Mental Health Matters: Maintaining Your Brain While Abroad

Gillian Giles
June 30, 2019

Coping with Mental Illness in general can suck, but coping with it while studying abroad can be even harder, as many expect it to be a life-changing, wonderful experience. In many ways, studying abroad in Amsterdam has been beautiful and life changing. From Amsterdams museums, beautiful architecture and canals, there are so many things to do and life-changing experiences to be had. At the same time, however, being in a country and environment that you are not used to is hard. With so many unfamiliar things, it can be hard to find grounding. As wonderful as new experiences are, they can oftentimes be overwhelming, especially if you have a mental illness, and culture shock definitely brings its lows. Oftentimes throughout this trip I’ve found that the expectation to make the most out of this trip has left me paralyzed, instead resorting to doing nothing at all. Things like language barriers, unfamiliar surroundings and a lack of a support network in the country you're staying can trigger flares in mental illness. Below are some tips for keeping your brain in check if you struggle with mental illness or just find yourself having a hard time at all:

Try Not to Judge Yourself or Compare Yourself to Others on the Trip

Since arriving in Amsterdam, one of the biggest things that has caused me distress was the feeling that I am not doing enough. With such a big city and such a short amount of time, it feels as though I should always be doing something new and exciting or else I am wasting my time. Feelings of failure arise, which lead to negative thoughts and spiraling. These feelings intensify upon comparing myself to others in my group the experiences they’ve had, the trips they’ve been on and the amount of ease and comfort they seem to display in a new country.

It can be easy to look at the experiences of your friends who have gone abroad or the people in your program and feel as though you're not doing enough. It's been important for me to ground myself and my expectations. Your study abroad experience is unique to you and will not look like anyone else's, even if you're on the same program. If you find yourself judging yourself while abroad, checking expectations and judgement, as well as challenging them, can be very helpful.

Challenge Your Negative Thoughts with New Experiences 

Negative thoughts happen to everyone. While abroad, they have been particularly upsetting as they have often times occurred at times that will inconvenience me. I’ve had instances where I’ll be out exploring the city and, all of a sudden, I’ll be attacked with a volley of negative thoughts ruining my mood. Although negative thoughts happen that does not mean you have to pay attention to them. Being present in my environment, as opposed to sitting in my head with my negative thought,s has been a great way to combat feelings of sadness, anxiety or other negative thoughts. Instead of in your head, if you start to experience negative thoughts, pay attention to your environment. Being present and mindful of what's around you makes you less focused on what's happening in your head. New experiences are a great way to refocus that attention, and while abroad you will have a lot of them! When I notice a negative thought, I’ll oftentimes ground myself by focusing on things that our in my environment, conversations being had and sensations I feel. Trying something new, such as going out to a new place with friends, visiting attractions, or simply exploring your area, is a great way to refocus your attention and ground yourself. Alternatively, checking out local cafes and parks or just getting out, even if it's on your own, can help challenge negative thoughts.

Seek Support 

Seeking support probably been one of the most essential things I’ve done to maintain my mental health while abroad. Sometimes there are times when you need to reach out to others for help and support. Calling my home support system including my family, my friends and my partner have been critical. You can also build a support system of friends while abroad as you are all going through the same wonderful and challenging experiences and can relate to each other. Sharing your thoughts and feelings can be hard but helpful as others can provide good insight and contextualize your feelings and experiences with things. This can, in turn, make coping with hard experiences easier. If necessary reaching out for further support from IES Abroad staff or therapist can also be helpful. Do not be afraid to reach out and ask for what you need!


Gillian Giles

<p>I’m 21 years old and just starting to explore the world outside the United States! Currently I attend Sarah Lawrence College as a junior studying Sociology. I’ve always enjoyed a good book, story or adventure and plan on collecting many new stories while I’m abroad. I cherish empathy, kindness and good listening. I’ve experimented with art, style and writing and am always looking for new ways to express and explore myself. I firmly believe that understanding yourself also means understanding your context and the world around you and I am looking to continuously do that through travel. As an IES correspondent I hope to provide content that both tells a story about the places I’ve been and show chases a my perspective as someone whose black, LGBTQ and disabled.</p>

2019 Summer 1, 2019 Summer 2
Home University:
Sarah Lawrence College
Chicago, IL
Liberal Arts
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