Stress, Anxiety, and Culture

Paikea Houston headshot
Paikea Houston
January 24, 2024
Ginger lady looking back smiling bashfully at the camera with her phone in hand by the Luxembourg gardens.

Bonjour, mes cheris!

Welcome to my blog! If you aren’t already familiar with me, my name is Paikea and I am currently in Paris!

Le sujet du jour is entirely on mental health, how your body might physically respond to stress, and what settling into a culture can look like.  

Avant tout, I want to clarify that everyone’s experiences are going to look and feel different depending on your personal circumstances. The way panic and anxiety attacks manifest in individuals will depend highly on your own experiences, but hopefully, this blog is still of use to you. Further clarification: do not use this blog as a substitute for a therapist, psychiatrist, or any other sort of medical practitioner. This is based entirely on my own experiences. If this isn’t interesting to you and you just want to read the section about culture, start reading after you see a big line separating sections. 

D’abord, some explanation: I have been having some issues in Paris with a housing situation where my roommate and I have vastly different lifestyles and expectations for cohabitation. These differences were a bit too vast for me to compromise and I realized that my roommate was not the right fit for me because my body started reacting quite strongly to the stress of those differences. Of course, if you have issues with your roommate, do not hesitate to reach out to discuss changing housing assignments and certainly do not wait until you start experiencing physical stress symptoms. As a people pleaser I got too convinced that the fault lay with me, if you know yourself to be a people pleaser know that your priority should be your own comfort and safety. My housing situation was of course not the only aggravator, as I have discussed in other blogs I have also been dealing with homesickness which adds significant stress as well. Your first goal is la prévention—just to recap—breaking up with your phone, adventuring [in increments], finding hobbies, developing support systems, and making frequent contact with loved ones at home and abroad. Not putting yourself in bad situations and getting out of the ones you had no control over is also incredibly important. Some of the stress I was dealing with was definitely my fault because I couldn’t place the boundaries that were essential to my well-being. In general, keeping an eye out for any potentially distressing situations and avoiding them is vital. This does NOT mean avoiding eustressing situations like putting yourself out of your comfort zone by doing things that are actually beneficial to you and cause stress that invigorates you and helps build you up (like the exploration of your new home, meeting new people, trying new food, and having new cultural experiences). Knowing the difference is essential, so I recommend doing research and trying small doses of any new experience to see if stress is bad or ultimately good for you. 

Deuxièmementyou might not even recognize your signs of stress. Just a reminder before I begin, this blog is not a substitute for medical advice/assistance/instruction/etc, this is a personal story based on personal circumstances. If you are experiencing symptoms that are concerning, seek medical attention or discuss with a medical provider. I was about to have a distressing conversation that day that absolutely needed to be had, and I remember getting groceries that morning and feeling sharp, pulsating pains in my chest and feeling my throat tighten. I thought I had stood up too fast or maybe exerted myself too much when hauling around my cart and ignored it. It came and went for the next 6 hours, where I would experience sharp, stabbing pains that mirrored my heartbeat, and I could feel my throat hurt and tighten, and I felt a pain in between my shoulder blades like my back was contracting and holding. I immediately looked up my symptoms (personally would not recommend it because it always shows you the worst possible outcome). Of course, every site said I was having a heart attack. I called my parents immediately and asked for their advice and my father told me to slow my breathing and calm down. He explained that when he was stressed about his current situation, his panic and anxiety attacks would look different than when he was worried about the future. He would experience the same pains and it had turned out to be stress-related and not a heart attack. It made sense and I spent the next 20 minutes meditating on it and the pain went away. I had become so accustomed to my panic/anxiety attacks feeling a certain way that when I felt something different I didn’t recognize it as a different brand of the same issue. I had been stressing non-stop for about a week and that sort of strain was starting to affect my body without me recognizing the culprit. When I sat and thought about it and isolated the parts of my life that were truly stressing me out, I was able to meditate on the issue and use my coping methods to stop the pain and stress response in my body. Stress, anxiety, and fits of panic do not look the same for everybody, nor will they look the same every time. Being mindful, having that support network to hear you out and provide help, and of course knowing that you have medical and therapeutic support if you need it are vital to staying healthy in a new environment with plenty of new stressors. Removing those stressors, or mitigating their effect on me by counteracting them with de-stressing methods has helped me sleep easier at night and reign in my life back under my control. Taking out exacerbations has helped as well. I have cut out junk foods, highly processed foods, alcohol, and phone binging, and instated regular physical activity, lots of water, nourishing whole foods, and extra sleep. 


