Sophie shares her experience of feeling isolated and anxious whilst studying abroad in the pandemic.
- Video transcript
When you're thrown into a new environment as a student, perhaps on a placement year, or if you're studying abroad, that can feel really overwhelming. As someone with an existing anxiety disorder ,I felt really quite vulnerable heading off for my year abroad in Germany and abandoning the support systems I generally relied on back home. I'd like to share my experience of feeling isolated and anxious in an unfamiliar country during the pandemic and tell you how I learned to get the most out of the opportunity of studying abroad.
One of the main challenges I faced is moving to an unfamiliar country entirely on my own, and knowing no one in the city I was going to be living in. At university I had close friends whom I could rely on and who I feel comfortable sharing my anxieties with. I also know that my family is only ever a train ride away. When I moved to Germany, I didn't have these established relationships and it felt like a lot of emotional effort to start them when I knew I was only going to be in that place for a year or even less.
There were points when my anxiety was particularly acute, and I was having panic attacks because of the pressure of living alone in an unfamiliar city and operating in a second language. I found that staying in touch with my home friends and family played a real part in feeling comfortable abroad. I would message them, FaceTime and even write letters to stay in touch. Having weekly or monthly check ins over FaceTime reminded me that those support systems were still there if I needed them. I also tried to put less pressure on the friendships I made in Germany, allowing them to develop naturally.
In doing this, I actually make far deeper connections than I'd anticipated and now have a really lovely circle of friends who I can share memories of that time with. My anxiety did still get the better of me sometimes, but I found I could be open with the friends I'd made in Germany too, and so I was able to call them up in those times of intense panic or worry.
I had the unfortunate struggle of carrying out my year abroad during the pandemic. With the constant uncertainty surrounding me, it felt almost inevitable that my anxiety would be exacerbated during the time. Just weeks before traveling abroad I wasn't even sure whether the travel restrictions would allow me to get to Germany and I felt I had to keep my hopes down in case I would be dashed at the last minute. In some ways, this probably made my first few months even better than they could have been, because every day I spent in Germany felt precious. There was an almost freshers' week atmosphere to the early part of the year abroad but the excitement of constantly meeting new people and visiting new sights and cities came crashing to a halt with the introduction of new restrictions.
In Germany, the guidelines just got harsher and harsher, month on month and the six month long lockdown felt never ending. At one point, there was even an 8pm curfew meaning we couldn't be out after dark. I was so glad I made good friends at the start of the year, but the stress of the lockdown was really overwhelming at times. The feeling of isolation was hard to deal with, especially with the added pressure of only being abroad for that short time or feeling as if I had to make every single minute count. I made sure I made the most of the freedom I did have, cooking and watching films with new friends going on walks through the beautiful parks and gardens in the city and I found that focusing on what I could do and realising that these are still experiences I could never have had if I stayed at home really helped with the sense of frustration and anxiety.
My last big worry was about returning back to university after such a long time away. I was scared that my friends would have all graduated and that after a year of displacement, I would once again be faced with the task of building new friendships from scratch. This is something that, as a placement or year abroad student, you really can’t control. In the end, many of my friends actually decided to defer their final year due to the pandemic or take Masters, meaning I knew lots more people at Uni when I got back than I had expected. I also feel the experience of a year out creates a bond with the others on the same course as you. And it was really lovely to hear about everyone else's experiences when I got back. The graduation photos filling my Instagram feed did lead to some degree of feeling excluded, but I knew I was experiencing something very few people my age could claim.
Moving to a new country alone, studying in a new language and finding my own work, housing and friendships in a way I never had before. In general, I found that trying to take the pressure off the time I had abroad really helped with managing my anxiety. Worrying about whether or not I was making the most of the short time I had was never going to be useful. And so I tried reminding myself I would always have the opportunity to come back, assuring myself that my friendships and family connections were still there through regular phone calls and video calls also meant I never felt alone. Forming new friendships with those also on years out, ensured I wouldn't feel isolated when came back home for my final year.
A year abroad is such an amazing opportunity to make new friendships, visit new places and take some well needed time out from the normality of your degree, but I learnt that I could only make the most of those experiences if I was also concentrating on looking after my own wellbeing, and making sure I had strategies in place for if my anxiety became overwhelming.
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