When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Berkeley in March 2020, I immediately flew back home to South Korea. I finished off the semester virtually, adjusting to my high school bedroom while getting used to navigating the time zone difference and online lectures. Deciding Zoom University was not worth my international tuition, I took a gap semester to intern for the fall 2020 semester. My work was in Seoul while my home was two hours south, so I got myself a temporary studio apartment.
Living alone for the first time and adjusting to a whole new atmosphere of the Korean workplace, where I was the only intern in the office, left me with an emotion I rarely felt before: loneliness. I have always been an independent person and thought of myself as an introvert, but I never realized how much social interaction had been supporting me without my knowing. Little did I realize I had always been surrounded by people 24/7. Growing up in a family of five, rooming in a triple with 30 floormates my freshman year and living with three housemates my sophomore year. And when I was alone, which I enjoyed, it had been my choice to create such setting for myself. Now, for the first time, I was alone in an apartment in a bustling city, not by choice.
I suddenly felt insecure. It hit me that I would someday leave home to be independent — that in a couple years, I would be working and sustaining myself. That there will no longer be institutions like school that would hold me accountable to socialize. Working full time for the fall semester made me realize how hard it is to make new friends out of school.
Soon, spring 2021 came and I decided to transition my internship to part-time while enrolling back in online classes. Because of how much I missed student life and interaction, I started to take on responsibilities little by little. Soon, I was working 20 hours a week while taking 17 units, leading a consulting project, acting as a director in my student organization and working as a freelance media manager. I also had to sustain my body by getting groceries, making food and working out, and tried to make the most out of my opportunity living in the heart of Korea by exploring and meeting friends in the area. This left no time for sleep. Since my classes started at 4 a.m. and my nonremote work finished past 6 p.m., it was well over midnight by the time I commuted back home, ate, showered and did homework. For the first month of the semester, I was sleep deprived, stressed and lonely, yet I never took time to process it. I didn’t know what it meant to be stressed, and didn’t know how to express loneliness, so I told myself that I was perfectly fine.
This all hit me one day, when I noticed my body had been sending me signals. My eyelids were twitching for weeks and my skin was breaking out. Even with as little sleep as I got, falling asleep felt like a chore where thoughts seemed to rush endlessly through my head. I realized I needed a change.
Coincidentally, one of the classes I took for my major elective was on the neuropsychology of happiness. I learned about the brain mechanisms, signs and methods to reduce stress and achieve happiness. I also happened to take an introductory acting class, which taught me to be in touch with my emotions. In somehow perfect timing with my realization, I started to dive deeper into the class material. I realized that I had neglected to listen to myself. That I was feeling stressed. Feeling lonely. That it was okay to not be okay. That even introverts need an outlet to let emotions out. I started listening to music with mindfulness. I started speaking in front of a camera to let my thoughts out, and I started reaching out to old friends to catch up. On weekends and during little slots in between commitments, I scheduled time to treat myself and explore the city. I let myself take naps and explored a new love for coffee.
I found outlets. I stopped bottling up my emotions and stopped being afraid of being vulnerable. I had refused to admit I was stressed because I thought it made me weak, but had I not realized ignoring and avoiding it was what made me weaker. By listening to myself and paying attention to how I was feeling, I learned to find happiness. My eyelids stopped twitching and falling asleep became easier. I ended the semester with stronger relationships, the best grades of my college career and most importantly, self-acceptance. I was not afraid to admit I was stressed and lonely. Vulnerability led to action which led to the solution, ultimately fostering happiness and well-being.
Now in fall 2021, I can’t say I haven’t been stressed so far, nor will I never be stressed again. But what I can say is that I now know how to notice and allow myself to be stressed because the first step to happiness is being transparent with myself.