How to Manage Stress and Stay Mentally Healthy During Study Abroad

Culture shock, newfound independence, a language barrier, travel… A lot happens during study abroad that will likely impact your mental health, and it’s more important now than ever to keep yourself in check. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite tips for getting (and keeping) your mind right during study abroad so that you can have a safe, fun, and healthy experience (P.S. – we asked alumni for their top tips, too. You can check those out here).

Come Prepared

Whether you’ve struggled with mental health in the past or not, it’s important to check in with your doctor before going abroad. Most students will touch base on their physical health and refill prescriptions but be sure to talk to your doctor about your mental health, as well. Being honest and open about how you’ve been feeling – and any worries or fears you have about heading abroad can help prepare you for your trip. Your doctor might give you a thumbs up and send you on your way, or they might provide you with extra resources for your time abroad. Either way, you won’t regret checking in.

It’s also a good idea to make USAC aware of any mental health conditions or concerns you have. While we never share your personal information with an outside source, the more prepared we can be if a situation arises the better we can serve you during your time abroad should something occur.

A USAC student in Florianópolis, Brazil during orientation

Find an Outlet

One of the most common suggestions we’ve received for managing your mental health and relieving stress during study abroad is journaling, and we agree. Expressing yourself and getting your emotions (positive and negative) out of your head can be cathartic and a valuable learning experience. For some, journaling is a way to work through the feelings inside their head to find the solution to a problem or make a decision; for others it is a way to just get thoughts out and move on; and for some it’s a tool to look back and remember their experiences as a whole. It’s important to find a healthy outlet for your thoughts and feelings, so if journaling or blogging isn’t your thing then look to something else. Music, exercise, drawing… the options are endless!

Student on apartment porch in Italy
Student on apartment porch in Italy

Stay on top of your homework and studies

Trust us, we know how tempting it is to book that last-minute trip to Barcelona, but it’s called study abroad for a reason. Do your homework, study for tests, and finish your readings early to avoid unnecessary stress. If it’s difficult to find motivation for schoolwork after hours, make a pact with your classmates to not leave campus on the weekdays until your homework is finished, or form study groups during lunch. Keep a planner or update the calendar on your phone with all your assignments, tests, and due dates to stay on track. Taking care of your academic responsibilities before you make other plans will ensure that your education and grades don’t slip and will help keep your sanity in check. There’s nothing more stressful than having a cancelled flight, leaving you stranded in an airport with hours of homework waiting for you – unfinished – at home.  We’ve been there!

Students inside the classroom
Students inside the classroom

Stay Connected

In just about every study abroad guide you read, you’ll see advice to put down your phone, disconnect, forget what you’re missing at home, and live in the present. Yeah, you can ignore that advice now. If you’re struggling during your time abroad, don’t hesitate to reach out to the loved ones you turn to when you’re back home. We all know that nothing feels better than a good venting session with your best friends, right? And who doesn’t need some loving advice from mom occasionally? Allowing yourself to reconnect will help you feel less isolated. Out of sight doesn’t have to mean out of mind.

However, don’t forget to connect with your fellow USAC students. While you may not know them as well as your besties from back home, chances are that they are experiencing a lot of the same feelings and struggles as you are.  Creating a support system within your program will not only give you the chance to make new friends, but it will give you someone to turn to when the WiFi or time difference won’t let you call home. Besides, who doesn’t want to build life-long friendships during study abroad?

Students chatting during their study abroad
Students chatting during their study abroad

Say “No” When You Need To

This one is important. Study abroad can be busy, overwhelming, and full of a million once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. We understand the pressure to do all the things, see all the sites, and eat all the pasta. Truly, we do. But the easiest and most effective way to burn out and cause wear and tear on your mental well being is to overload yourself with too many activities. Allow yourself time to rest and process your experience. It’s okay to pass up a weekend trip and spend the time bonding with your host family or to say no to a night out dancing until 3am with your roommates to get a goodnight’s sleep. Don’t be afraid to say “no,” and don’t let FOMO get the best of you. Get some sleep. Binge watch Friends. Relax. Your mind (and body) will thank you.

Taking a break no a tree in Costa Rica
Taking a break on a tree in Costa Rica

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

While it is important to understand how to manage your mental health yourself during study abroad, it’s just as important to know when to reach out for professional support. If you feel like you can’t do this on your own, that’s okay. Reach out to your on-site staff for additional resources. They can set up a meeting to talk one-on-one or can connect you with a mental health professional for some counseling. If you were seeing a therapist before going abroad, reach out and see if they can set up a Skype or phone session. You may need to meet only once, or you might find that setting regular appointments is helpful to stay confident about your mental health but remember that there is nothing wrong with taking some extra time to take care of yourself. If you don’t have on-site staff available you can speak with the international office on campus or reach out to your USAC program advisor or the USAC central office.

A USAC student and a staff member
A USAC Bengaluru student with the Resident Director, Smriti

We can’t stress the importance of slowing down and doing a quick self-evaluation every now and again. You wouldn’t ignore your check engine light before (or during) a long road trip, would you? Don’t wait until you’re completely run down and overwhelmed to pump the breaks. Whether you’re managing a diagnosed mental health condition or navigating the natural stress and emotions that come with study abroad, learn how to take care of yourself and do it!