Ever had one of these days where you miss being understood or speaking your own language? Knowing how things work and how to deal with arising problems? Missing your family or close friends? Having negative thoughts about your new surroundings and comparing to how “wonderful” life was back home? Struggling to adjust to a new reality and culture? Lacking motivation and interest? Wanting desperately to return home? Feeling depressed and alienated?
Sounds familiar? Being homesick is a longing for home or familiarity; a state of being that includes cognitive processes, complicated emotions and has even physical symptoms. Adjusting to a new environment, culture, language, work and/or study and new expectations is a challenge for almost all expats.
People like comfort and safety. Home is nice, even when it is not! Move away from your familiar surroundings and you will soon realize how many things you will miss. Homesickness is not only an overwhelming desire to go back, it is mostly about everything you left behind.
Van Tilburg, Vingerhoets & Van Heck define homesickness as “the commonly experienced state of distress among those who have left their house and home and find themselves in a new and unfamiliar environment”. Homesickness can manifest itself in various ways and it affects pretty much each person who makes the bold step of moving away from home or familiar surroundings. Whether it is a volunteer relocation as in the case of tourists, expatriates, migrant workers and students, or a forced relocation as in the case of forced migrants (think of people from crisis struck or poor countries) and refugees, whatever our story is and where we come from, we all get the homesick blues.
The effects and symptoms of homesickness on a cognitive, behavioural and emotional level are numerous affecting our daily life, our productivity and the relationship with our self and others:
Cognitive level: constant thinking about home, negative thoughts about the new place, a tendency to idealize home, pessimistic thoughts, inadequacy and failure thoughts.
Behavioural level: changes in sleeping and eating patterns, poor concentration and focus, withdrawal and isolation, take refuge in comfort “resources” (alcohol, tobacco, drugs, shopping…) lack of control, tearfulness.
Emotional level: sadness, anxiety, loneliness, irritability, anger, jealousy, shame, feeling overwhelmed, insecurity, lack of motivation, mood swings, pain, poor self-confidence.
Physical level: researchers link homesickness to poor physical health: a prolonged period of experiencing homesickness –which is a big stressor- will weaken the immune system making you prone to a variety of physical symptoms (headache, cold, diarrhea, muscular tension…).
Functioning level: feeling homesick for a long time can lead to depression and issues regarding mental focus and memory, poor performance of tasks and lower productivity; that may result in losing your job or becoming unable to follow your studies.
In the beginning…
When you move abroad, you tend to deal with the challenges and stresses that accompany the relocation while armed with enthusiasm and optimism. You bear the obstacles and the difficulties with hope and patience. You may be excited and in awe of the new world that you are about to encounter. Adjusting seems to be going fine in terms of language, food, culture, new schedule, work or study, networking and making friends and then suddenly you feel homesick and wondering what is going on.
Once basic necessities and practicalities are covered, the excitement of the new country starts to wear off and your patience with all the problems, the unfamiliar situations and the cultural differences wears off as well, reality bites. You are still the same person living in a new place and dealing with the same issues and challenges but now you feel that something is missing, something doesn’t feel right.
Long-term expats are not immune either
Homesickness is not experienced only in the first months of relocation, it is very common among long-term expats. As an expat who has spent the last 11 years “away from home” I have moments where I miss my family, my friends and a bunch of things I love about my country. My clients have shared similar experiences with me and it is something common among most expats.
When our basic needs –often associated with home, family, friends, familiarity- such as support, love and security are not fulfilled within our new environment, we long for them and we long for home. Usually we feel homesick when things are difficult and in times of trouble, when in a bad mood or sick, during holiday season and various celebrations (Christmas, birthdays..), coming back from vacation…
Choose how you deal with it!
Being homesick is very okay, no one is immune to homesickness. What matters and makes a big difference is how you choose to deal with it: what coping skills and emotional resilience you have developed and what may still needs to be developed, what support resources you have available and which ones you are able to use. It is important to be aware of feeling homesick and not try to make it go away or pretend it is not there. It won’t work for the long run, I guarantee you that.
Give yourself time and space to accept where you are and how you feel, homesickness can also be an invitation to fruitful changes in your life. Be responsible and mature enough to seek support when you need it and invest in your personal development through therapy to develop coping skills and emotional resiliency.