Scientists often have to move for their jobs, sometimes internationally, and a lot of people move alone, leaving their friends and families behind. Given this state of affairs, I am quite surprised that the topic of homesickness does not come up more often, especially since mental health is such a hot topic in science.
So I started to wonder: “Am I the only one?”
But I don’t think so! In fact, there is peer-reviewed literature to back me up:
“Almost all children, adolescents, and adults experience some degree of homesickness when they are apart from familiar people and environments.” (Thurber, 2007, and references therein)
And I do think it’s important to talk about it because one of the factors that help combat homesickness is acknowledging the negative feelings that come with it, knowing everyone goes through it, and knowing it will go away (Thurber 2012 and Terry 2012).
As I’m writing this I arrived in New Zealand a week and a half ago, and I’m about coming out of the worst of it, but homesickness can affect people for months.
So let’s talk about it!
There are quite a few resources on the topic that you can find on the internet, some better than others, as well as peer-reviewed literature. In this piece I just give my take on what has helped me most and I give supplementary resources at the end.
A common definition of homesickness is:
“The distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home”
And the word “impairment” might seem strong, but homesickness can be accompanied by a lovely array of symptoms: Anxiety and depressed moods, disturbed sleep, feeling angry, nauseous, isolated, lonely, withdrawn, overwhelmed, insecure, feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth headaches, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating.
Everyone will have their own flavour of homesickness. Personally I feel sick, anxious and very insecure, I cry a lot on Huggsie, and I have an urge to just dump everything and go home.
This storm of negative emotions and/or physical ailments can be very (very) strong initially. You may feel like it is never gonna go away. You may catch yourself thinking you’ll never feel normal again. And all of this is only made worse by limited access to usual support network, due to distance or time zone kerfuffles.
It is NORMAL to feel homesick, especially when you’ve just arrived and know you’ll be far from home for some time. No matter how excited you are before you get there, expecting yourself to be 100 percent happy and excited when you get there is unrealistic and unfair.
Okay, I feel like crap, how do I fix it?
The most important factor is knowing that it gets better with time.
Self-compassion: Take care of yourself with patience and kindness. Basic self-care is more important than ever: Shower, food, sleep — especially if sleep-deprived and jet-lagged.
Know what makes your home feel like your home. For me a comfy bed, a nice cup of Earl Grey and my penguin Huggsie are a great start. Figure out your own “recipe” and take it with you.
Explore your new environment: This will quickly help you feel familiar with your neighbourhood.
Get into a routine : Doing this as soon as possible will help get you through the day no matter how strong the discomfort of homesickness. It is also another step towards making this place your new home.
Get to know new people: the internet loves to say how much they hate people, but we are social creatures, and re-building a network of friends and acquaintances is super important. Some people ask “how do you make friends as an adult?”: My quickest way to do so is to meet people who share your hobbies. Like walking? Join a walking group. Don’t have a hobby? Pick one up! If your like me, find that guy at the office who likes beer and has a cynical sense of humour.
Stay in touch, but not too much: Social media is a great way to stay in touch with your friends and your loved ones, but be careful not to use it as a distraction from your new environment. You need to become comfortable where you are, not escape the discomfort.
Look at the bright side of homesickness: It brings a new focus to the connections with loved ones and what you appreciate in them. I am so sad to be so far away from my fiance, but it’s only because I have someone to miss and someone who misses me. When I think about that my sadness turns into gratefulness.
At the end of the day, you need to step out of your comfort zone to expand it.
I hope you have a blast on whatever adventure you have embarked on.
— Heloise & Huggsie
If you want to see how shit I felt on my first night start watching at 2:30min
Other Resources I found more or less useful:
Wiki and some literature:
Preventing and Treating Homesickness, Thurber, 2007 (talks about kids but contains useful definitions and concepts)
Homesickness and adjustment in university students, Thurber, 2012 (talks about uni student but loads of interesting stuff in there)
Self-compassion as a Buffer against Homesickness, Depression, and Dissatisfaction in the Transition to College, Terry 2012 (Again about college students, but I think self-compassion was the most useful tool I had in my tool box so I like this one.)
Blogs and opinion pieces:
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