Two summers ago I decided that I would join my Dad on a 3-week mission trip to Kenya, Africa with our church. At 19 years old, I was the youngest person on the trip.
I had just finished my freshman year of college and I was already nervous to go back to school, despite it only being June. Growing up with generalized anxiety made my decision to leave the comfort of my hometown that summer shocking to everyone I told, yet I found myself defending the decision by stating that I wanted to see the world.
“my generalized anxiety felt unbearable and I believed I’d never be able to handle the discomfort.”
My freshman year was hard. At times, my generalized anxiety felt unbearable and I believed I’d never be able to handle the discomfort.
In hindsight, my decision to leave my parent’s house for the summer even surprised me, but my stubbornness pushed me to experience something outside of my comfort zone.
While I initially traveled to Nairobi, Kenya to build and maintain a school for the locals, I walked away from the trip with so much more.
In the three weeks I spent in Africa, 3 things became clear to me about my anxiety.
3 Things I Learned About My Anxiety While Studying Abroad
1. It’s Not About Me, or the Next Person Volunteering
From the first day, it was clear that our responsibilities were multifaceted. Apart from the physical jobs we got to do, like painting the alphabet on the walls of the school, we were also able to interact with the children. We got to sing with the children, play soccer with them, and even just hang out with the kids during downtime.
Each interaction with the kids highlighted something incredibly important about volunteering: it was not about me.
It was not about me when I was playing duck-duck-goose for the 600th time in the hour. It was not about me when Mercy shared stories about her family with me. It was not about me when I held tight to Grace and blew bubbles with her. It was not about me or my anxiety or test dates or anything from my world.
It was 100% about them.
With anxiety, it sometimes feels like the world is watching your every move, criticizing every misstep, and utilizing any mistake to invalidate your successes.
“Throughout this experience, my anxiety was no longer my focus; my focus was on the kids.”
While volunteering, the energy and attention normally focused on these anxieties are channeled directly onto the people you are trying to help.
To have that channel to focus my anxious energy on was freeing and uplifting.
Instead of feeling the need to be perfect and perform well, as I did in school, the missionary work allowed me to put all of my attention on the people I was hoping to help.
Studies have consistently shown that altruistic volunteering is linked to decreasing anxiety and increasing self-esteem, specifically due to the connection with and focus on another person.
Volunteering let me put the world into perspective and realize the value of prioritizing what was important right at that moment. Volunteering created a sense of mindfulness that truly let me see that my anxiety is not an all-knowing, all-encompassing, forever-spotlight-hogging beast.
Throughout this experience, my anxiety was no longer my focus; my focus was on the kids.
2. Others Will Teach You More Than You Could Ever Teach Them – But Only If You Are Willing to Be Vulnerable
Having never been in a new country like this before, I quickly realized that I had to be willing to be the “student” again.
People think that volunteering essentially means that you go out into the world and share all of your knowledge and expertise. In reality, a huge element of volunteering is allowing yourself to be a beginner again.
No one knows what they are doing when they are in a new culture and that they should learn the way of life from the locals. To do this, you have to be vulnerable and let others take the lead.
Vulnerability with anxiety is incredibly uncomfortable because of the feeling of losing control. For people with anxiety, being vulnerable to their surroundings and approaching an entirely new setting with an open mind can create fear of being mocked or judged.
Volunteering allowed me to be comfortable with being vulnerable with new people in a new setting. Through doing this, I was then allowed to actually learn from the people we were helping. I learned elements of their language, their culture, and their perspective of our shared faith.
“You have to be vulnerable and let others take the lead.”
I also got to learn about their backgrounds and their families, which led to a deeper connection and an overall better experience for everyone involved. That’s the beauty of seeing a new part of the world or community—you learn that the exchange of teaching and learning is reciprocal in every setting of your life.
When I came back home from Kenya, I was more willing to put myself out there more, both socially and professionally. I learned that even though my anxiety would prefer to stay at home and watch That 70’s Show for the 800th time, I needed to be vulnerable to new surroundings.
While this is incredibly uncomfortable, it’s necessary for growth.
Note that in the first lesson I stated how we “got to” do these tasks instead of we “had to” do these tasks. By being vulnerable, it allowed me to see a new perspective of the world, which then instilled a new level of gratefulness.
Anxiety can create dread even in people who do everything in their power to be thankful for every day. Through seeing things from a new perspective, it showed me how grateful I was to be able to do these tasks like painting a wall.
It was no longer a “had to”, but instead a “got to”, which is something that I will probably always (!) be working on with my anxiety.
3. Realize That When You See the World from a Different Perspective, It Will Be Uncomfortable
Discomfort is necessary for growth.
I will say it a little louder for the people in the back: discomfort is necessary for growth. I’m not saying I like it and I’m not saying I embrace it all the time, but I am saying that it is necessary.
The culture shock and realization that I should be grateful for everything that I have made me hyper-aware of everything that I took for granted. I knew parts of this trip would highlight elements that I took for granted back home, but I didn’t realize it until we visited a slum in Nairobi called Mathare.
It would be unfair of me to attempt to put into words what the conditions were like that thousands of people live in every day in this slum.
“Discomfort is necessary for growth.”
Ultimately, the discomfort was what taught me how to see the world through another person’s eyes. It compelled me to recognize my privilege and determined how I was going to perceive and interact with the world for the rest of my life. This recognition caused me to grow because it challenged me and made me uncomfortable.
If I did not feel a little bit uncomfortable during my time, I would have wasted 3 weeks of my life. The point of this trip was not to go on a vacation, but to learn and to serve. If I did not feel this way, it would have been evident that I did something wrong.
I would have done both myself and the people I was trying to serve injustice. Ironic that the person who would have done anything to avoid discomfort is now grateful for that experience.
This lesson taught me that when seeing the world from a different perspective and creating discomfort, it urged me to see that my anxiety (or anxiety, in general) was not a lens in everyone’s perspective that everyone saw and felt.
It was just my point of view and my reaction. So that said, if you’re considering volunteering, here are my 3 pieces of advice.
3 Lessons That Volunteering Abroad Taught Me About My Anxiety
1. Get Out There and Do It!
The first step is always the hardest, so get out into your community and try something small and work up to bigger and longer terms.
American Red Cross, Ronald McDonald House, Room In the Inn, and so many more organizations are available in nearly every community and are always looking for volunteers.
2. Go With Your Passions
If you love working with animals, volunteer at an animal shelter. If you love working with kids, see if the children’s hospital allows for a volunteering opportunity through their pediatric department.
There are so many ways to combine your passions and your time to make the experience even more unforgettable.
3. Understand Your “Why”
Understanding your why means to find your purpose for completing the task at hand.
Is it to build your resume? To learn more about yourself? To help the community? A little bit of everything? Understanding your why before you go into volunteer can help everyone get the most out of you being there to help out.
Despite mental health being a very, very, very, (multiply times a thousand) prevalent issue, volunteering taught me that anxiety is not the source of all discomfort. It forced a change of perspective that was both uncomfortable and liberating.
Never in a million years would I have thought that it would take getting so far out of my comfortable little bubble to gain such an important insight. That my anxiety was and is not the determining driver of my life.
Written By: Reid Davis
Reid is a rising senior studying Psychology and minoring in Sport & Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina.
She loves to dance, workout, and can easily watch all of the James Bond movies in a row with a tub of chocolate ice cream.