Dealing with anxiety whilst on exchange: An update

Looking back to the end of 2014, I was practically a cocktail of emotions, shaken and stirred. It was the build up to Christmas in my third year of university. There was the excitement of the upcoming Christmas period, along with the stress associated with end of semester assignments. That was then combined with an every-shift-you-can-work waitressing job, serving people in party hats enjoying work nights out and meals with distant relatives; many of whom forgetting that the festive tradition of goodwill and kindness should also apply to the exhausted student serving your dinner. If that was not enough to make this already anxiety fueled twenty-year-old cave, then the stress of getting prepared for my upcoming exchange to Canada was the icing the on the cake.

If you have not read the original version of this post that I wrote for Global Graduates, I suggest you click here to give it a quick read before returning to this one. I wrote it upon my return to the UK having completed my five month exchange at Brock University, about an hour from Toronto. Whilst there I battled average temperatures of – 20°c, laughed my way through miscommunications (being complemented on my ‘pants’ was definitely a highlight) and unfortunately my anxiety was through the roof on many occasions.

Fast forward to today and it is just over two years since I left Canada. Although it feels like no time has passed, a lot has happened since returning from my exchange. I have since graduated university earning myself a 2:1 and now live and work in Austria’s beautiful capital city. As you may have read in the previous article, I love to travel but staying somewhere new, especially on my own, can often make me very nervous. So how did I end up deciding to move to another country? Well, I truly believe the answer comes from just how much going to Canada changed me for the better.

In truth, going on exchange was not anything like I had imagined. There is such a great build up to it and so much to do before going; getting everything paid for, working out if you will need a visa or not and packing (my least favourite point on the pre-exchange checklist) to name just a few. In fact, the realisation that I was about to fly to other side of the world did not even cross my mind until the night before I left. Arriving and starting classes also took some time to get used to. Firstly, my new campus was huge in comparison to my home university. We got lost so many times that the poor volunteer student on the help desk was probably sick of the sight of us. In the first week, I had numerous anxious spells; I was permanently nervous about being late for class, or getting lost on the way. Yet gradually, as time went on and I started getting used to my surroundings and making friends with people that were in my classes, I became much more settled. I still had many a panic attack or anxious moment throughout my exchange, but I began to find simple ways of dealing with those moments of stress.

At the end of the previous article, I wrote five tips for those suffering from anxiety whilst on exchange, but the funny thing is that I still use them throughout everyday life. So, looking back at them again, how did this change in mindset help me, even two years down the line.

  • Call home regularly (and not just when you are feeling down.)                                           I often laugh now about the conversations I would have with my parents whilst I was away. “I’m homesick” “It’s so cold here” “I don’t know anyone” Ha! What they didn’t see were the laughs I had getting to know the people in my classes or the parties we trudged through the snow to get to. I have now lived in Vienna for almost a year. I call my parents and my grandparents at least once a week and keep them updated with regular messages on top of that also.
  • Write things down and take plenty of photos.                                                                   Nobody takes photos of the down times, so prove to yourself just how many wild, hilarious, adventurous and happy moments there really were and get as many photos as you can. I took all my footage and turned them into videos to show family and friends back in the UK just how great a time I was having. (This really helps with the first tip also!) If you are interested in seeing those videos please click here to go to my YouTube channel. Remember the ‘be happy’ notebook I mentioned last time. Well, two years later, I still use it. It is not meant to be a diary, but it is just there to write in when I am feeling particularly inspired and to read when I need reminding about just how far I have come. Sometimes I reread the pages I wrote when I was in Canada. Yes, there are a few that are not so ‘happy’ or ‘inspiring’ but it’s impossible to be 100% happy all the time and the positive pages in this little book outweigh those that are not optimistic. I will be doing a few posts about the kind of advice/notes that I wrote for myself in future posts when I talk about how writing things down became a blog.
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From Canada to Austria, this little book comes with me wherever I go 
  • Don’t go on Facebook all the time.                                                                                      This one has not been as easy to stay on track with. Social media is hard to avoid and so are the constant updates from friends and family having what looks like a wonderful time without you. What you do not realise is that they are just as jealous of you having the chance to explore another part of the world as you are of them having a night out at the bar. In my current position, I now work in an international school in Vienna and I am often encouraging the students to look up from their phones. There is so many wonderful things happening around them, that I do not want them to miss. Through this I have become much more aware of the time I spend on technology and I now try to use it getting to know the wonderful city I currently live in.

 

  • There is always someone you can talk to.                                                                               Waiting to go into one of my classes about two weeks into my exchange, a girl I knew to also be waiting for the class wandered up to me and said “Oh my God I love your pants!” That girl’s name was Hayley and we quickly became great friends. She was there for me when I missed home or just wanted to get away from it all for a while. Last summer, Hayley flew across from Canada for a month and we spent the summer exploring various parts of the UK and Paris. Doing an exchange is a great way to make wonderful friends across the globe that I promise you will stay in contact with long after you return home.
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From Caerphilly to London to Paris to Edinburgh. Friends no matter where we are in the world.
  • Explore!                                                                                                                                       Thinking back to my exchange I ask myself what are the memories that really stand out. I can remember some of the classes and maybe even some of the teacher’s names. What I cannot tell you about were the essays I wrote or the titles of the textbooks I had to read. The memories that really stick out for me where the times that I met new people, the time I had the courage to give a presentation to a room full of people I did not know very well (and for them to whoop and cheer at the end of it), the new foods I tried and the trips I went on. I remember being so worked up by essays and assignments that it would spur on my anxiety. Thinking back to those moments now, I realise that I was causing myself much more trouble than it was worth. Like I said in my previous article, you are there to study abroad, but if all you do is study then you may as well have stayed at home. Step out of your comfort zone and out of the library occasionally and enjoy being in this incredible new place. Since moving to Vienna I have also used my time to visit Budapest and Bratislava, as well as going skiing in Salzburg and I plan to squeeze in many more trips like these around my working days throughout the rest of my time here.

 

On the night of my graduation ball, I was chatting to the head of my course about my exchange to which she responded “that trip was the making of you.” She went onto say that I was one of those students that just fitted in with the group. I did well in terms of grades and assignments but I did not particularly put myself out there. She said when I returned from my exchange she saw a huge difference in me. I was more vocal about my ideas, more creative and I stood up for what I believed in. When it came to moving to Vienna, I felt much more prepared to spend a great length of time away from my family, friends and the culture I was used to. I still hate packing just as much as before, but it caused me nowhere near as much stress gathering my belongings together to leave for a year, than it did to leave for half of that time. In my first few days here, I did not know how to get anywhere and was constantly worrying that I would never leave the house because of it, but I would calm my nerves by reminding myself that if I could make it through those first few days on exchange, then I would make it through this time too. After having been on exchange, the thought of living somewhere new did not seem quite so scary and I would tell this to anyone who asked if I was nervous about moving abroad. In fact, I truly believe that without having had that experience, I would not be where I am now. In doing so I became a more open-minded, creative and confident individual and best of all I found some simple and effective ways of dealing with my anxiety.

“She was unstoppable. Not because she did not have failures or doubts, but because she continued on despite them.”

 

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