Help! I'm having Anxiety while Abroad

Disclaimer: This week we are focusing on dealing with different mental health issues while living abroad. While we are not professionals, we can see how stigmas around “living your best you” while living abroad can hinder our capacity to face our biggest issues and we want you to know that, if this is your situation, you are not alone. We believe that the holiday time can be a extra-difficult time to deal with this kind of issue and encourage your to reach out to someone you care about or a healthcare professional if you are having any serious issues.

Sometimes I feel my thoughts look like this…

Sometimes I feel my thoughts look like this…

Dear Cassie,

I had my first bout of anxiety around two and a half years ago when I was finishing up my master’s thesis. For reasons I will probably never truly comprehend, this situation pushed me over my emotional threshold and I found myself in a situation that I had never been in before and didn’t understand. Since this first experience, my anxiety does pop up from time to time, making my life more difficult than it needs to be. However, I have also talked to others about their experiences with anxiety and have realized that I am not alone (nowhere close in fact). Many people who I talk to have suffered from anxiety and while you are living abroad this is no exception—in fact, if you are anxiety prone, I think it is easier to suffer the symptoms when you are in a new situation than when you are back home. In order to help you understand that you are not alone, I want to talk honestly about what I personally go through:

What are my symptoms:

I can tell when I am anxious based on what I personally go through. I have talked to other people about what anxiety means to them, and the symptoms may be similar, but they may be totally different too. This is what happens to me:

General nervousness: As a very active person, I have to be really careful when I start noticing myself as being nervous because sometimes I am just really busy. However, the better I get to know myself and my personal triggers, the easier it is to separate this feeling of being nervous because I am trying to do too much at once and general nervousness because I am feeling anxious. While this symptom isn’t necessarily the one that impacts my daily life the most, it is a good indicator for how I am going to be able to deal with my personal, more severe, reactions.

Lack of sleep: I am normally a really good sleeper (seriously, I can pass out just about anywhere), however, when I have anxiety, I have trouble falling asleep and tend to wake up earlier than I want to. For example, if I normally get up around 6:30 am, when I am having anxiety, I can easily wake up in a bit of a panic around 5:00 am and run through all the little things I might be worrying about—even if they aren’t big problems or normally wouldn’t have any impact on my sleep. This one is a vicious cycle because the less I sleep, the more prone I am to feeling anxious.

Lack of hunger/nausea: Again, against my normal habits, when I find myself suffering from anxiety, I have difficulty eating and may even find myself wanting to be sick if I make myself eat. For me, this feeling is stronger in the mornings and is a big problem because I have to eat to function at work. I am athletic and slim and don’t diet, so when I cannot seem to eat it is especially worrying to me, again contributing to that vicious cycle where I worry about changing my habits.

My tip: If I cannot eat my normal, big breakfast I tend to eat a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter as that usually can get me through the morning.

Not falling down the “rabbit hole” is key.

Not falling down the “rabbit hole” is key.

Prevention is the greatest cure:

I know this a really hard thing to think about before the fact, but when I get to a place where I am feeling anxious I can usually step back and recognize what the trigger was. For me personally, when I don’t step back to accept things as they are or grieve properly, these intense feelings can build up inside of me and slowly become overwhelming. When I am able to stop before I get to this point of not sleeping or eating well and dedicate time to whatever it may be that is bothering me I have a much higher possibility of not facing a form of anxiety that negatively impacts my ability to go about life.

For example: I recently had to accept the death and attend the funeral of someone who I used to see on a regular basis. We were not super close, but his presence was in my daily life (and I still think I see him in the street...until I remember that he cannot be there). When I didn’t stop to process this death—something that is hard for me in general—and was on the go for two weeks straight after, I started to realize that I wasn’t sleeping and eating well. Once I figured out what my trigger was I was able to stop and work on the problem. However, if I would have given myself time to be with myself and really sit with what had happened in the first place (in this case, dealing with death) I probably never would have gotten to the point where the little things were so overwhelming they woke me up at night.

How I deal with it:

I am not going to lie, the first time I had anxiety I went to the doctor two days after not being able to eat. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, was pretty freaked out about it, and I wanted medical help to get me through it. Luckily, my doctor was able to talk me down off the ledge and we came up with a plan—he recommended an herb-based capsule called valerian for insomnia and anxiety and told me to come back in two weeks if I wasn’t feeling any better. I honestly don’t know if this herb makes a physical difference but, usually, if I take one at night I manage to sleep through until my alarm meaning that (at least mentally) it works for me.

In addition, my doctor recommended taking a step back and trying to find some peace with the things I was working through. Depending on what I am personally facing, this might mean watching a movie (or reading a book) that makes me bawl my eyes out; it might mean going for a long walk or run alone; or it might mean that I want to talk something through with someone I care about. I also have to make sure that I am giving myself enough time to sleep—say 8 hours instead of my normal 6.5/7—and eat with my family and friends so that I actually make an effort to stay on top of things.

The view from my parent’s house gives me peace.

The view from my parent’s house gives me peace.

Since my first visit with my doctor, I haven’t been back for anxiety-related reasons. However, I am both very aware of the different situations I am facing at any given time and extremely vocal (with people I trust) if I want someone else’s opinion on how I am doing. I won’t lie and say that I have conquered anxiety—it still pops its head up every once and awhile—but I am working on how to deal with the stressors and symptoms.

Note: I want to be very clear that all the information above is what happens to ME when I am feeling anxious (and how I PERSONALLY deal with it). Like I mentioned, I am not afraid of asking for help and, if things ever get worse, I would be the first person going to the doctor/psychologist to try and find a way through it. Please remember that sometimes asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but the biggest sign of strength.

Have you suffered anxiety? If so, let us know how you deal with it down below.