Troisièmementsettling into your new home by adapting to the culture is just as important for feeling comfortable and dealing with one of the largest stressors when doing a study abroad program. I can really only talk about settling into Parisian culture, and they cover a lot of the basics in orientation, but a lot of it has to do with your mentality. Paris may be a large city, with lots of people, lots of movement, and lots of work to be done, but it is also a city full of people who seem to understand something essential that a lot of metropolitan American culture misses, which is living life at your own pace, and to respect and give thought, effort, and time to the things that are necessary and holy. A lot of what has helped me feel more comfortable and get over that homesickness has been copying (at first) the habits of Parisians. Slowly, as I integrate myself further into Parisian culture, it has been less copying and more embodying. The first thing I changed was meal times. I eat with people, with myself, in crowded areas, in solitude, wherever. The way I eat has changed, however. I take pleasure in both making (or buying) my food, sitting down somewhere, disconnecting from technology, and just enjoying the space, being grateful for the food and the time that was spent creating it, being grateful for the view, for my life, for the people in my life, and anything else that popped in my head really. Usually, when I eat mindfully, I take longer and I savor the moment. The other thing is I take my time getting to places, which does NOT mean getting there late. It means leaving early so my walk in the morning can be a little slower and I can admire the buildings I walk by and memorize my route (Google Maps is my toxic partner—they lie to me, distract me, make me entirely dependent on them, withhold information, and fail to respond when I need them most—yet I keep going back!). It means leaving early so that when I arrive I am early enough to explore the space of my destination without getting right to the point. It means taking new routes that take a bit longer so I can explore something new, walking into a shop to see what novelties they have, or challenging myself to get lost and un-lost without consulting Google Maps. The next thing I do which is not really Parisian (as far as I can tell), is to relax my mindset on work. Work shouldn’t stress me out, it shouldn’t be haunting me when I sleep because I haven’t finished it (well ahead of the deadline). I don’t mean procrastinating, I don’t mean ignoring it. Taking it slow and easy, learning to love the process of learning and of exploring something new in academics and culture, and being grateful for the opportunities it presents. Sometimes the work can feel overwhelming, boring, repetitive, or ridiculous, so what I do (and yes, it does require more time and more effort) is to find aspects of it that are intriguing and apply it to myself. Although I am writing this during Sylly week (Syllabus Week for non-Penn Staters) and the work is pretty relaxed, my first assignment was to find ten new French words. I did not take the easy way out and look up the translations of English words I didn’t know in French, or look up obscure words in the French dictionary. I put on my French playlist while I wrote this blog, and when I heard a word (or phrase) I couldn’t decipher even with context clues, I looked it up and wrote it down. It was fun for me, it meant something because now I understood the song better, and it helped me find words that I would actually be able to use. What all three of these actions really boil down to and what should really be a universal message regardless of culture: enjoy the life you have, the time you have, and all the things you are capable of doing and could become capable of doing. For you, wherever you end up going, instituting these habits as well as copying some local habits to eventually embody them can really help you feel like you belong where you are and help curb that homesickness. Ultimately, loving life needs work and effort on your part, mostly learning habits to make life pass by a little slower and a bit more gently. Regardless, I believe in you! The last thing is optional and I really believe depends on the person, but placing my faith in something greater than myself has actively alleviated my fear and anxiety over the daily struggles of life. Taking a bit of time to be grateful for the world that houses me and protects me from space, the stars above for always being there even when I can’t see them, the sun for brightening my sky and helping me make that essential vitamin D, the clouds for gifting me shade and helping me avoid sunburn, the rain for nourishing the earth, the earth for gifting me the food on my table, the people around me who directly and indirectly make my life better, the universe for somehow creating a combination of energy and matter that resulted in human life and putting it in a place it could thrive, and for the gift of life and chance that has resulted in some of the most beautiful moments I have ever had the honor of experiencing. I do my best not to take things for granted and to enjoy every single aspect of my life because it is my life; the results are not always 100% because I cannot always be 100% but I know for sure that when I actively become grateful for the tea I drink, it tastes sweet without the need for sugar 🙂.

Enfin, I know that there were a lot of difficult topics discussed in the first half but I hoped the ending helped sweeten the overall message. I want every single one of you to know that good things happen if you notice them, and good things can happen more frequently if you put a bit of work to put yourself in the position to receive them. Good luck fellow travelers, and I will see you in the next one!

À la prochaine!

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Paikea Houston headshot

Paikea Houston

I am a person who loves her family, good food, and sunshine. I always believe in trying things at least once for failure is never certain. I'm here to take you along with me to travel further, work harder, and dive headlong into the great wide world!

2024 Spring
Home University:
Penn State University
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