Study abroad blues

Going far away doesn’t always mean your depression will too.

Depression is tough at home, and being in a new place far from the family and friends you’ve relied on in the past can make dealing with it all the more difficult.

A change of scenery can help, but to be honest, sometimes it makes it worse. Experiencing a lot of change in a short time can be stressful. And being alone is part of study abroad—it takes time to meet people and make connections at your new university.

A month or two into study abroad, I was reading a Facebook post where someone else described their depression during a semester away from home. I recognized all their symptoms because they were exactly what I had been experiencing, especially a lack of interest and motivation. I’d been traveling, seeing cool things, and taking interesting classes…and wondering why I couldn’t get excited about it.

Luckily, I found some things that helped me during the rest of my time abroad.

Tips for depression while studying abroad

Occupy your mind

Most of the advice I’ve found or received about alleviating depression comes down to focusing your mind on something other than how down you feel.

Sightseeing

A big benefit of being abroad is that you have tons of travel and sightseeing opportunities at your fingertips. Explore your campus, city, and country. I love beautiful landscapes, and the more that I visited, the more my spirits lifted. Find new things to do and see on campus, in your city, and around the country.

Pro-tip:

Fill up almost every weekend. Make plans for trips or activities that you’re excited about in advance—that way you will always have something to look forward to. It doesn’t matter how silly it is—I could barely muster the motivation to visit Paris, but I was excited for Disneyland Paris. Having that Disneyland trip booked kept me hanging in there even when I was tempted to go home (and in the end, I loved the city of Paris much more than Disneyland).

Spend time with other people

As much as possible, find things to do with your friends, even if you don’t really feel like it. It’s important to prioritize what you need—social interaction—over what you want in the moment.

Fill the long weekday evenings by asking friends if they want to study, watch a movie, or make dinner together.

Physical activity

I didn’t exercise very much while I was abroad, but I wish I had because I think it would have helped a lot. Exercising gives you energy, makes you feel good about yourself, and staves off the study abroad equivalent of the freshman fifteen (I definitely experienced that—the result of European comfort food and keeping too many snacks in my room).

Something as simple as going for a walk will get you out of the house and can help you feel a little better.

Listen to music

I had this one written on a Post-it note on the desk in my room:

If you’re down, listen to music.

Seriously, it’s a good distraction.

Do something creative

Write a journal about your trip. Write and decorate letters to people back home. Buy a puzzle and put it together. Draw the view from your window. Apply for internships for when you get back home.

Having something to consistently work on that will keep you busy and give you a sense of accomplishment when you’re done is beneficial. Choose something that takes time to complete and that you like to do.

When I was traveling over Christmas, I bought a pretty cross-stitching pattern and worked on it in my hotel room when it got dark at 4:30pm. I focused on that instead of on feeling bored, sad, or lonely.

Go somewhere sunny

You might not have a lot of control over this one, but if you are in a long gray winter like I was in England, it can have a real effect on your mood. Visiting warm, sunny Italy and Switzerland over spring break was a big help.

You’re not alone

Though you might feel isolated and alone, there are other people who have dealt with the same thing that you are going through. The internet is a great resource—when I was abroad, I did lots of Googling to find ways to boost my mood. Know that there is support for you—back home, on your new campus, and online.

Study abroad won’t last forever

I knew that my program would only last for a few months, but as the days dragged by, it felt like I would be away from my family forever. Instead of looking forward to a happy reunion with my parents only a few short months away, I was miserable because I wasn’t at home right now.

But by the end of my program, I wished I could stretch out my time abroad and make it last longer. Your program will go so quickly—make the most of the time you have instead of wishing it away.

Think positively about your return home

On the flip side, going back home might be an object of concern for you. During a solo trip a few months after my study abroad program, all I could think about was that the same struggles with friends and relationships that I’d had before I left would be waiting for me when I got back. I was dreading going home.

Reverse FOMO

A lot of people will tell you that if you’re worried about missing special events, milestones, or opportunities while you’re abroad, those things will still be there when you get back. Your friends will all still be there, and it will be as if you were never gone.

That’s good advice. Fear of missing out shouldn’t hold you back from studying abroad. But when my program ended, I was surprised to find that a lot of things had changed while I was gone. For one thing, I had graduated, so I wasn’t going back to school—instead, I was beginning a career at a new company. Even if you aren’t graduating right when you get back, graduation is still one semester closer. There will be new changes on the horizon.

Friendships were different too. Some had gotten weaker in my absence, but some had actually gotten stronger.

Most importantly, you will be different. All the ways that you grew during study abroad will come home with you, and that will influence your situation there. So not everything will be exactly the same as before you left. And that’s a good thing.

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