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Beating the study abroad blues: Why it’s ok to be alone, but stinks to be lonely abroad

(The SA Blues are always open, but you can put them out of business. Photo by www.stevieraysbluesbar.com)

This post is dedicated to Ronnie who wanted to know how to handle being lonely abroad

Read any study abroad promotional material and you’ll read how exciting an opportunity studying abroad is. What you probably won’t read or hear in most study abroad preparation sessions is that studying abroad can also be a very lonely experience, especially for us introverts. Many students don’t realize that you can emotionally prepare for loneliness. These skills aren’t just for a study abroad; they can be used in your daily life here at home too! Let’s take a look at what it means to be lonely abroad and how you can fight it so that you don’t succumb to the study abroad blues like I did.

What are the study abroad blues?

Lingering feelings of sadness, depression, confusion, loneliness, isolation, and homesickness during a study abroad. I say lingering because having a day or even a few days of sadness, etc… makes you human and not a victim of the study abroad blues.

What causes the study abroad blues?

The study abroad blues are caused by some common key factors. Depending upon the person, they can also be caused by other factors such as emotional / mental health status or a traumatic experience. Let’s focus on the common key factors. The first cause for the study abroad blues is having unrealistic expectations of the study abroad experience. The second common cause is not emotionally preparing for the experience. A third common cause is not preparing culturally and/or linguistically and dealing with the difficulties of cultural and foreign language immersion. This list is not exhaustive, but it gives you a better idea of what can cause someone to feel lingering (more than a few weeks) of negative feelings in what is ultimately a life changing experience. As an introvert, I can tell you that we are more susceptible to the study abroad blues. But, it’s important to understand that the study abroad blues can happen to any student. Here’s why:

frame(It’s all about the picture portrayed. Photo by greenertrees.net)

How studying abroad is often portrayed: An adventure with the occasional class where you will embark on the experience of a lifetime with new people, new food, and sight seeing.

What studying abroad actually is: Being 6,000 miles away or more from everyone and everything you’ve ever known in a foreign land where you’re not understood, do everything differently, and have no one who loves or understands you.

If you only think of amazing adventures and not the challenges that go with studying abroad, you could find yourself succumbing to the study abroad blues. Does it mean that the first blurb of the portrayal is incorrect? No! But it’s a gross over generalization of the experience and one that doesn’t acknowledge the second blurb which is also part of the experience.

lonely(Loneliness. Photo by annsantos08.wordpress.com)

Why is it ok to be alone, but stinks to be lonely abroad?

Let me start with the latter. Being lonely stinks period. No one likes feeling isolated from the rest of the world, like you just don’t matter. Being lonely abroad is even worse because now not only do you feel isolated, but you actually are isolated. Not from the world entirely, but from your world. From the place that you called home for twenty years where you understood the language and the cultural norms. It also means that you are isolated from the people who know you, who love you, who want to be with you. But it’s not just the emotional aspect of being lonely abroad that stinks, it’s the experience of being lonely as well.

Have you ever gone sight seeing alone at home? Kudos if you have! Before I went abroad, I had lots of alone hobbies in my apartment, but I never actually did anything alone like eating at a restaurant, going to a movie, or to a museum. I was always with someone. When I got to Paris and walked out of Tatie’s studio onto a busy street in the heart of the sixth district is when my first taste of true loneliness hit. I immediately realized I didn’t understand a single thing said by passersby; I was receiving very strange looks; and every where I looked I only saw unfamiliarity. I could have gone on exploring past le Louvre which was just over the river, but I was overwhelmed by the sudden and strong feelings of isolation. Then I started thinking how I was thousands of miles away and 6 hours in advance of the man I loved and my family. At that moment, I lost interest in exploring Paris because I was lonely. And I allowed myself to stay lonely like that for 4 months. The seeds for the study abroad blues were planted my second day in Paris and they stayed with me the entire first semester! My wallowing in the study abroad blues was a disservice not only to my emotional and physical health, but it didn’t allow me to enjoy and embrace being alone abroad.

