Cultural Experience | Europe

How Travel Helped My Anxiety

How Semester at Sea changed my life forever

Long before studying abroad with Semester at Sea, I was diagnosed with a milder form of agoraphobia and general anxiety disorder. At that point in my life, I was virtually a hermit my first year in college, and I became nearly petrified to drive a car. I was a perfectionist, striving for straight A’s but being too jittery to achieve them. I rapidly changed from an extroverted child to a timid adult, but one that desperately wanted to change their situation.

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A sunset at my first port on Semester at Sea- Lisbon, Portugal

I started my tumultuous first year of college with extreme shyness and difficulty making friends. My grades were acceptable, but I was not achieving the excellent marks I’d hoped for. All in all, I had a hard time wrestling with the idea that this was how I’d spend the next four years- anxious and lonely. With the first semester winding to a close, I was desperate for a change. I came across the brochure for Semester at Sea after one of my friends mentioned she’d be studying abroad next fall. I wanted to see what it was about, whether it was possible, and whether they had a summer program. The idea of a new grand adventure appealed to me, with the idea of making new friends and seeing the world.

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A cruise around the fjords of Norway

After a bit of research, I found that their summer program was a perfect fit. It only ran 66 days, and the notion of having a home base in foreign places was appealing, so I’d have the comforts of somewhere familiar while being in a totally new country. The ship embarked from London in June.  This would be my first transatlantic flight alone, my first trip without my parents, and my first time in Europe. Leading up to the occasion, instead of the anxiety I typically felt about school, there was an overwhelming feeling of excitement that something wonderful was about to change.

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The first day in my first port- Lisbon!

When I first boarded the ship, of course there were many mixed feelings about being confined with so many unfamiliar faces my own age. The newfound independence changed my perspective on making friends. With study abroad, it occurred to me that everyone is in the same position. We are all in an exotic new place and making memories to last a lifetime, and hopeful to meet people with common interests. By forcing myself to be social and say hi to new people that first day, I found some kindred spirits in people who wanted to see the world and experience all life had to offer. Travel groups settle quickly when studying abroad, and it becomes so crucial to meet with people who want to see, eat, and experience similar things as you.

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My friends and I in Stockholm, Sweden

When I arrived in my first port, Lisbon, I became anxious about the smallest aspects of traveling. I constantly checked my purse for my phone and credit cards and passport. I worried about getting pickpocketed, getting lost, and not experiencing the authentic culture. Instead, what I found was getting wonderfully lost in a foreign city, and letting go of any inhibitions, will allow a fully immersive experience in a new place. By my third port of call, Glasgow, I found that I was beginning to feel comfortable wandering alone in foreign cities, with a map of course.

Traveling alone and on my own time became my favorite way to experience the world, in which I could sight-see, eat local cuisine, and check out museums at my own pace.. Traveling to Russia was the biggest culture shock of the trip, and instead of panicking about drinking the water and the heavy military presence, I learned relax and go with the flow. Six months before, I had been hiding in my room, and the idea of traveling deep underground on a Russian subway would’ve been laughable.

After traveling through ten foreign countries, I became more secure in myself as a person, a traveler, and a student. My classes on Semester at Sea were both challenging and interesting, and for the first time, I very nearly made straight A’s. My success can only be attributed to traveling, because without it I would still be hiding and without a positive outlet to channel my energy into. By my last port, I had become completely comfortable in new places, even with language barriers and getting lost.

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St. Petersburg, Russia

I am forever grateful for Semester at Sea, for giving my the travel bug and for healing parts of myself I thought would hold me back forever. After Semester at Sea, and journeying on my own and with new friends, I am now significantly less anxious. In fact, I studied abroad for a second time, in Ireland for an entire year with new-found confidence and much less insecurity.

Without travel, I would not be the person I am today. I am already counting down the days until my next adventure.

How Travel Helped My Anxiety

Mary Sheehan

Elon University | 12 stories

I am currently a senior at Elon University studying creative writing. I participated in Semester at Sea in summer of 2014, and spent my junior year abroad in Dublin, Ireland. I enjoy reading, writing, and of course, traveling.

One response to “How Travel Helped My Anxiety”

  1. Stacey Casale says:

    Great article Mary! I am glad you have found a positive way to channel your anxiety. Best of luck on your next adventure!

    Your Mom’s college pals sister

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