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Looking After Your Mental Health While You’re Studying Abroad

mental health studying abroad

This article is sponsored by Medibank

Moving overseas to study is an adventure that pushes you outside your comfort zone and opens you up to a world of new experiences. You will probably feel happy and excited to explore your new home, but you might also experience unexpected feelings of culture shock and homesickness. It’s normal to experience these feelings when you are studying abroad, but it’s important to know how to take care of your mental health as well! 

We reached out for expert opinion from psychologist Martyna Janczak and Medibank psychologist Jason Vella, who provided nine tips for looking after your mental health while you’re studying abroad. 

1. Check in with yourself daily

It’s important to recognise and understand your feelings in order to properly look after your mental health. Martyna advises self-monitoring your mental health by engaging in a daily check-in practice. 

“Start with the basics,” she says. “It’s always worth going back and revisiting the basics of mental health: solid sleep, regular exercise, healthy eating, maintaining authentic social contact, moderating alcohol.” 

Martyna recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • Am I eating healthy food and eating regularly? 
  • Do I have a sense of structure? 
  • Am I getting enough sleep and what’s the quality of my sleep like? 
  • Am I addressing any medical conditions that need treatment? 
  • Am I limiting my alcohol intake? 
  • Am I having regular contact with family and friends? 
  • Am I looking after my basic hygiene? 
  • How would I rate my mood today out of 1 to 10? 
  • Am I feeling low or more stressed than usual?

2. Look at what you can control 

Establishing a daily routine can help you gain a sense of control over your life and cope with any unexpected challenges that may arise. 

Jason recommends looking at the breaks between sections of your day, as good locations for establishing routine. A routine in the morning or after study or work which include some exercise, meditation, a quick clean up around your living space, or even a regular meal prep routine, can help you achieve tasks that might otherwise get lost when you are occupied by tasks, or after you start winding down for the day.

Martyna recommends “creating some anchors for the day” and explains that, “when we have a greater sense of control and influence, we tend to feel more stable in our mental health.” 

She also highlights the importance of being kind to yourself if your routine doesn’t go to plan. 

“If you don’t have a perfect routine established or you didn’t do your exercise one day and your mood isn’t fabulous, then just be gentle with yourself,” she says. 

3. Use calming techniques 

Your tertiary studies can be a challenging time and it’s normal to have moments of feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. You might find yourself feeling more anxious than usual during exams periods or when you have assignments due. Fortunately, there are many calming techniques that can help you deal with these feelings of stress and anxiety and often you can practise them in the comfort of your own home. 

Martyna recommends the following techniques:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Relaxation visualisation 
  • Playing white noise and nature sounds
  • Yoga Nidra – a type of sleep yoga that may calm the mind and help you fall asleep more easily

Jason recommends checking out Medibank Live Better at Home, where you can try out lots of free classes and techniques, such as Meditation, Mindfulness, Barre, Pilates, stretching techniques and more.

4. Maintain contact with friends and family 

“As human beings, we’re geared for connection,” Martyna says. “It’s one of our primary needs right from infancy and we’re often more interdependent than we like to think we are. Our lives often revolve around the relationships that we have and the quality of the relationships we have. When we have people around us who we feel we can communicate with and understand us, it’s actually soothing for us and gives us an outlet to discuss our problems, to seek solutions, and act as a sounding board so we can hear our thinking out loud.” 

Martyna maintains that it’s important to contact your friends and family, even if you aren’t feeling your best mentally. She suggests scheduling catchups with friends and family into your weekly routine.

“That way, they are predictable and reliable, and not something you can dismiss or disregard even if you are feeling a bit low or more stressed out than usual,” she says.

Jason recommends monitoring the degree to which your connection with friends and family may be changing over time. Things like stress, loneliness, anxiety, worry and depression can keep us locked in our own heads, with ourselves the only audience for our own thoughts. 

The great thing about regular contact with genuinely supportive friends and family is that this is where you get the view of yourself, (even several different parts of yourself) from the outside. They will likely challenge you and appreciate you and make fun of you from a position of trust. 

If your degree of contact with others is reducing this is worth noticing, reflecting on and making some choices about how some additional social interaction would suit you. Creating a regular routine around an activity, be it a weekly watch party or gaming session online, a regular catch up in a park of café, or a scheduled phone or video call back home can be a great way to ensure you stay connected. This can be especially important if you have recently made a big change to your location and study schedule.

5. Quality over quantity of relationships 

It’s normal to have a lot of people in your life and to still feel lonely and isolated. In this situation, Martyna suggests evaluating your relationships and reaching out to the people you know are truly there for you. 

“I’d recommend that people consider the quality of the connections they have. Are there particular people in their lives that you feel understand you [and who] are supportive and non-judgmental? These are the people that will provide the greatest ease to loneliness because there is a pre-existing authenticity to the relationship and that makes the distance easier to bridge.” 

Make sure you utilise the many alternative forms of communication that can be found online in order to maintain your relationships with friends and family back home. Martyna explains that these quality existing relationships are particularly important to maintain if we are communicating online. 

“It makes some of the changes of connecting online easier to overcome because that relationship is already sound,” she says. 

You can try out video calling software like Zoom, Skype and Houseparty, as well as the many messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. 

Jason notes that measuring the quality of your relationships is strongly connected to tip number one – checking in with yourself. It is worth taking the time to find people who share your interests, around whom you feel comfortable quickly and whose values you share. If this is your first time overseas or making new friends outside of those you grew up with, the awkwardness of putting yourself out there in a new group can feel a bit unfamiliar. Getting together around a shared interest or common task can help you locate your new tribe. 

