How I’ve Managed (and Mismanaged) My Mental Health Abroad

Ezren Herzog headshot
Ezren Herzog
December 9, 2023

I knew from the get-go that studying abroad was going to change my life. I didn’t know how, of course, nor did I know the ways I would react to certain aspects of studying abroad, especially given my mental health history. I had very poor mental health throughout my teens, and in the past couple of years I’ve seen lots of improvement, but it’s a tricky edge on which I could easily slip. I knew that keeping my mental health good, or at least okay, was going to be a task in itself.  Before leaving the U.S. for Dublin, I had this sort of fantasy vision of going to Dublin as sort of a completely clean slate—no one knows me, I don’t know anyone, and I can be whoever! And while that is partially true that this was a brand-new environment with new people, I can’t pretend to be a whole new person overnight—while it may have seemed like I was leaving my American life behind, I, as everyone does, still carry all the baggage I have from place to place. 

Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned about mental health in regards to study abroad is that oftentimes, it’s as much a game of prevention as it is in-the-moment care. It’s hard to prevent bad mental health moments/days and there are times when there is simply nothing to be done. But sometimes, getting an extra hour of sleep or spending a couple of hours decompressing before hanging out with friends goes a long way. I’ve found that I’m way better than I thought with in-the-moment care for myself, I have tools I can use to get through difficult moments and make the most of what I can’t control. Prevention is harder for me, as it requires focusing on certain habits and playing the long game when the short game seems to glare in my face. 

I made a few mistakes when it comes to caring for myself in the past few months. Among those are 1) avoiding my friends, back home and in my program, thinking they wouldn’t want to talk to me; 2) not seeing my therapist for over a month (no one’s fault in this case, our schedules both got messy); 3) regularly staying up past 2 a.m., even when I had 9 a.m. class to wake up for the next morning; and 4) forgetting my medication for multiple days in a row! All very silly goofy things that led to a couple weeks’ mental health rut. Of course, I forgive myself for all of this, and it did lead me to thinking more seriously about how I care for myself and prioritize my health more.  

Here are some things that I have found help me with my mental health: 

Seeing people making friends yay—This one I thought would be way harder, but with the nature of study abroad programs, I was thrown into a group of people who I found myself having more in common with than I thought! This is certainly trickier for smaller programs, but the fact is, people need people. If I don’t have a social support group, the only information I’m getting about myself is from my own mind, which is way skewed. If I’ve been on my own for too long throughout the day, I check with my friends if we can hang out at night, even if just to watch TV or listen to music together. 

Taking breaks from people yay—As far as socializing has gone, I’ve found that a balance works best for me; I’m an ambivert. I need social interaction to feel happy and supported, but I need breaks from people for a few hours every day to recharge. Planning “people breaks” between activities has been incredibly helpful. This can look different for everyone – more introverted people might need to plan more breaks and/or find quieter places to visit, while extroverts might benefit from finding the louder pubs to hang out in. 

Routine (ugh)—I’ll be the first to say that I am very much NOT Type A—I hate making solid, strict plans because stuff always comes up, and having expectations attached to every minute of the day drives me nuts. That being said, having an idea of what’s happening and building in structure helps a lot. For me, that looks like blocking off activities for a few hours if there’s nothing planned—for example, if I know I have the whole day free until 6pm, I’ll plan a trip to the pool or the library just to get myself moving. Humans do naturally need structure, and I am very human. It’s another balancing game, too; if I’m over-planned I’ll want to detach, and if I’m under-structured, I’ll just waste out. It’s a big balancing game.

Change the scenery—When I’m stuck inside for hours and hours on end, it can make me feel emotionally suffocated, so even going somewhere outside my apartment helps a ton. It can be somewhere indoors, loud pubs and rock bars are fun when I need to be around people, and going to a quiet bookstore or café. Getting some fresh outdoor air is also super helpful, weather permitting. Going on a walk outside in a park or down the street reconnects me with the area around me, making me feel less isolated. 

Finding lighthearted outlets!—This could look like playing a funny game with friends, watching a couple episodes of a sitcom, or taking time to appreciate something simple like my curtains or the fact that I don’t have a ton of mud on my shoes. There have been quite a few times that I’ve come to my friends just wanting a few laughs, and it’s almost a night routine of mine to turn on a sitcom or watch my favorite comedians on YouTube. Yes, it’s important not to avoid difficult feelings, but laughter and joy makes everything better, and can be helpful in taking some power away from super negative emotions/situations. 

Realistic/sustainable exercise—First let me say, I am very against toxic diet and workout culture, as most people who know me know. I don’t believe in comparing gym routines or anything, because wellness isn’t a competition, and working out isn’t going to solve complex mental health issues. All that being said, moving and exercise is very beneficial for mental health as a baseline. When I first got to Dublin, I tried to plan a full gym routine with multiple sessions a week, but that wasn’t the most realistic, with my classes and time with friends and time spent exploring a new place. I then made the goal to swim twice a week, and on days where I have more time, spend 30 minutes on an elliptical. (I am fortunate to have access to a gym in my accommodation, and I got a student pass to a local pool.) Even going for a walk every day or stopping goes a long way. 

Asking for help and helping others—It’s so hard to ask for help, and if you’re naturally more people-pleasing like myself, the last thing you want to be is a burden. But just because you need someone to help with your dishes because you have an essay to write doesn’t mean you’re a leech. Awareness is important, sure, but letting yourself be helped is so important. And it goes both ways—I find helping others makes me feel a lot better. Have a sick roommate? Maybe ask if you can make them soup or tea. 

Let the bad days be—Everyone has bad mental health days. Take it easy on yourself and don’t blame yourself for these. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing you can do but cocoon yourself for the day, and that’s okay. Whatever is rampaging you mentally will subside at least a little, and if you need extra support, you will have avenues of getting it. Even if there’s “more you could do," you’re not a robot. Let yourself take some time to rest, truly rest, and then give it another go.  

I also highly recommend that anyone studying abroad, who thinks they might need extra assistance with mental health, to take advantage of the resources offered. For me, that was connections to a therapist, which helped a ton. Being in a brand-new place for such an extended period of time is a huge change and no matter how much you think you can just adjust, it’s bound to bring up all sorts of emotions and it’s great to have outlets to keep yourself going. Studying abroad is an amazing experience, and taking care of mental health always makes it better. 

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Ezren Herzog headshot

Ezren Herzog

he/him -- I'm studying Creative Writing and Studio Art at Knox College, class of 2025! I mostly dabble in cartooning, poetry, creative nonfiction, portraits, and humor writing. Outside of my majors, I play guitar and electric bass and sleep a lot.

2023 Fall
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Knox College
Creative Writing
Studio Art
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