When I started my degree, the year abroad seemed like a far-off abstraction that would never happen. Although the idea of a prestigious internship in some famous publishing house or in a law office had some glamour and appealed to my parents, I’d heard very sad year abroad stories about those that included boredom, loneliness and general disappointment.
Studying at a university meant that I would meet of people my age, and it gave me the opportunity to learn about things that my course didn’t offer. But really, the main reason I ended up at the University of Salamanca was because I couldn’t be bothered to look up and apply for things that really interested me. I didn’t have the time or the energy, and did rather little, convincing myself that the following year would never come, anyway.
I was still in denial when I arrived. It’s not that I wasn’t happy to have a year of sun and guiltless naps, for a change, but the end of second year had seen me completely destroyed and unable to get out of bed, even to shower. Summer vacation had not been enough to recover my debilitated self. The problem was that I saw Salamanca as just that: a hospital for the Oxford-wounded student. I was there, but in my head it was really only to regain energy for finals. I couldn’t get myself to enjoy this year for its own sake.
It’s nothing new that the highly pressured environment of Oxford can affect students’ mental health. However, after two years there, the fact that mental health issues among students had seemed so common clearly led me to subconsciously accept that they were a normal and necessary part of the human experience. It was only after half a year away from Oxford that I realised how deeply my experience there had thwarted my perspective.
At Oxford I constantly felt like I had to try to keep up with the high-achieving individuals who spent all their free time doing theatre, filming, writing, not to mention participating in sports, politics, and the Union. It didn’t seem enough to try to stay on top of my work, have a social life and stay sane. I was always worried about missing out on the opportunities Oxford offers, which, whilst amazing, can be ridiculously life draining.
This anxiety followed me to Spain, and it was hard to shake off. At first, doing things that I hadn’t done since high school felt amazing. However, soon my anxieties resurfaced. Cooking was a waste of time, and so was going to useless classes or socialising. Oxford habits became me, and soon I let the cycle of work-guilt take over my physical and mental health. I blamed Salamanca and its unstimulating student life for being miserable and I started applying to internships in France and Spain.
However, I then realised that changing places would only make things more stressful and I would have to get used to a new environment again. I had expected to have as much energy as I had at home. I had felt guilty of taking the time to settle in and look after myself. When I returned in January everything suddenly seemed a lot easier. After all, I already knew the city and had friends, and I gradually felt healthier and happier.
Whilst I still feel guilt and anxiety creeping up on me often, I regularly try to focus on the small things, that I used to ignore, that make me feel physically healthier and more productive mentally. Whether this means I clean up my room, take the rubbish out or randomly talk to a classmate, these tasks get the machine going and they’ll carry me through the whole day.
My year abroad has undoubtedly been challenging, but it has definitely had its merits. I have learnt a lot about myself and the ‘real world’ and my own mental health has improved greatly.