6. Engage in some mindfulness and meditation 

Mindfulness and meditation can be used as valuable tools to navigate and look after your mental health. Martyna explains that engaging in these practices can help ease feelings of anxiety and stress. 

“Mindfulness and meditation are techniques that help bring us back to the present reality and reorient us to the here and now. They help us become curious and they help us do so in a non-judgmental manner,” she says. “When we are experiencing anxiety and depression, often the mind can be fed by worry and in the current situation it’s about worry for the future – what will the world look like and what’s our landscape going to be. 

“Mindfulness and meditation temporarily help us put some of those worries on hold and it helps us calm our nervous systems. It’s essentially a tool to help us regulate our emotions and refocus ourselves – in some ways you can call mindfulness an intention training tool as well. So, it can be used to help us become more self-aware, bring us back to the here and now, and more often than not, when we bring ourselves back to the here and now, the threat isn’t actually there.” 

Jason recommends making a gradual approach into meditation if you have not yet tried it. A daily practice of even a few minutes is an ok place to start and more effective than trying longer periods irregularly. It is worth remembering that simply sitting down with a mindfulness practice in mind, isn’t going to clear your head of thoughts. As the name suggests, mindfulness can often leave you sitting there with only your own pre-existing state of mind for company. It can be tired, distracted, angry, bored, peaceful or any state really. Don’t expect mindfulness to clear your head of these states, but rather take an attitude of self-kindness to them. Meditation can be an opportunity to notice your current state and experience it without judging yourself for being there or trying to escape it. If you are not trying to escape your state of mind, then each state of mind becomes less distressing to you and you are less likely to let your state of mind drive you to behaving in the world in unhelpful ways. 

If you want to learn how to use meditation, it can be helpful to do this in the context of a meditation group who can support you. You can also check out Smiling Mind for free meditation and mindfulness programs or the Medibank guided meditation by Emily Toner, that aims to help you manage feelings of homesickness.

7. Find a physical release 

Exercise is necessary for your physical and mental health. Physical movement produces endorphins and when endorphins are released, they can improve your overall mood.

“Try to bring some form of exercise into [your] daily life,” says Martyna. “It depends on your energy levels – it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do really intensive exercise. It can be something as simple as doing a little workout at home or going out for a walk or finding some sort of physical expression to relieve that stress and boost your mood.” 

If you are not used to engaging in much physical activity, give yourself time, opportunity and permission to try a few different things before you settle on anything. Time of day, exercise intensity, individual vs group, organised group or individual sports all offer styles of activity. 

The way we think, and feel is in a constant state of interaction and feedback with some seemingly unconnected physical aspects of our bodies. Although it can feel separate, your physical state, including movement and diet can have a direct influence on how you feel about yourself and the world. Even simply setting yourself a small physical exercise goal and achieving it each day can contribute to a more positive view of yourself. Daily exercise is also likely to help build a good sleep routine. 

Parkrun is a great way to get out in the community, stay active and make some new friends.

8. Watch out for signs of something more serious 

While it’s normal to have moments of elevated stress, anxiety and sadness, prolonged periods of these feelings may be a sign of something more serious. 

“If these changes to your mood persist, if you feel like you are low on energy, tired but wired, [and] is your sleep impacted? Do you find yourself turning to things like alcohol more often? If that doesn’t settle within a couple of weeks, then I’d consider talking to someone or at the very least, looking at some of the apps that may have resources,” she says. 

“Students should look at their university counselling services because they are readily available and currently geared to provide distanced services. They have professionals available who are readily equipped to deal with the types of challenging situations that students are likely to face.”

Jason suggests taking an honest look at how your behaviour might have changed over time, if you are concerned about your mental health. Maybe it has been quite a few weeks since you felt you had a schedule of study, socialising, exercise, eating, friends, family, and time with yourself that felt balanced? Ask yourself if you might have been avoiding or unable to summon the energy to maintain balance any of these areas of your life. Or perhaps so hyper-focused on one of them that the others have been crowded out? 

9. Reach out for help

“Student university counselling services is a really good one,” says Martyna. “They also have after-hour options and they can direct people where they need to go – that might be to their GP or a crisis counselling service.”

There are also several mental health apps that you can download onto your phone. These apps are full of great resources that make therapeutic techniques accessible whenever and wherever you need them. They can help your self-monitoring process and allow you to set daily reminders and challenges so that you stay on track. 

“People also have the Lifeline Service and Beyond Blue who can take their calls, and if people are feeling at risk about harming themselves or having thoughts about suicide or harming others, then the Suicide Callback Service is a really good one as they will call people back to make sure they get assistance.”

Martyna recommends the following websites and apps:  

Beyond Blue website 

Black Dog Institute website

Lifeline website and number (13 11 14)

Suicide Call Back Service website and number (1300 659 467)

HeadGear app (Google Play and App Store)

Snapshot app (Google Play and App Store)

Headspace app (Google Play and App Store)

moodgym online self-help program

If you need an interpreter to help you book an appointment or attend an appointment with you, you can contact TIS National.

Lastly, if you’re a student with Medibank OSHC, you can call the 24/7 Student Health and Support Line on 1800 887 283 at any time, day or night. They’ll offer you advice and over the phone counselling as part of your cover. They also have an interpreter service, so you can speak to someone in your own language.