Just like the first time you stayed at your grandparents or went off to summer camp, being away from a familiar environment, even if it’s for a fairly short time, can bring on separation anxiety. While you may be very excited about living, studying or working overseas, be aware that homesickness affects adults as well as children. Those relocating for work, going into the military, or starting a whole new life abroad can expect a few symptoms of homesickness, and they are nothing to be ashamed of. Feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety and fear, coupled with stress-induced headaches and stomach-upsets are not unusual but they can be lessened.
The best way to avoid homesickness is to accept that it might happen and be prepared for it. Coping strategies can be thought up well in advance of your trip overseas; it’s a good idea to give some consideration to what you might find a challenge, and work out how to solve issues that might arise. Some people may find it hard to be away from their families or partners; others feel lost without their weekly routine of band practice, church and bowling. If you have experienced homesickness before, don’t let it put you off travelling, but learn from it. Perhaps you missed your family or were worrying about things at home. Perhaps the language barrier was greater than you expected. What will you do differently this time?
The real challenge in living abroad for the first time is the small details that nobody thinks about. For example, when I went to live in Germany, I didn’t know that most shops closed midday Saturday for the rest of the weekend, and I ended up running out of food. If you can make contact with anyone who’s done the trip already and is happy to give you some tips, take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about the little things that everyone takes for granted.
Once you’ve reached your destination, it’s important to get your bearings and keep busy. This gives your mind less chance to bring up thoughts of home and the people that are missed. If away from home for work, focus on the tasks at hand. Distract the mind. Find out what is going on in your workplace, college and where you live. Keep an eye out for local events, markets, concerts and so on, by looking at news-sheets and notice-boards. Try to find out something new every day and force yourself to join in with what’s going on. When a person is kept busy, time appears to go by faster. If you belong to a church, sports group, political group or any other organisation, see if you can find the equivalent in your new locale.
When I lived in Germany, I had no phone connection or mobile so I was out of verbal contact with my family and boyfriend for several months. A familiar voice would have eased my mind and made me feel better. If it works for you, set a regular time to call home, but make sure you aren’t on the phone constantly as it will trigger homesick feelings and discourage you from making yourself “at home” in your new environment. Knowing that I would have no way of calling home, I took stationary and bought stamps and wrote letters home every week. I also made sure that everyone knew my postal address and could get in touch. Having access to a computer or mobile would have made a big difference in helping me cope in the early days, but there is a danger that you might spend more time staying in touch with your home-buddies than getting out there and making new friends.
Don’t be ashamed to seek support from others while in the new environment. If you’re studying abroad, you are likely to come across a lot of people in similar circumstances. Talk to new friends or to a counsellor about homesick feelings, rather than suppressing them. Most people will understand your reaction to being away from everything familiar and will offer supportive words and practical solutions, such as invite you out for a coffee or along to a movie. The more familiar you become with your surroundings, and the more contact you make with neighbours, colleagues/fellow students, the more you will feel you belong, and this is a very positive notion. So get out there to a coffee shop and sit on the sociable sectional sofas rather than behind a newspaper on your own. However, if you are happy in your own company, don’t give yourself a hard time forcing yourself to be an extrovert. Take things at your own pace, and feel free to visit galleries, the beach, the cinema, etc independently rather than with a big crowd, if that is what you prefer. Be aware of what works best for you in your “normal environment” and take steps to replicate that a little in your travel destination.
Do take action if you start to feel homesick – and that doesn’t include crying at yourself in the mirror. Go find someone to talk to, have a bubble bath, read a book, watch TV, take a nap, go for a walk in your local park, anything that makes you feel better. It’s also really important to eat and sleep properly. Being tired and hungry makes every situation a lot worse. I found that making friends made all the difference to me, and this was impossible to do while lying on my bed in tears. My time in Germany ended up being one of the best experiences in my life so far. In fact, when the time came, I didn’t want to go home!
About the Author: Lisa-Anne Hardcastle is a freelance writer from England. She grew up in New York and spent most of her youth travelling, ending up with passport stamps from five continents. Whilst she is considerably more settled now she still packs her bags at every opportunity.