Getting the homesickness blues - Part 1
Ever had one of these days where you miss being understood or speaking your own language? Miss knowing how things work and how to deal with arising problems? Are you 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 even physical symptoms. Adjusting to a new environment, culture, language, work and/or study - combined with your 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 realise 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 voluntary 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 homesickness blues.
Effects & symptoms of homesickness
The effects and symptoms of homesickness, on a cognitive, behavioural and emotional level, can affect our daily life, our productivity and our relationship with ourself and others:
› Cognitive level
Constant thinking about home, negative thoughts about the new place, a tendency to idealise home, pessimistic thoughts, thoughts of inadequacy and failure.
› Behavioural level
Changes in sleeping and eating patterns, poor concentration and focus, withdrawal and isolation, taking 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 such as headaches, colds, diarrhoea, muscular tension etc.
› Functioning level
Feeling homesick for a long time can lead to depression and issues regarding mental focus and memory, poor performance at work 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 of relocation 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 to your new life may seem to be going fine in terms of language, food, culture, new schedule, work or study, networking and making friends and then, all of a sudden, you feel homesick and wonder what is going on.
Once the basic necessities and practicalities are covered, the excitement of a new country starts to wear off and your patience for 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 14 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 we are in times of trouble, when we are in a bad mood or sick, during the holiday season and various other celebrations (Christmas, birthdays etc.), or coming back from vacation etc.
Choose how you deal with it!
Being homesick is very ok, no one is immune to homesickness. What matters and makes a big difference is how you choose to deal with it: the coping skills and emotional resilience you have developed; the skills you may still need to acquire; what support resources you have available and which ones you are able to use.
Take care of yourself and seek support when you need it and invest in your personal development through counselling / psychotherapy to develop coping skills and emotional resilience.
It is important to be aware of feeling homesick and not to try to make it go away or pretend it's not there. It won’t work in the long run, I guarantee you that.
Give yourself time and space to accept where you are and how you feel, and remember, homesickness can also be an invitation to make fruitful changes in your life.
In the second and third parts of this article I give more explicit suggestions and guidelines about dealing with homesickness, which are based on my experience as an expat and a therapist.
Have you experienced homesickness in your expat life? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences and leave a comment. I would love to hear some feedback from you!
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