If you’re an expat then you’ve probably grappled with reasons not to move abroad, the difficulty, the expense, the unknowns, and the very real possibility of homesickness.
Given the challenges, it’s no surprise that people assume they have to have an adventurous personality to move overseas – not someone who wrestles with missing home.
But ordinary people can move overseas, it just takes effort, perseverance and learning a thousand small routines till you begin to settle in.
What is homesickness?
Homesickness is a natural response to loss and adjustment and is a strong longing for home or a person associated from home. It’s similar to grief, as you feel the loss of familiar places and loved ones.
It’s common for people to experience mild homesickness when they live away from home.
The length and intensity of homesickness varies from person to person. For some it can be a strong emotion that affects how they function in everyday life and stops them from participating in life in their new community.
Homesickness used to be thought of as childish and immature, ill-fitting to the new age of globalisation. But in recent years people are less afraid of talking about it.
Effects of homesickness
The feelings most associated with homesickness are nostalgia, grief, depression, anxiety, sadness, and withdrawal.
This can mean sleeping problems, trouble concentrating, frequent crying, withdrawal from society, and grief over losing the comforts of home. It can affect productivity as you struggle to focus on your surroundings due to missing home.
However, homesickness that is severe and significantly affects your life may indicate an underlying mental health issue like an anxiety disorder or depression. If that’s the case, a therapist can assess your symptoms and offer strategies to help you recover and adjust to your new environment.
What causes homesickness?
Moving countries means a disruption of lifestyle and routines which can cause anxiety and stress. And the greater the difference in cultural values, the greater the adjustment. Difficulty adapting or feelings of ‘not belonging’ can also cause you to miss home, or even the feeling of ‘where to start?”
It can be hard once you’ve moved to a new country to even begin adjusting. But it’s like anything else you’ve learned, just perhaps on a larger scale. How did you learn to drive? Or cook? Or mow the lawn?
You can start by asking someone who has moved countries themselves. How did they combat homesickness? What helped them settle in? How did they make friends and build their current network of relationships?
Once you’ve moved overseas, you don’t have much choice. You need to get a job, attend classes, find your way around, make friends, and move through your homesickness.
Coping with feeling homesick involves balancing your ability to remain connected to your past while also adjusting to a new place or experience. Recovering from homesickness also takes time. Remember to try and remain patient throughout the process.
How to deal with homesickness
Know it’s normal
Being homesick means you have a healthy attachment to your loved ones. As with everything else in life, denying your feelings will only cause distress. Remind yourself that these feelings are ok and will eventually go away. It might help to talk to someone about how you are feeling.
Find a positive outlet
Some people like to unwind creatively, through art, dance, or writing. Others prefer a physical outlet like sport or exercise and find that helps boost their mood – really anything that will get you off the couch and stop you from binging Netflix is worth a try (as it can be all too easy to do when you’re overwhelmed).
Attend events or take classes
This will give you a chance to meet people while doing something you enjoy.
Explore your surroundings
Find a new favourite place – somewhere you can start to feel at home.
Make friends with locals
New relationships will help you settle into your new community and feel a part of it. Depending on people when you really need it will help you go deep quickly in your relationships. For example, ask neighbours for help or recommendations, don’t always rely on Google.
Find ways to stay connected
Keep in touch with friends or family from home. It’s important to stay connected to your past. Just don’t form a habit of calling home constantly as that could stop you from putting down roots where you now live. Perhaps set a pattern of once or twice a week.
Focus on others, not yourself
Becoming self-focused will not help you move through your feelings of loneliness and isolation. You could volunteer or find a cause worth supporting and help others who genuinely need it in your new community.
Keep a journal
Take note of things you like about the country, things you’re looking forward to for the next day and things you’re learning from this experience.
Take care of yourself
Eat well, get enough sleep, and develop a good routine with regular planned activities that you enjoy.
Plan a home visit and invite friends and family to come and visit you
This will help you to stay connected to your past. Making long-distance relationships work takes being intentional. You will need to find regular times to communicate.
For kids this may mean becoming pen pals with old school friends or Zooming grandparents for a bedtime story. For adults it may mean sharing a virtual weekly coffee over FaceTime. Try to still do things together, like playing an online game or watching the same movie.
What not to do when you’re homesick
There are some unhealthy things you can do when you’re homesick, such as isolating and disconnecting from your support system.
Isolating from the outside world won’t let you move forward. Some unhealthy habits involve developing an addiction, like relying on excessive alcohol, sex, drugs, or substances to cope and giving up positive experiences you used to enjoy.
Recognising that the cause of negative emotions is often because of the transition and not the situation itself can help in gaining perspective.
Why do people experience homesickness differently?
Not everyone misses the same things. Some may miss family, others miss friends and workplaces and others their physical surroundings like their house and favourite jaunts.
Adult homesickness is usually temporary, although for some it can last longer. Being honest about how you are feeling while at the same time trying to stay positive and involved will go a long way in helping you adjust.
Becoming a new person
Moving countries and settling into a new culture will mean, in some ways, becoming a new person. For example, you might have a good sense of humour in your home culture but that might not come across well or be appreciated in the new culture. There will be many things to learn and many opportunities to practice being flexible, so let homesickness be another avenue for personal growth as you stay connected to your past and make new connections in the place you now call home.
I’m an educator and writer living abroad. I love languages, experiencing different cultures and going on adventures with my family.