Over the years, I have moved several times. And while each time is no easier than the last, I have realized being homesick is just a part of the process. When I first moved away from my childhood home, it felt like a leap of faith, but ultimately one I was willing to take. Was I homesick? Of course, I was, but I couldn’t let my ties to home hold me back from the life I wanted to create out of state.
In the beginning, I stayed distracted with unpacking and decorating. After a few weeks, my apartment was starting to feel like home, but something was missing when I sat down to relax in the evenings by myself. I would feel overwhelmingly homesick for my friends, family, and the life I had left behind.
It didn’t take long before I began to venture downtown to the local coffee shops in the mornings, joined a gym, and started participating in volunteer activities in my free time. However, it was the morning I walked into the coffee shop when the barista shouted over the counter, “Good morning! Same as always?” that I realized I was beginning to feel more at home.
It’s true, there’s no place like home. With its comforts and familiarity, home can have a strong hold on us as we set out to leave the nest. Undoubtedly, we have all experienced the blues associated with homesickness at some point in our lives.
However, being homesick can create a lot of anxiety and unease surrounding our life choices. When we finally take that leap of faith and are ready to move forward in life, it seems homesickness comes along to steal our joy. Why do we feel so lost when we are away from home?
The truth is, we’re not lost; we’re just in a place we’ve never been before. These periods of transition in our lives can lead to feeling homesick. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome these homesick periods, so we’ve compiled expert research here to help with this trying albeit temporary season in a college student’s life.
What Does it Mean to Be Homesick?
Homesickness mimics the feelings of grief and loss very closely. It is often in the transitional periods of our lives that we see people experience the effects of feeling homesick. The feelings of grief and loss stem from the absence of our familiar surroundings and routines.
“…it can come down to emotional things like missing a sense of belonging, a sense of being known, and all the comfort and regularity that come with that,” says Barry Schreier, Communications Committee Chair for the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.
Fortunately, homesickness is a normal response that we face when separated from the people, places, and things we have grown accustomed to. These comforts of home can provide us a sense of belonging. The truth is, when we start a new chapter in life, we are ending another chapter as well. As humans, we have to accept our losses in order to move on from them.
Typically, when we are experiencing homesickness, we are merely uncomfortable or insecure with where we are in life. In these moments, we are longing for something familiar and predictable in our lives.
Kristina Sharp, a communications professor at the University of Washington, co-authored a 2015 study that looked at what people are really missing when they feel homesick. Through a series of in-depth interviews, her research team observed that homesick people generally miss the stability associated with their homes.
“The things people miss the most are the activities that they used to do, their animals, their family, the feeling that they had while they were at home, the food that they might have eaten, the friends they had, or a general sense of routine and normalcy,” she said. “For many people home, is a feeling.”
The feelings associated with homesickness lead us to feeling disconnected or in-between places. Students tend to have a fear of missing out as well, whether they’re family traditions, time spent with friends, or holiday plans.
Although homesickness is not a clinical diagnosis, the symptoms can be similar to those associated with anxiety or depression. These symptoms can lead to angst amongst students. Also, it is worth mentioning, that those who report living with anxiety and depression may find it harder to overcome feelings of homesickness in the long run.
Along with increased feelings of anxiety and depression, we also see homesickness associated with insomnia, appetite problems, and difficulty concentrating. Some students may become obsessed with the things they are missing from home, while others may be more alert to the overwhelming sense of tension and unease in their new environment.
A Period of Adjustment Leads to Homesickness
The fact is, every one of us has experienced missing home at some point especially when we embark on a new journey in life. Whenever we are going through a period of adjustment, we can feel uneasy, tense, and anxious about the end results of our choices. This insecurity with where we are physically and emotionally leads to missing the predictable, consistent, and stable nature of our home.
Dr. Tamar Chansky says transitional periods in life can be compared to a swimming pool: It doesn’t feel good when we get in at first, but we adjust over time. Chansky, a psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, emphasizes throughout her work that homesickness is a normal part of the human experience.
Homesickness has everything to do with the periods of adjustment in our life. Yes, we could be missing home, but on a deeper level, we are not feeling settled among our new surroundings. The uncertainty along with our discomfort at the beginning of these periods tend to make us believe it will last forever, but it will get better with time as we become more integrated with our surroundings.
Chansky recommends people feeling homesick find a local coffee shop (or any place for that matter) that they can visit on a regular basis to establish new traditions. Over time, we will form new attachments, routines, and relationships that will ultimately distract us from the loss of what we once knew. These new attachments will allow us to focus on the path that lies ahead instead of the one we left behind.
What Are the Effects of Homesickness on our Body and Mind?