Being alone abroad is a critical part of the studying abroad experience. It’s where we learn some of our most important lessons about becoming an adult. Being alone means that we have to depend on and trust in ourselves to make our choices. Without the experience of being alone, we can never fully reach adulthood. Why the emphasis on being alone abroad? For many of us, it’s the first time in our lives that we have the opportunity to actually be alone and can’t phone a friend or our parents in a time of need. Being alone can take getting used to. It can seem lonely but it’s really not. But just in case you are feeling a bout of the SA blues coming on, here’s some quick, easy, and free ways to deal with it.

pow(Fight those blues! Photo by nacamentertainment.com)

Quick tips on how to fight loneliness abroad:

  • Start at home! Don’t wait until you get abroad and feeling lonely to make up a game plan for battling the study abroad blues. Start now before you get on that plane.
  • Get out of your room! It’s easy to want to stay in and lock yourself in your room when you feel like poo but isolating yourself when you’re lonely equals trouble. Do you like coffee or hot tea? Get yourself out of bed and enjoy your comfort beverage in the a public place. It’s amazing what a change of environment can do.
  • Exercise. I’m too lazy to look it up but there are articles out there on how exercise releases endorphins or some feel good chemical in your brain. Even a quick 5 minute jog in the park or 5 minutes of jumping jacks in your room for those nasty, rainy days works wonders.

 

 

  

5 thoughts on “Beating the study abroad blues: Why it’s ok to be alone, but stinks to be lonely abroad”

  1. Merritt Davis, I too am feeling the same in the sense of feeling isolated and lonely. I studied abroad in Spain, and can relate to what you are saying about feeling like an outsider. I am now studying in England, so I am able to communicate with locals.

    I was in a very similar situation to you, my first abroad, and even now. I wanted to travel around, but I knew it wasn’t safe. However, I still did it anyways, because I did not want to waste any opportunity. I had some amazing moments. I went to Paris and Barcelona completely alone. Yeah, it would have been nice to wonder around shops with a pal, but I learned a lot about myself.

    I don’t mean to come off like a weirdo, but you can totally email me or add me on facebook! Being abroad helps you make friends in different regions!

    Marcella
    mgs21@student.le.ac.uk

  2. Great article! Not going to lie that I feel very lonely. I am studying on the French Riviera this semester near Nice France, it’s absolutely gorgeous here, but I don’t think I came prepared for the entire experience. I had an image portrayed in my mind that I was going to meet my bestfriends for life and have people to travel with almost every weekend but the opposite is true. I have met a good group of people so far however they seem a bit cliquey. As time has passed I feel like I am there more physically than mentally when I do engage with the friends I have met. I think the main problem Is having an awkward relationship with my roommate. It was great when I first met her and the first week or so but after that it went downhill. I’m not sure what happened but it’s always small talk when we are in the apartment together and so quiet. I don’t want it to be this way and want to at least be decent friends with her. Maybe the issue is that we always hangout with the same people because the school I go to here isn’t huge. I feel like a burden when I want to hangout with my friends or “her” friends and feel like I follow her everywhere and I don’t mean to. It’s hard for me to meet other people and thought I had a pretty good group of friends. The other issue is that nobody is planning any weekend trips to different countries. This is my first time in Europe and one of the main reasons I decided to study abroad in the first place. I want to see as much as I can! I know the dangers of traveling alone, but still want to and unsure what to do. I have gotten more used to spending time by myself exploring markets and village streets, grabbing a cappuccino by the beach etc. and truly enjoy me time however I dont’ want to always feel isolated and that I’m always the one initiating plans! I’m not sure what all is going on and trying to really take it day by day, but want to feel a little more sunny and bright. Sorry for the long response and any advice would be greatly appreciated!:)

  3. Hi Lea! I’m a Canadian student actually on a student exchange in Sweden. I’d say I’m feeling the same way as you are. I meet a lot of nice people, but I don’t really connect with any of them… Being alone here during Christmas also scares me! But personally, I tell to myself that I’ll see my friends and my family in a few months when I’ll go back, and I try to make a bucketlist of the things I want to do (travel, shopping, museums, other countries…). You could try a plan yourself a trip to somewhere in the States that you really want to visit! Or go to as many events and parties as you can and want, since you could meet other people. I think it’s normal to feel these blues while on a student exchange, but you have to remind yourself that this situation is temporary and that it is actually a challenge to do something this big on your own. Either way, this moment in your life will make you grow, and I’m sure you can make it positive for you :)

    Lou

  4. Hi I’m an exchange student, from Denmark, in Colorado at the moment and I feel kinda homesick/lonely. I’m not being introverted or locking myself up but I feel a little disappointed in myself when i’m walking the hallways of my High school. I have a couple friends so far who I eat lunch with and we’ve met outside of school too but I still feel lonely for some reason. I got here 1,5 month ago and have gone to high school for 3 weeks now. I have this feeling that I’m wasting my tear and my parent’s money from not have the time of my life already. I’m not being shy, I seek people and are being polite and they seem to like me but I don’t connect with people here like I used to at home. Am I being impacient? And do you think I’m gonna get pass these feelings?

    Kind regards,

    Lea

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