going on exchange (with anxiety)

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It was dark outside. It could have been day or night, the Swedish winter isn’t picky. I was lying in bed, brain and body still not speaking to each other thanks to the jet-lag, and I was not doing well. I scrolled through my Facebook contacts, looking for somebody to talk to, but time zones are cruel things. “Active four hours ago” made my heart sink. I felt completely and helplessly alone.

I can’t claim to be an expert on either topic, studying abroad or anxiety. But, as a person who absolutely loved living in Sweden for six months despite near-constant anxiety, I thought I’d try to write something that might be helpful for someone else.

Moving or traveling somewhere new can be scary for anyone, but if you struggle with anxiety it can be hard even to imagine signing up for that kind of life change. Either way, here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I moved to Uppsala, Sweden:

  1. It’s okay not to be excited.

I have friends who said goodbye at the departures terminal of their favourite airport with a big smile on their face – leaving, to them, was just another adventure. And while I admire that cavalier attitude, but I was too busy worrying about how things would change back home or how much I’d miss everything to feel that kind of no-worries-excitement. If the idea of traveling to a new country and leaving your friends and family behind fills you with more fear than joy, that’s okay. You can still have a great time, and being scared does not make you ungrateful.

  1. Be prepared.

You might not know how you’ll react – emotionally, mentally or physically – to your new surroundings. But you can do your best in advance to make the transition easier. Pack your favourite clothes and a stuffed animal. Print out pictures to hang on your wall, but don’t put them up if they make you feel sad or jealous. Do some research and try to find at least one thing that you are looking forward to in your new country, so that you know you will have that, regardless of what else happens. For me, this meant shopping at IKEA and Happy Socks. Making realistic plans and packing tangible comforts is the best way to combat the inevitable onslaught of what ifs. What if I don’t make any friends? You will, of course. But even if everything goes horribly wrong, you can still catch a train to Stockholm and have a great day exploring Gamla Stan.

  1. Push yourself (out of your room).

This is so, so important in your first few weeks. There’s a good chance you’ll be jetlagged and homesick and disoriented, but don’t curl up for a Netflix marathon just yet. Try to attend a couple orientation activities, or explore your new city. Most people you meet will be equally new, lost, and eager to make friends. Pushing yourself doesn’t mean you need to go out every night if that isn’t your thing, or become best friends with the first person you meet. But try your best, especially at the beginning, to be around other people and make plans together.

  1. Be kind to yourself.

Being in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by new people, and trying out words in a new language, is draining. Pay attention to your physical and mental health, as this kind of change can take a toll on both. So yes, do try your best to get out and socialize, but if you need to spend a day in bed doing nothing, recognize that that’s okay too. If you’re studying abroad, you live there now. That’s a lot different than being on vacation – it means that you’re allowed to have off days and regroup. Check in with your friends and family back home, and your new friends, too. If you are having a hard time adjusting, chances are they are too.

  1. It will be worth it.

Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, or while you’re waiting at your gate in the airport. Trust me on this.

This might not be you at all. You might be one of those eager, adventurous types who is always on the move. And if so, I envy you. But if, like me, you’re shy and sentimental, afraid of change or anxious about the prospect of uncharted territory, that’s okay too. You can still go new places and do big things, and you will be just fine.