Kayla Sides is an official CAPA blogger for fall 2016, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A psychology major, she is studying abroad in Florence this semester through the custom program at Norco College.
In this week's post, Kayla talks about dealing with anxiety and depression while abroad.
Time to slow things down and get a little real here, guys. Disclaimer: this post deals with anxiety and depression, and it's going to get a bit personal.
I wanted to write about this topic because anxiety and depression can cause some problems for people who either want to study abroad or are already traveling. It can get hard. So, this post is for those who need advice or a reminder that they're not alone and it's possible to have the time of your life out here even if you do have that little monster on your back. Mental illnesses affect everyone differently. There is not one universal or "right" way to have or deal with them. I have General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and depression. I was clinically diagnosed a few years ago.
I'll try to give you a picture:
My GAD causes me to over think almost everything and create imaginary "what if" situations in my head. Sometimes this can really suck because it literally sucks the fun out of some experiences. I'll be focusing so much on controlling those thoughts and making sure that they don't take over that I won't be giving enough attention to what's going on around me. For me, having anxiety is like having a mental battle with a voice in my head. On one end is a voice that tries to make me afraid of any and all possible situations in that moment. It tells me to do this or don't do that because something bad is going to happen eventually. It makes me second guess all decisions, purchases, plans, even friends. Something as little as choosing to go down one street instead of another can cause a storm up there.
Anxiety and panic attacks are definitely things here, too. They can be short and quick or hour-long events. Anything can trigger an attack, whether I know what it is or not. My over thinking can cause my heart to beat faster and my lungs can feel like they're collapsing. Sometimes, it can catch me off guard and hit me randomly when I'm sitting with a group of friends. I'll start to shake, breathe heavily, and lose conscious control of my body. My vision gets foggy, I become disoriented, and my ears start to ring as if a bomb just went off.
Depression, on the other hand, is more like a shadow. I feel it, lingering above me or behind me, depending on the day. It's heavy. It's like it has a tangible weight and it pushes my body to the ground. It has the ability to keep me in bed all day with no justification whatsoever. It forces me to work ten times harder to smile and give off the impression that I'm fine and I'm not struggling at all. It definitely makes homesickness a lot worse and the thought of leaving Florence even more depressing.
Bottom line: In my mind, anxiety uses my body against me and depression makes me turn away from the world.
Now, this doesn't mix well with traveling. Traveling is a package with adventure, risk-taking, planning, and an open-mind. As hard as it's been, I'm extremely happy and proud to say that my disorders haven't hindered me at all during this trip. I have fought through it and I haven't given the disorders the power to take this experience away from me. It's a daily struggle because anxiety and depression are there for life, unfortunately. Some days are harder than others. All you have to do is figure out the patterns of your illness. For example, I noticed that I'm most vulnerable to my illnesses during the calm, unproductive moments of my day. This doesn't mean I feel the effects whenever I'm not doing anything, but I can prepare myself if they do end up making a presence. A natural remedy to my episodes is simply getting up and walking the streets of my beautiful city. I make small conversations with the locals, sit and take in the views, and reflect on everything I've seen and learned here. I can honestly say that breathing in the fresh air and just taking some time to yourself can work wonders. Have some personal time with the city that is now your home.
It's really all about your mindset. When you feel an episode coming on, ask yourself questions: Why are you traveling? I'm traveling because I want to see the world. I want to explore. I want to make friends, learn a new language, adopt new customs, and grow as a person. Where are you right now? I'm in Florence, Italy. I'm in Europe! Then you have to remind yourself that you're doing something amazing and taking on an opportunity of a lifetime. Remind yourself that you're surrounded by beauty and a whole other world to explore. Remind yourself of your hard work that got you to where you are.
Find people who can support you. I won't name names, but I have a few people that I've met while studying abroad that go through the same things I do. They can relate to me, I can relate to them, and we go through this together. If you have at least one person that can say "yeah, I know exactly how you feel," then you're in good hands.
If you're reading this, and at any point, you could say "dude, same," please know that if traveling is really what you want to do, nothing can stop you from doing so. I know, mental illnesses are strong little monsters. But guess what: you're so much stronger. And if you need any help, don't be afraid to contact me! I want you to know that you are one cool kid (not really a kid, it's a phrase, I know you're not a kid, so don't freak out) and you are capable of having the best time of your life.
Kayla's journey continues every Wednesday so stay tuned.