The best defense is a good offense: 5 ways to ensure a happy and healthy year studying abroad

Oh, the joys of September… learning of the many assignment deadlines that fall ever so conveniently on the same day, reacquainting yourself with shared kitchens, messy flatmates, research methods, dissertation talk, Google maps, and of course coffee, coffee and more coffee.

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Now try to navigate these “joys” of September in a new city, new country and perhaps even a new language. Feeling overwhelmed, you might crave familiarity- your family, old friends, supermarket, currency and unlimited 3G.

The inherent pressures and stressors placed on the international student often take a serious toll on our mental and or physical health. Incorporating these simple tips into your daily routine will help you reduce stress and achieve and maintain a healthy balance. A healthier and more balanced life style will maximize your potential for an exceptional experience abroad!

1) Develop a routine:

In an environment where everything is unfamiliar, it is essential to establish routine. It’s unlikely your new routine will be identical to your old one, so why not embrace this newfound opportunity to incorporate elements into your routine that will empower you to improve your physical and mental wellbeing.

Dedicating Tuesdays evenings to grocery shopping and Thursdays mornings to laundry may seem trivial at first; but, in the long run it will provide more time for those things that less trivial, such as preparing for an upcoming exam or catching the latest episode of Broadchurch. Establishing a routine will help you feel more in control of your life, which, you’ll feel especially grateful for on those days when one too many things feel “out of your control.”

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We can all agree that it’s harder to put something off when you’ve made special time for it. So, for those with a special talent for finding excuses, reserve specific times for hitting the gym or going to spin class and commit to it! It also helps to write down and periodically go over your schedule, a recent study conducted at the Dominican University in California concluded that you are 42% more likely to reach your goals when you write them down…so buy that calendar and mark it up!

Finally, club or society membership can further establish structure in your routine while also providing a much needed “mental breather.” Having something fun to look forward to during those gruesome hours spent in the library will prove a much welcomed and healthy reward.

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3) Join a club:

If you’re anything like me, it seems nearly impossible to choose between sports, socializing and travel… arguably why should we have to? Attend your university sports fair and learn about the variety of sport teams and societies accessible to you. While you’re at it have a laugh at the local “sports” list, which yes, does include Quidditch; but hey… when in Rome do like the Romans.

The University of Stirling’s mountaineering club, for example, affords you the opportunity to stay active, meet fellow students, and explore the astonishing Scottish landscape. Time outdoors discovering new parts of Scotland from an “elevated perspective” can help you refocus and recharge before the week ahead.

Students from Spain, Canada, Austria, The Netherlands, Germany and France discovering Stirling from a new perspective! (Taken by: Allison Auld)

Photo taken by Allison Auld

Stirling’s mountaineering club hiking Dumyat (Taken by: Allison Auld)

3) Sleep is for the weak intelligent:

Studies evaluating why sleep is so important suggest that we need 7-8 hours of sleep a night for our brain to function at its fullest capacity. So, if you want to be your wonderfully creative, productive and focused self, you need your beauty rest! But really, it’s proven that sleep deficiency can contribute to emotional instability and resistance to change, and who has time for that?

If you’re considering staying up 3 extra hours to study for that upcoming test, perhaps it’s time to reconsider

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4) Don’t be too hard on yourself:

Some days will be harder than others, and some even less productive than last Tuesday (is that even possible?). Acknowledge that change can be both exhausting and overwhelming, so give yourself permission to take a mental wellness day. Go to the cinema with a friend, skype a loved one at home or go for a walk in the park- there is no value in punishing yourself for having an unproductive day, we all have them, whether we like it or not.

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5) Listen to your body:

The Institute for Public Policy reports that students today are more likely to be affected by mental illness than previous generations. In fact, a survey conducted by the American College Health Association reported that an overwhelming 15.8% of college students report being affected by anxiety alone and 21.9% claim that anxiety has significantly hindered their ability to perform academically.

It is important that you recognize the warning signs of mental illness and are cognisant of the fact that you could be more vulnerable to mental illness when transitioning and adjusting to your new life abroad. The National Health Service of England provides a detailed list of symptoms associated with generalized anxiety disorder. Listen to your bodies’ way of telling you it is NOT OKAY. The fatigue, headaches, trouble sleeping and muscle aches you’ve been experiencing may not just be a coincidence or the consequence of your old dormitory mattress.

Don’t be complacent, and take charge- the best defense is a good offense! If you experience symptoms of anxiety or other mental illness access your universities counselling, wellbeing and mental health services.

Be proactive and empower yourself to take steps to set yourself up for success and protect yourself against the pitfalls of stress. Acknowledge that the stress of change IS REAL and is an equal opportunity oppressor- no one of us is immune to it. In following these simple steps, you can live the healthy, happy and balanced year that you deserve. After all, studying abroad is meant to be a FUN thing!

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