Slaying my Anxiety Abroad
I come from a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea, called Malta. If I ever want to travel anywhere, I always needed to catch a plane, as it was the fastest (and often, only) option of getting to my destination. The idea of ever taking a road trip never really crossed my mind as a child, because it just was not possible.
My parents took me on my first trip out of Malta at the age of five-years-old. That was the first time I discovered what traveling was and that there was a world outside of the little island that I live in. Since then, I have traveled with my parents nearly every year. It is their love and what they invest their savings into and, consequently, it has become my love, too. The idea of being abroad, discovering new cultures and seeing landscapes that I cannot see in my own home country is something that gives me butterflies in my stomach.
During my bachelor’s degree, my father encouraged me to go on Erasmus. After much research and a lot of talking to different administrators at my home university, I applied, got accepted and then lived and studied in the Netherlands for about six months. This time abroad made me realise that living outside of Malta was something I wanted to do. Living somewhere where I can catch a train and go to a new city or village and fulfill the urge to travel was something I wanted to do my whole life. Upon returning back home to Malta, I found myself wanting to travel again; and not just on a holiday, but by living in a new country again. That is how I ended up doing my master’s degree in Sweden.
This all sounds so thrilling and exciting. Some people say I am really courageous to do this; to live alone and be independent; to move to a new country and be so far away from what I am familiar with; to go through the hardship of being in a long-distance relationship; and, to be away from my family, which I dearly love. I will tell you this: it was not an easy decision, but I one I made nevertheless. The only thing that stood in my way was anxiety and overthinking.
Anxiety is the feeling of worry and fear that is constantly present in your brain. Do you remember as a child, how worried and anxious you felt if you left you teddy bear on your bed in the dark? That is how I feel 80% of the time. Sometimes, it influences my life so much that it interferes with daily activities such as going to university, my relationships with people, and even simple decisions such as what I should wear for the day. Living with anxiety is hard enough, even when you are in the most comfortable of situations, let alone while living in a foreign country! It is literally nuts. But, I feel it’s worth discussing, especially when everyone, apart from yourself, thinks you are a very strong person. Living abroad, however lovely the snow looks outside your window or however wonderful the taste of their cherry beer is, it is extremely challenging and not a walk in the park. At least, it’s not for me.
So, as personal as this post will be, I just wanted to share what I go through and hopefully not feel like I am the only one. It is something that I have kept out of my writing and, after having a rather difficult past few weeks, I felt it was time to address it. (In some ways, all my life I have made certain steps to try and hide this anxiety, but the older that I’m getting the more I am feeling open to sharing it.) Also, there has always a negative stigma surrounding anxiety, and this has kept me from writing about it.
This is what I worry about-
Of course, as with any student who lives on student loans, this is something that I worry about. I find myself repelled from buying luxury foods and even sometimes attending events because I am scared that by doing so I won’t have money for a rainy day. The rainy day where I need to buy a new phone because the one that I have stopped working because of the cold, or the rainy day where I need to quickly go back to my home country and the flights are super expensive.
I find myself wanting to make friends, but then suddenly I push them away in fear of getting hurt or bothering the new people in my life. I hate being in the spotlight and sometimes I just want to pull a Homer Simpson and fade into the bushes. The idea of constantly introducing myself to people frightens me because that makes people interested in who I am. Sometimes, as much as my bubbly self loves it, I do not want to have to be strong and explain (or even justify) why I am in this new country. I don’t want to be the new, exotic or shiny novelty which must parrot to complete strangers the wonders of my lovely language and how tiny my home country is.
Fear of Missing Out:
Oh dear, this is one worry I have constantly! Once I get over the relationship hurdle and actually push myself to go through introducing and letting people into my life, the next step is to meet up with the awesome people I have made friends with. However, university, especially at a master’s level, is demanding. It involves hours and hours of time reading books, articles and – in my case – programming too. Sometimes, I have to say no to events, and I have to stay in and study. But, then, I have a fear of missing out on seeing a new place in this new country, making memories in the place that I am in or even creating connections with friends who will last a lifetime. Other times, I might even say yes because I would really want to but end up not going in fear of not work hard enough in school. My brain – a bucket full of worries!
Making The Right Decision:
Here is the biggest one yet. Constantly, I ask myself, “have I made the right decision?” It goes from as small as, “have I made the right decision to not bring my laptop to class?” to: “Have I made the right decision to study in Sweden? Is moving away from my home country the best thing for me? Will I find a job with this degree? How am I coping with being so far away from my boyfriend? Is a year-long master’s degree enough for me to get a job?”
Frankly the list goes on and on. It is a combination of being scared and overthinking about everything. It is something that I have to deal with, and after taking the spontaneous decision of moving to Sweden in the span of three weeks, I was close to shattered when I arrived. I was constantly crying and having panic attacks over the thought of “is this what I want in life?”
However, living abroad with anxiety is not all doom and gloom. I am coping – I am living, and I am happy. In fact, I’m very much so!
Here’s how I cope with all the thoughts-
I keep a journal to write down all my thoughts. I do have close friends and parents who are always willing to listen to my crazy thoughts. I feel so blessed to have them in my life and for them to take the time to try and understand me. But sometimes, I like to keep things to myself and I write things down in a diary. After it is all hand-written on paper, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Often, I like reviewing what I wrote weeks or months beforehand, as well, as sometimes it settles me that I managed to find a solution to that problem just by reasoning through it.
A big important thing is accepting that you have anxiety and, when you get anxious, not pushing it away. Yes, it is tiring to deal with all the emotions that anxiety gives you but, once you deal with it, it will go away. Suppressing it will just make the anxious feeling return on greater scale later, leading to a panic attack. (l learnt this the hard way.) It is PERFECTLY FINE to go speak to someone, be it a friend or a professional. It is a good way to cope with it.
Whenever I feel anxious, I remove all electronics from my reach, stop what I am doing and just be with myself. I usually close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Shallow and slow breaths are the way to go. It is sort of like my version of meditating and being with my thoughts to help me get over whatever I am going through.
Overall, being in a new country did help my anxiety – don’t get me wrong! I have learnt more about myself in the last few months than I have learnt in the last few years, because I am constantly experiencing new things and letting myself do so without going through the daily routine. I do not put so much pressure on things to happen exactly the way I want or expect them to – because the reality is that life is unpredictable. I remind myself that there is always a silver lining and I have so, so much to be thankful for. It can be a tough world out there, but I know that my anxiety will no longer stop me from living my life. This realization has been my ultimate liberation.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses in the world today. And that’s understandable!
Just in case you need a reminder: your feelings are valid. It is okay to feel anxious, and you don’t have to go at it alone!