Hej guys ‘n gals, and welcome to my second piece of travel psychology! I’m as excited as my friend’s puppy receiving her morning cuddles about all your positive feedback I got for my post about where wanderlust comes from – and will do my best to answer all your questions in my upcoming articles!
What is Homesickness?
Feeling homesick can be seen as the exact opposite to wanderlust. The reality of that coconut by the beach suddenly loses its exotic colors when going back to your AC-less 10-bed-dorm and desperately yearning for your own bed and mum’s best apple pie…
I remember this moment when I ventured on my obligatory year abroad to New Zealand after high school and arrived in a country that was as far away from family, boyfriend and best friends as it could get, I was super shy, and the first thing I woke up to was a cockroach (which I had never seen before and anxiously referred to as “THERE’S AN ANIMAL IN MY ROOM!”).
Which turned into one of the most valuable experiences of my life, and I’m still in touch with my host family.
Or when I arrived in my 7-bed-dorm in Jerusalem, which was then the closest feeling to privacy I’d get for the next few months. I didn’t know anyone and didn’t know what to do with my life and felt overwhelmed by as little as a missed subway (that runs every 5 minutes) to break into tears and was afraid and was looking to start therapy when I would return home.
Then, instead of 2 I stayed 6 months, found some of my now closest friends, learned some Hebrew, am now a master of hummus and found another place to call home.
You might have heard about the Swiss Illness. That’s because the whole phenomenon of homesickness was discovered in Switzerland in 1688 by Johann Hofer. And was back then explained like this: The Swiss are used to life in the mountains and light fresh air, also their food and drinks contain this “lightness”. When they would now travel into lowland, it would have a disastrous effect on their blood pressure, which would result in anxiety (Hofer, 1934).
A more recent team of researchers defined homesickness by the two concepts of separation (being separated from a familiar setting) and distress (negative feelings related to this separation). While a lot of people experience separation, not everyone feels distress about this.
What are the effects of homesickness?
Homesickness can show a variety of symptoms, like headache and loss of appetite, sleep and concentration problems, excessive pondering, social withdrawal and passivity.
But no worries, my homesick friends:
Psychologists have made clear, after the Swiss have been successfully pushed off their “it’s the lighter air”-stage, that homesickness and nostalgia are neither a sign of weak personality nor an impending psychosis.
So, put that self-treatment measures of Ben & Jerry’s and cheap redwine aside and read on.
A team of psychologists from the University of Southampton even unraveled the positive effect of homesickness and nostalgia (Sedikides et al., 2008). While these are found across all cultures and age-groups, it is especially present in exchange student and immigrants. But: Indulging in ‘positive nostalgia’ is beneficial for mental health, increases self-esteem and the feeling of being loved and protected, and decreases isolation for elderly people.
Where does homesickness come from?
According to the theory of reactance (Brehm, 1966), the individual who experiences an obstruction to his freedom – or in this case, the loss of a known environment – tries to restore his autonomy by resistance. The non-available alternatives will be rated as more attractive, and the result is suffering.
We can also find this resistance within these 5 stages of culture shock (Zeller and Mosier, 1993):
- Honeymoon Stage: This is the first arrival at a new place, being all nervous but excited. You’re missing home but you just got off the plane and all the buildings look shiny and the food is this gustatory revelation and you can’t wait to meet you’re surely supercool room-mates.
- Cultural Shock Stage: Dang, that excitement’s wearing off. You need to live with that dude who always leaves his socks lying around, got an upset stomach from too much Nasi Goreng and the only bank accepting your credit card is a 45min walk away.
- Initial Adjustment Stage: Okay okay, it’s not so bad after all. You built a routine, and your room-mate actually is a human being you can talk some reason into, you discovered switching Nasi Goreng with that lil Italian pizza place around the corner does the magic, and hey, let’s go for a run along that bank, yiiieha!
- Mental Isolation Stage: But these thoughts of WTF are you doing here keep coming back. You’re stuck between two worlds. Home is not as familiar anymore as it was, but you don’t feel like you belong to this place either.
- Acceptance and Integration Stage: After a while, you learned all the perks and lil tricks though that make you happy. You maybe found a solid group of people to hang out with, finally have a new favorite donut place (I confess), and successfully adapted to your current lifestyle.
When we leave, in a way we take that home with us, because home has shaped much of who we are. People and events connected to home have a great influence on our personality. While a specific date like an anniversary can be rather abstract, a place is concrete. We cannot physically keep the love, joy, sacrifice, sadness experienced before – but we can see and touch the place where these events happened.
And we internalize aspects of a place as part of our identity. I surely still think of myself as this countryside girl growing up in a 1.000 people village, while having lived in various metropolises around the world and will be fine to figure out public transport in Paris #MajorSurvivalSkill. Yet – I can take myself out of the village, but I can’t take the village out of myself.
Why do some people feel homesick and others don’t?