Although homesickness is a normal and common human experience, the feelings associated with being homesick can be very difficult to process. We know that homesickness is a grief reaction. Just as we mourn the loss of a loved one, so must we grieve over the loss of a familiar place. The longing and yearning for the home can extend into all aspects of our life. We see homesickness leading to feelings of depression and anxiety when it gets very difficult to cope with a new environment.
Homesickness can be a very emotionally painful condition. When students become obsessed with the fact they are missing home, we see more cases of insomnia, appetite problems, and difficulties concentrating.
When we feel uncomfortable, nervous, anxious, stressed, or tense because of a new environment, it is because we’re no longer in familiar territory, which can trigger the fight or flight response. Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist and mental health specialist, says, “The comfort of home becomes like a person you’ve lost and miss.”
While everyone experiences homesickness in different ways, Klapow believes the physical manifestation can be categorized into two ‘buckets’:
“One is more of an anxiety bucket. You feel it in your stomach—it’s an unease in which you feel uncomfortable, nervous, anxious, stressed, tense because you’re in a place or situation that’s not familiar, which triggers your fight-or-flight response,” he says. “It’s an evolutionary, adaptive thing that wires us to protect ourselves from danger when something is unknown. When we think about home, we know that the sense of unknown and potential danger is not happening there, so we want to return.”
This bucket is more about the grief, longing, and sadness associated with homesickness.
“The comfort of home becomes like a person you’ve lost and miss,” says Klapow. “You may have some obsessive preoccupation with home and what you’re missing, comparing everything in your day to your experience back home, and that can create a lot of sadness.”
Our feelings of nostalgia can play into and exacerbate our homesick symptoms.
“When we’re homesick, we tend to paint a picture of what we’re missing in a way that is idealized,” Klapow explains. “We don’t say, ‘I miss the smog’ or ‘I miss my mom yelling at me.’ Instead, it’s ‘I miss the comfort of my room,’ ‘I miss my old friends,’ or ‘I miss the feeling of my neighborhood.’”
Homesickness may not be recognized as a clinical condition like anxiety or depression. However, the effects are just as real. When we trigger our body’s fight or flight response, some may experience an upset stomach, overall uneasiness, shakiness, or crying.
In these moments, the body is trying to tell us something is wrong, which in turn produces more of the fear and negativity we are trying to avoid. When we already have feelings of anxiety or depression, our negative emotions are going to be amplified by our longing for home.
How to Beat the Blues and Overcome Homesickness
Fortunately, students can beat the blues associated with homesickness. This longing for home is a feeling shared by many students.
However, no one wants to talk about it like they should. Most individuals report not mentioning their feelings of homesickness because they do not want to scare their younger siblings who are making their own college decisions, or they feel their social circle will not offer support, while others think the feeling will pass, or they simply do not want peers to know how they are feeling.
In most cases, when we are feeling ‘bad,’ our first inclination is to retreat, but students should instead allow themselves to be open to trying new things and meeting new people. In order to overcome homesickness, it is important to create new routines, make new friends, and ultimately cultivate an environment where we feel known. Sometimes you want to go, where everybody knows your name.
In order to cope with this longing for home, students should understand what they are missing most about home and learn how they can fill that void in life.
Here are a few suggestions to help students struggling with homesickness:
- Recognize that feeling homesick is normal and temporary.
- Reach out to others for support.
- Create your own traditions that will make the campus feel like home.
- Familiarize yourself with your new surroundings.
- Establish routines and activities.
- Keep in touch with friends and family.
- Set expectations and goals for your college experience.
- Find opportunities to connect with other students through clubs, volunteering, or on-campus jobs.
- Volunteer for community service projects.
- Find a spiritual or religious community to be part of.
With every new opportunity, we are faced with the choice to stay within our comfort zone or take a chance on something new. For a lot of people, this decision comes with the fear of the unknown. In life, we cannot let the fear of leaving home hold us back. It can be overwhelming moving away from the life we’ve always known.
The good news is, this too shall pass. Homesickness is merely a phase that we must all overcome at some point in our lives. Once we have come to terms with the fact that homesickness is only temporary, the best plan of action is to start making connections within our new environment.
Chansky adds, “You want to build up your home underneath where you are. That way, you can still miss home, but you don’t feel so bereft because you have more of what you need where you are.”
These new connections will allow us to feel more at home in our new environment.
However, even though these activities can be a welcome distraction in this time of our life, we may still feel homesick when we are alone once again.
In these moments, we must allow ourselves to feel these emotions but also ask, “If things were better, what would it be like?”
By acknowledging our feelings and confronting our emotions head-on, we will begin to heal our homesick hearts.