Overview: A student's self-care guide abroad

The article emphasizes the significance of self-care and highlights that it's crucial to prioritize both physical and mental well-being during a year abroad. It stresses that self-care is not a luxury but a necessity, especially in the absence of typical support systems. The article encourages students on a year abroad to embrace the unfamiliar, prioritize self-care, and allow themselves to feel and process their emotions as they navigate through their unique and rewarding experiences.

The season of year abroads is once again upon us, with many of us embarking on new journeys and travelling to our respective destinations. A new season of adventure, first-time experiences, but also that of overwhelming change. In light of that, this piece is centred around advice I wish I had been reminded of – especially during periods when I found myself drowning in unfamiliarity. A reminder that it is more than okay and healthy to struggle at times. Adapting to a foreign environment can take its toll on your emotional well-being but it’s important to let yourself feel whatever you may be feeling – no matter how daunting it may seem. This is a reminder that vulnerability is also an indicator of emotional strength and resilience. And most of all, a reminder to prioritise self-care.

Who Even Goes To The North of France Anyway?

As someone more than familiar with the idea of leaving home and finding comfort outside of my comfort zone, I’m still unsure if anything could have prepared me for the unfamiliarity of the first month of my placement abroad. Living in a tiny town in the North of France, I struggled with finding my feet and finding some sort of rhythm and routine. At times I also felt myself slipping back into a depressive headspace, stuck in yet another mental rut in an environment that was essentially stripped of my everyday security and comfort. The culture shock was one of the biggest hurdles I had to deal with. Moving from London to a quiet, remote town where its largest supermarket closed at 8:30 p.m., it certainly took a while to get past the initial disorientation. Whilst I was happy to have escaped the pressures of the Oxford bubble, the change of pace and the process of adapting to a new way of life was at times overwhelming. If that wasn’t enough, I was stuck in the smallest room known to man, with walls that genuinely felt as though they were closing in on me. As someone who is convinced they’re claustrophobic, you can imagine living in this space wasn’t the most ideal situation. If you haven’t yet got the picture, this move for me was undoubtedly a difficult adjustment.

Nonetheless, whilst these feelings of disorientation and anxiety are tough emotions to navigate, they are entirely normal! The process of moving abroad looks different for each individual but what helped me get out of this headspace was changing my perception. In other words, understanding that it is inevitably difficult to find familiarity in an environment so far from home. 

Embracing the unfamiliar – A brief guide

Embracing the unfamiliar can always seem daunting, but one key piece of advice that stuck with me was the reminder that year abroads are an ‘experience of a lifetime’. I can’t count how many times I was told to make the most of this experience – I guess the constant reminders worked. Three things I would say shaped my experience were:

Saying ‘YES’ : It’s easy to hide behind the shadow of social anxiety in new and unfamiliar environments, but whenever the opportunity arises, you must ask yourself when looking back on this moment, will I regret not saying yes? Nine times out of ten the answer is YES. Challenge yourself to embrace novelty with open arms; pick up a wacky hobby and spark new conversations. I went to a few wine and cheese socials which is funny because I absolutely hate cheese. What certainly helps is learning to mentally reframe discomfort as progress, an indicator that you’re embracing your new setting with an open mind and a short-term discomfort that will feel worthwhile when looking back on all your personal growth and development. 

Cultural Immersion: Throw yourself into your new environment. Take that additional language course, visit the wealth of museums or cultural sites on offer, learn to appreciate the culture of your new home and I promise you’ll soon feel better connected to your surroundings and the locals. Museums are typically free for under 26’s so make the most of that or keep an eye out for pop-up exhibitions or fun markets. My main focus was working on my growth mindset, being open to fuelling new passions, intercultural communication and birthing new opportunities and bonds. All things which are impossible unless you fully immerse yourself! 

A Positive Mindset: Having an optimistic outlook is key. It’s learning to smile and laugh at what life throws you, even the littlest inconveniences, and finding ways to make the most of your situation. This outlook also positions you to live in the moment, appreciating the unique adventures of each day.

Start Journaling: Even as someone who doesn’t typically journal and honestly hates talking about how I feel, journaling can act as a great confidant. Whether to sit and process difficult emotions or to simply take note of any accomplishments, big and small. Journals are a great reminder of your personal growth and they encourage you to reach even greater heights on your study abroad journey. 

Invest in Self-Care Days

Finally, the role of self-care. I can’t stress enough the importance of setting aside time just for you amidst your relatively busy schedule. There are so many ways to ensure you are looking after both your physical and mental health, so there are no excuses. I understand that this conversation of self-care isn’t unique to the year abroad, but it is an important reminder that even without your typical support systems you can’t neglect yourself and your mental health. Whether it’s reaching out to friends new and old, exploring new areas of the environment you’re in or pencilling in a hair appointment (my favourite form of self-care!). Searching for means to regulate your emotions is just as important as having honest conversations with yourself to address how you feel. Striking a balance between the two is essential to allow yourself to work through any emotions you have building up. Year abroads may be hard and daunting, but they are by far some of the most rewarding experiences. 

If you take anything away from this, remember to let yourself feel fully and not overlook the importance of self-care.