A bunch of studies suggest a link to personality (you can check the basic types of personalities and their relation to travel in my previous article): Vulnerability factors, that are different in every person, are responsible for making them prone to develop homesickness (van Tilbug et al., 1999). E.g., you are more at risk to feel homesick when you’re already suffering from depression, have recently experienced another form of grief or come from a particularly close family.
A further personality factor is learned helplessness – meaning, people who believe that they can’t influence or adjust to their circumstance of separation from home will become unhappy and make even fewer attempts to alter their situation (Skinner, 1996).
Thurber and Walton (200) have found four categories of risk factors associated with homesickness:
- Experience: There’s a first time for everything. If you’ve never been away, you didn’t develop strategies for coping with feelings of unfamiliarity yet.
- Attitude: Homesickness can turn into a so-called self-fulfilling prophecy. Someone who’s already expecting to feel unhappy in a new environment likely will.
- Personality: There are different forms of attachment children show with their care-givers, and these patterns still show up in adulthood. In this case, an “insecure attachment” will negatively affect how a person copes with new environments.
- Outside Factors: Homesickness of course also depends on other factors – e.g., how willing were you to make the change? How does your family react to it? How big is the gap between your own culture and where you are now?
What can I do about homesickness?
In all the papers I read through this long day of research – the one antidote that always worked was social connection. This has been the most powerful mediator of homesickness intensity. Especially having more local friends leads to more satisfaction, decreased homesickness and social connectedness (Hendrickson & Aune, 2011; Kerns et al., 2008).
So, we miss what we associate with home – like love and security. Now, the more familiarity you build, the faster you regain these feelings. Like, always go grocery shopping the same day. Take that afternoon walk.
If homesickness is developing on a temporary trip? Well, back in New Zealand, I missed my family especially during Christmas, although it wouldn’t be long before I saw them again. So I decided to spend the holiday with some distant relatives of my host family, who were partly German – and did a BBQ with some good old potato salad, exchanging presents on Christmas Eve, singing German songs… It was silly and included a lot of less nutritious German chocolate (that’s why you gotta eat lots of it, right?!), but this sense of familiarity made me feel better.
Let go of the past
You’re homesick. You think about how amazing your old life was. Miraculously, you forget all the small annoying details. Back home, people are nicer. You’d greet strangers on the streets. You came from the perfect place and this new one just isn’t as cool.
You know, the grass is always greener on the other side of the country.
But c’mon guys, people back home have their faults too, just like people anywhere do. Don’t pathologize your attachment to home, but understand how it can benefit you. As we learned before: A little nostalgia is healthy. Just learn how to dose it to be productive, not destructive.
“Inoculate” yourself against homesickness
Homesickness is the very thing that inoculates you against a future cycle of homesickness (Thurber, 2007). As a good friend of mine used to say: “You gotta feel it to heal it”.
Even though it might make you feel more secure, try to limit you communication with home. Stop prolonging the problem and *scrolling up* make this homesickness factor of experience count. Inoculate yourself: The more you get used to being away from home, the better you are at coping. In the end, permitting yourself to feel a little sad is necessary to move forward.
Last but not least: Feeling physically drained will make the homesickness worse. Look after your nutrition, work out, sleep well. Boring, I know. But it helps.
Feeling homesick is nothing to be embarrassed about. After all, it’s about feeling secure, and that’s something we all want. As children, students, at that distinct point where we chose travel over career or family, and beyond. It can be tough, I know. But understanding already is a big step towards learning how to properly cope with it.
Writing this, I thought, “home” is not a geographical, but a social category. It is where I feel in conformance with my social environment, where I am not a stranger. Of course, my birthplace will always keep a special meaning for me – it is this utopia where everything was perfect, worry-free, there were no taxes or insurances or empty fridges. But well, life. I’ll stay realistic, and I adapt.
aka, dear friends + sea breeze + cold beer = home
Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.
Hendrickson, B., Rosen, D., & Aune, R. K. (2011). An analysis of friendship networks, social connectedness, homesickness, and satisfaction levels of international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 3(3), 281-295.
Hofer, J. (1934). Medical dissertation on nostalgia. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2, 376–391. (Original work published 1688).
Kerns, K.A., Brumariu., L.E., & Abraham, M.M., (2008). Homesickness at summer camp: associations with the mother-child relationship, social self-concept, and peer relationships in middle childhood. Journal of Developmental Psychology, 54, 473–498.
Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2008). Nostalgia: past, present, and future. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 304-307.
Skinner, E. A. (1996). A Guide to Constructs of Control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7(3), 549-570.
Thurber, C.A., & Walton, E. (2007). Preventing and Treating Homesickness. Pediatrics, 119(1), 192-201.
van Tilburg, M.A.L., Vingerhoets, J.J.M., van Heck, G.L., & Kirschbaum, C. (1999). Homesickness, mood and self-reported health. Stress and Health, 15(3), 189-196.
Zeller, W. J., & Mosier, R. (1993). Culture Shock and The First‐Year. Journal of College and University Student Housing, 23(2).