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Living and studying abroad - Not always a fairy tale come true

Travelling to another country for a vacation usually feels like a fairy tale - magical places, delicious food and charming people. However, living and studying in a foreign country can sometimes feel more like a Brother's Grimm fable than the Disney version you had in mind.

In a Land Far Away

Instead of adventure and excitement, don't be surprised if you experience feeling homesick, lonely, scared, overwhelmed, anxious, angry, hopeless, inadequate or just downright miserable.

When I lived in France for a year as a 16-year-old Canadian student it was hard! I didn’t understand French so I couldn’t communicate with others. I had no friends and my host family seemed cold-hearted. Like Cinderella, I felt sorry for myself and longed for peanut butter (there was none)! Instead, I had to settle for stinky cheese. To add to my blues, winter was damp and gray and the school system appeared medieval. At Christmas time, I cried all the time and didn't want to get out of bed.

Adapting to a new culture is more difficult than we think. Most people experience emotional distress when they move to a different country because of:

  • Missing family and friends

  • Culture shock

  • Wealth or poverty shock

  • Isolation

  • Language barriers

  • Concern over money (lack of, currency fluctuations)

  • Anxious about their family’s well-being (if they are sick or living in a conflict zone)

  • Emotionally deprived of their comfort food and other familiar habits, rituals and traditions

  • Frustrated with the lack of preferred personal care products

  • Feeling responsible and pressured to succeed in the new environment, at school, or at work

  • Identity crisis-being torn by conflicting values and beliefs

There are many healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with the unpleasant feelings of living far away from home. During the first couple of months in France, I numbed my gloom by eating thirty pounds of French pastries.

Some other negative crutches people use to avoid feeling pain include drugs, extended screen time, seclusion and self-mutilation. Another unconscious coping strategy is complaining and blaming. After all, it’s easier to make the environment and people around you responsible for your unhappiness than taking personal responsibility for your own well- being.

On the bright side, if you find yourself feeling low, there are many positive ways to deal with your emotions that can pull you out of your rut. Consider moving out of your hole of doom by taking one or two actions below:

Express your feelings - Talk to friends, family or a counsellor

Journal - Write all your frustrations on paper

Humour - Laugh all the time with yourself and at yourself

Reach out to people - Contact and get involved in organizations, communities, churches, etc.

Find support in faith and wisdom - Practice your beliefs, read uplifting books or watch inspirational movies

Gratitude - Recognize and acknowledge the good things that are going well for you in your life

Needless to say, the other part of my year in France was amazing. I ditched the pastries for new friends and acquired a taste for the stinky cheese after all. I also learned French and discovered the true value of my family’s love and support. However, the best side effect of the experience living abroad was the big boost to my self-confidence. I was surprised to learn that I had the ability to persevere and deal with change. The resiliency and self-worth helped me immensely with future travel, jobs, relationships and life’s unexpected challenges.

You too can be proud of yourself for taking the plunge into the unknown and acknowledge your effort in hanging in there. You are better than you give yourself credit. Keep your head up, smile at new experiences, be kind to yourself and be amazed by the massive benefits your current life experience is having on your personal development and life success!

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