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The emotional toll of a year abroad

It's okay not to feel okay during this life-changing experience

Photo by Frank Vex on Unsplash
Photo by Frank Vex on Unsplash

Your immediate reaction when someone brings up the topic of a year abroad somewhere might be ‘WOW! You must have had the time of your life’. I can’t lie – deciding to live in Mexico for 10 months, even in a controlled environment as part of my university degree, was one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made and was an incredible experience.

The obvious benefits

Many of the benefits of a year abroad somewhere completely different might seem quite obvious. Aside from the obvious linguistic development (my year abroad was part of my degree in Spanish linguistic studies), I’ve met new people, tried new foods, travelled a lot, and had my eyes opened to a culture so different to my own that it’s forced me to change my perspective on some things. For example, I’ve always been a punctual person, intent on making the most of time and I get frustrated when people are late. Living in Mexico, where clocks often may as well have no battery has forced me to become more relaxed in my approach to time. People say they’ll turn up at 3 and they don’t turn up until 4? It’s okay. If I’m happy and healthy and safe, nine times out of ten that extra hour doesn’t really matter.

It’s okay not to feel okay

Something that isn’t spoken about enough is the emotional toll of moving to the other side of the world. I remember arriving so vividly. Term in Mexico starts in August so not only did I not get much of a summer after finishing my exams in the UK, but I was abroad for nearly two months before any of my university friends moved to their respective countries. I was struggling – I was lonely and I felt like I had no one to talk to who would really understand my situation. A lot of what we see on social media or even what we’re told in talks from former students at university is that your year abroad will be the BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. I would say, on balance with just a week to go until I leave for home, that is has been one of the best years of my life, and definitely the year I’ve learnt most about myself so far. However, when you first arrive and your room is bare, you don’t know anybody and you’re too scared to leave the house because you don’t know how the buses work, it’s difficult to see how the next ten months will be any better than the first ten days, and telling all your eager friends who have yet to leave for their years abroad that it’s tough at first seems like admitting defeat.

I’ve since learnt that almost everybody in my year group found it tough at first. It doesn’t matter when you leave, where you go or who you go with (if you’re lucky enough to have someone accompanying you) – packing your life in to a suitcase and leaving for the other side of the world on your own will always be a big scary thing. With that in mind, I’ve come up with my top 5 tips if you’re planning a year abroad.

Leave the house

I don’t have many regrets from my year abroad, but any that I do never resulted from agreeing to see friends and leaving the house. Not only is it a great way to get to know new people and become closer with new friends, it takes your mind off how you might really be feeling and time passes much more quickly with others too.

Sit with your feelings

Despite the above, it can be easy to believe that when you’re feeling lonely or down, you HAVE to do something fun with other people. Sometimes that’s just not what you need. Sitting at home, putting on a film and drinking copious amounts of tea is also a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism and encourages you to start to feel okay with not always being okay.

Talk to people

It can be easy to categorise everyone you know to the point where nobody will understand exactly how you feel. Of course they won’t! No one is you so no one will understand your situation as intricately as you do. But your family and friends know you well and it can be a great opportunity to strike up old friendships too. Save the uber personal stuff for your close friends if you like, but remember that girl you sat next to in that first year lecture who you thought seemed sweet but never really spoke much to again? Reach out to her! She’s probably feeling the same as you and would love someone to speak to as well. A problem shared is a problem halved.

Write it down

This might not work for everyone but I’ve always loved keeping a journal. Originally it was a place to track all my travels with tickets and receipts, but since starting my year abroad it became more of a place to document how I was feeling when I didn’t always have someone right there to talk to (especially with a 6 hour time difference!). Writing down how you feel can not only be a great way to feel like you’ve got it out of your system, but is also interesting to look back on and see how far you’ve come.

Soak it all up!

It can be hard to enjoy yourself ALL the time and we all have down days. Something that really kept me feeling good while I was away was the thought that, although this little life I’d made for myself was my absolute all in that moment, very soon it wouldn’t be and I wouldn’t be sure when I’d be back again. Enjoy it all while you have the chance and give yourself a huge pat on the back. What you’re doing is incredible and you should be so proud!

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