Homesickness is a very common experience for expats in general, but more so during the festive period. For many of us, this time of year tends to revolve around family and friends, and is grounded in tradition and local customs. When we are abroad, and especially if we are in a location that doesn’t celebrate the season in quite the same way we are accustomed to, the feelings of missing home can escalate.Homesickness is not easy to define, combining issues around separation from loved ones and the communities we belong to at home with issues around adjustment to our new environment. Studies show that on average, homesickness peaks in the early stages of our time abroad and subsides over time, although there is great variability and it is not unusual for feelings of homesickness to set in several years after relocating.
While for many, homesickness can be fleeting, for others it can become more serious, with research showing those who suffer from it being at a greater risk of health problems as well a psychological issues such as anxiety and depression.
When homesickness is getting the better of you, try these six steps:
KNOW THAT IT’S NORMAL: Ask yourself what it is that you are missing from home. Very often, you may discover it’s a feeling. Although on the face of it we miss our favourite cereal, or TV show, or hanging out with our friends and family, often what we really miss is the feeling those familiar things and close ties. Feelings like security, belonging, safety (physically and psychologically). We have a sense of ease at home. We know how things work, we have our routines, we have relationships that nourish us. All of this combines to mean that you miss who you are at home and your place in the world. It’s entirely normal to miss how you feel at home. The desire to feel secure – through belonging and relationship – is hardwired into us. When you are separated from the source of your internal sense of security, it’s natural to feel uncomfortable. The fact that you miss home is often testament to the strong ties you formed there. It’s a natural part of the process of adjusting to a new place.
BE NICE TO YOURSELF: Research shows homesickness to be less prevalent among those who treat themselves with compassion. So that’s a good enough reason to do it! Be nice to yourself and don’t give yourself a hard time about the way you’re feeling. There is no one ‘right way’ to feel or experience the adaptation process. There are many variables that can affect both how much we miss home and how well we adjust to our new place, with these being inter-related. Accept that’s how things are right now. Accept it’s a bit tough, remind yourself that you’re in an adjustment process and know that it will pass.
DON’T IDEALISE: It’s tempting when we’re separated from home to remember all the good bits. For example, maybe things are more efficient at home, health care is better, we prefer the food, not to mention that we may find it harder to find new connections to match our lifelong friends. There are many ways we can compare our host country to our home country and find that our home is coming out on top. But you left for a reason! – that’s if you had a choice in it – and even if you didn’t, if you look hard enough you will find things that you also like about your new country. Instead, shift towards a more realistic view of home, and a more realistic view of your new home. This means noticing things you both appreciate and find challenging.
TRUST THE PROCESS: Generally speaking, if we get out of our own way, over time we will adjust to a new place and people. We will make friends, we will find places where we belong and meaningful relationships. Our sense of ourselves will shift and we will come to feel that same sense of security and ease over time as we do at home. Remember every new start you had, at school, university, work, travelling etc. We all feel uncomfortable at first. You will probably recollect that you found your feet in the end. But it’s a process and it takes a while. Though we’d all love to feel instantly comfortable, you can’t feel instantly comfortable somewhere culturally different with people you hardly know because feeling comfortable relies upon feeling safe and secure, which tends to follow from familiarity. Familiarity grows over time.
CONNECT WITH HOME – BUT NOT TOO MUCH: When we feel homesick it’s tempting to spend time ruminating on the things we miss. We may chat with our family on Skype, gorge on our favourite TV shows, look through old photos or other tactics to emotionally connect us back to home and the version of ourselves we were there. To some extent this can be helpful. In child development theory we sometimes talk about transitional objects as a way of a child coping with separation from the caregiver. Children may have a special blanket or teddy that represents the carer in the mind of the child and is a source of comfort. As adults, we still sometimes have the need to engage with objects (which may not be a literal object) that bring us a sense of connection to our source of security. However, if we do this excessively, we are going to struggle to transition. Reminders from home are useful as a source of comfort, to the point that they then allow us to feel temporarily reassured and restored so we are ready to go and explore our new environment. If you find that after connecting with home in whatever form you feel less inclined to engage with the world of your present home, then you need to cut back.
FOCUS ON YOUR NEW PLACE: You may notice that in your host country they don’t do Christmas like they do at home, and it just doesn’t feel the same. So how does it feel? What is different? How might you enjoy that difference and embrace it? Rather that looking homeward and backward, look at where you are right now in the present. What new experiences can you have? Adopt an exploratory mindset. Treat it as an adventure and a challenge. Enjoy the difference for the way it opens you up to new experience. The great thing about home is the security. We are in a familiar place, with familiar people and we know our place there. On the flipside, sometimes this means we become stuck in a rut, each holiday season just like the last one. Your host country is providing you with an opportunity. It may be unfamiliar, you may feel somewhat uncomfortable. Move towards the discomfort, you may find it’s where possibilities open up.
For some of us, homesickness cannot be alleviated so easily. Researchers note that those with more anxious dispositions are more prone to the experience, as well as those with low self esteem and high harm avoidance. It’s also noted that those who have had negative experiences of separation in childhood, or with limited experience of separation and therefore limited chance to develop coping strategies, are particularly at risk of developing homesickness. If there are underlying factors such as these, or you feel stuck in your homesickness and unable to shift to a more positive mindset, it may be useful to seek the support of a counsellor or psychotherapist who can work with you to understand the origins of your feelings, help you to better manage them and to find clarity on how to move forward.