to not give up just because of the anxiety in your head telling you you can’t. It has been the most rewarding experience in dealing with anxiety and honestly better than any medication, self-help remedy, advice or doctor’s appointment I have ever had, and it was all down to pushing myself past the crippling lines of my disorder.