I was 15 minutes into my move from Lincoln, Nebraska to Busan, South Korea when I realized I was having a panic attack.
It was slightly before 5:00 am in one of the two terminals in Omaha’s Eppley Airport. Sitting on one side of me was a mom and her two young kids — the early travel day with children had already compromised her willpower because both kids were energetically enjoying a breakfast of peanut m&ms. On my other side was a sleeping man in his 40s whose head occasionally slumped onto my shoulder before jolting back upright. I was silently situated between this dichotomous pair. And I was losing my mind.
I’m sure you have experienced something like this: you come back home from a vacation and for a week everyone you know asks you, “How was your trip?” By the time the fourth or fifth person hits you with this question you have developed a mental script — an automatic one-minute highlight reel of your week long experience.
In the weeks leading up to my departure, the most common question my family and friends asked me was, “How are you feeling?” So I developed a similar script. I told everyone, “6 days out of the week I am really excited and 1 day a week I’m nervous. So I feel like that is a pretty good ratio.” In hindsight, that was a terrible ratio. That ratio was the reason I wasn’t even a half an hour into my move when I started to panic — and I mean really panic — for the first time about my decision. Admittedly, this was not a great start to an experience I had been working towards for a full year.
In the final two weeks leading up to my move I kept waiting for some anxiety to set in.
The more I waited, the more I began to think that I must have mentally prepared for this move for so long that it really wasn’t going to be that stressful. In fact, I was still waiting to feel anxious as Catherine drove me to the airport on the morning of my one way flight to Korea. It wasn’t until I said a tearful goodbye to her, passed through security, and sat down in the terminal did the feelings of isolation and anxiety slip out from wherever they had been hiding in my brain and proceed to instantly envelop me in a state of panic that took me entirely by surprise.
My mental state for the next week was nothing short of a roller coaster. The buffer time I had given myself to spend relaxing in an airport hotel before reporting to orientation was not the glorious post-travel respite I had imagined it would be. It turns out a pretty good formula for isolation-induced anxiety is trapping your jet-lagged self in a tiny room for 18 hours one day after moving 6,500 miles away from friends, family, and a significant other. Hindsight is always 20/20 but that really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me.
For the sake of your time, I’ll spoil the ending of this story for you: I’m no longer panicking. In fact, I’m really happy here. That uphill climb took time though. And I learned a few things:
People have a lot of empathy.
A lot of friends reached out to me during my first week to see how adjusting to life in Korea was going. And I was honest with them. Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t unload a checked bag full of emotional baggage on a friend who casually responded to an Instagram story. But I also didn’t sensationalize my experience like my instincts told me to. And everyone responded with empathy. They offered similar experiences from their lives. That goes for the close friends who I have gone to with personal struggles before and the casual friends with whom I haven’t. If you are one of those people and you are reading this, thank you. You helped me a lot.
Honest mental preparation is crucial.
During my last few weeks in Lincoln, I spent every free moment focused on spending time with friends, family, and co-workers who mean a lot to me. While I don’t regret that decision at all, my biggest mistake was placing my own mental preparation so low on my list of priorities. If and only if I didn’t have plans with friends, didn’t have any motivation to study Korean, or didn’t have anything else to do, I would sit and think about my move. Mental preparation was at the very bottom of my to-do list during that time. Had I spent time being honest with myself about what was going to be especially difficult about my move, I believe I would have had a much less anxious experience during my first week in Korea.
An experience like this is exactly why going out of my comfort zone was important.
I believe that when life gets too comfortable it’s time to shake things up. We all grow from going out of our comfort zones and seeking discomfort teaches us more than staying firmly where we feel like we have control over every part of our lives. Moving to South Korea was a strong personal step for me to that end. Would I want to go back to feeling that way again? Absolutely not. But I learned more about my priorities in life during my first emotionally turbulent week in Korea than I did in the entire year leading up to my move. That is a learning experience I’m grateful for, regardless of how difficult it was.