How Living Abroad For 4 Months Helped Ease my Anxiety

by Maya McDowell


Four syllables packed with worry, uncertainty, sadness and fear. A seven-letter problem that I have been tackling for as long as I can remember.

My mom tells me that I used to lie in bed at night, restless with worry about the world, which is a heavy burden for a 5-year-old. Growing up, I worried incessantly about everything: my family, my health, my friends and the violent, hate-filled world beyond my safe haven of a Midwestern town.

When I started high school, I went to a doctor who gave me a name for the constant worry in my heart. I had anxiety.

Unfortunately, anxiety is not like strep throat or a kind of infection. It can't be cured by a small dose of antibiotics and some good ol' rest and relaxation.

My anxiety makes the big things (i.e. my parents' divorce or transferring colleges) seem like the world is crashing down on me, and makes the small things seem like big things.

I am not timid or anti-social -- though there is nothing wrong with being either of those things. Rather, I am and always have been outgoing, friendly, adventurous and curious, none of which exactly mesh with “anxious." It has always been incredibly important for me not to let my anxiety get the best of me.

Sometimes, I persistently ask whether or not my friends, family or anyone who will listen think there is “something serious” going on when my body aches. I carefully evaluate every possible outcome of a situation to uncover the worst possible scenario. Usually, I realize it's not that bad.

You can probably imagine my mental state during the weeks leading up to the day I boarded a plane to Milan, Italy. I would be completely alone for four months.

Studying abroad had always been a dream of mine, rooted in my family's globe-trotting tendencies and my wanderlust soul. I did my research, found a program that sounded interesting and crossed my fingers in hopes that I would be living in the fashion capital of the world.

Four months later, I was.

Arriving in Milan at 6 pm, hailing a taxi, taking a 45-minute ride outside of the city and almost failing to find the apartment that had been assigned to me, all while knowing about four words in Italian, was an anxiety attack waiting to happen.

Of course, I was anxious. It was dark, and my chest was tight. I didn't have cell service, I didn't know who I was living with, I was exhausted and the language barrier was proving to be quite an issue for the taxi driver and me.

"What the hell have I gotten myself into?" I thought to myself, as the cab drove away, leaving me outside of a building I hoped was mine.

An hour later, an unfamiliar calmness tapped my anxiety on the shoulder and kindly requested a few hours with me. I was walking with my roommates, who were perfect strangers, through the sparsely populated streets of Milan.

We fumbled our way onto the metro and cautiously consulted the map of the lines every few minutes. Soon, we found ourselves wandering aimlessly through the city. I had no clue where we were, but there was something enchanting about the quiet, winding, cobblestone roads lined with architecture I had only seen in textbooks.

I found myself consciously acknowledging that, for once, I was not feeling anxious. Instead, I was thrilled at the prospect of the unknown, which encompassed everything around me.

Naturally, I encountered countless bumps on the road, all of which miraculously helped ease my anxiety.

Living and traveling in Europe required a great deal of spontaneity, flexibility and positivity. The train to Florence is delayed four hours? No big deal. Google Translating an entire doctor's visit? Sure. Walking around a foreign city for three hours lost with no sense of direction? Bring it on.

Every day presented its new challenges, but rather than analyzing and ruminating, I took on each obstacle with a shrug of the shoulders and a sense of humor. I learned early on in my semester abroad that it was sink or swim. Had I let it, my anxiety would have made me sink.

Man, did I swim. I swam to 10 different countries and 23 different cities, to be exact.

I don't remember a time in my life that I was as blissfully happy as I was for those four life-changing months. Living abroad taught me that life presents unexpected challenges every single day, and the way you approach those challenges makes all of the difference.

Do I still have anxiety? Of course. The difference, now, is that I let life happen on its own. Rather than focusing on the danger in life's ups and downs, I take them as they come with the best attitude that I can.

For the days that a positive mindset is just not in the cards for me, I am lucky enough to have friends who know how to divert my attention from WebMD. I have family who will talk me down from any irrational worries.

To those who wake up in the morning most days with worried feeling in the pit of your stomach, I understand you. Having lived those days myself, I can relate to feeling like it's you against your anxiety.

I challenge you to wake up tomorrow ready to take on the day. Spend one day embracing the unpredictable nature of this interesting, intimidating and always exciting life. An unfamiliar calmness might just tap you on the shoulder and ask for a few hours of your time.