September 17, 2019

Hannah Leidich currently works as Assistant Director Of Health, Safety, and Security
at the College of Global Studies.  In this edition of our Staff Voices series, Hannah shares her experience with navigating overwhelming times while living in Prague, Czech Republic and shares a few health and safety tips for students joining us on Arcadia programs.

I love mail. I’ve had countless international penpals over the years, and though it may not be a popular opinion, I quite like going to the post office. So why was I standing in a Czech post office feeling panicked and close to tears?

I’ve managed anxiety as long as I can remember and as much as it’s an unwelcome guest, it’s one I’ve learned I won’t allow to keep me from being comfortable in my own home. I had the privilege of traveling in high school including a homestay and a summer study abroad program in colleges which led to the decision to live in Prague, Czech Republic for a year after graduation. Despite anxiety knocking on the door and suggesting I worry about not knowing exactly how things would pan out or who to go to if I had an issue since I didn’t know anyone else in the entire country, I decided to go ahead with the move, and it was one of the best decisions of my life. 

So, why was I standing in a Czech post office feeling panicked and close to tears? Prague and mail are two of my favorite things. I was totally safe standing in a beautiful marble building in a residential part of the city, yet panic set in when I stared at a machine totally in Czech that required me to press a button corresponding to my needs so I could get a numbered ticket to direct me to the proper window once it was my turn. I hardly spoke (and admittedly, still hardly speak) any Czech, but often got by with skilled pantomiming and an occasional compromise on German, but this machine had no interest in understanding me by hand gestures. After a line formed behind me, I stepped aside and tried to learn by observation which button I needed, but it wasn’t a helpful approach. I began to feel helpless, frustrated, an on a chemical level, I’m sure my cortisol levels shot through the roof. 

While anyone can have an experience like this, I would venture to say that those of us prone to anxiety and panic attacks can find ourselves in vicious cycles with listening to cues within our body informing us if we should worry or panic. This system works great if there is a true threat present, but when you’re in an overwhelming and uncomfortable situation, our body rallies the troops when in reality, no threat is present. This brings me to the biggest lesson I learned abroad: Ask yourself: am I unsafe, or am I uncomfortable?

  • If you’re unsafe, remove yourself from the situation so you are safe as much as possible. Be sure to have the emergency contact card provided by your Arcadia staff handy so you can call the local emergency number or your staff emergency contact
  • If you’re safe, consider if you are in an unfamiliar situation that is just throwing off your stress hormones and sending your body false alarms. Take three slow deep breaths and make a clear game plan of how you’re going to navigate the next few minutes. Your body may be trying to fight, flight, or freeze, and you may need to remind it that this isn’t the time for that. Once the situation is over, I recommend you speak with a member of our staff to debrief what may have happened. Was this a case of culture shock? Was there a rhyme or reason to what happened that our staff can shed light on? 
  • If you aren’t sure if you’re safe or not, it’s still wise to remove yourself from the situation and contact Arcadia staff. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference, and that’s ok - study abroad is a constant learning experience and, as they say, “better safe than sorry!”

I was in Prague alone without an organization to support me, but when you go abroad with Arcadia, that isn’t the case! If the culture shock starts impacting your ability to go about regular tasks, or you’re just feeling too overwhelmed, you can always work with the staff to get connected with a mental health professional who you can regularly meet with.

In the post office, I was so uncomfortable not understanding the language, the multiple assistance windows with different specialties, and all of the people that walked in so confidently and stood in particular corners of the room in a pattern I couldn't decipher. I took three deep breaths and finally asked a young woman who I thought might have learned a little English in school, and she
helped me select the correct button. It all sounds so simple sharing this story years later, but it was a stressful time that taught me to define unsafe and uncomfortable as two different things when my body just wants to panic. This approach helped me navigate a future in Prague including missed trams, sudden bus detours, angry grocery clerks, etc. which were such a small fraction of an otherwise phenomenal year. I hope this introspective question can help others navigate some overwhelming times too!