Homesickness may be more common on campus than we realize. There’s an awful lot we still don’t know about it, but we do know one thing: it’s more than a childish yearning for mom and dad. “Homesickness is similar to grief,” professor of psychology Ad Vingerhoets says. What can students do to combat it?
When Johanna Bürkert from Germany arrived at the Tilburg University campus two years ago to study Liberal Arts, she was bursting with excitement. She was expecting adventure, new experiences and fun-filled introduction days. She wasn’t expecting to be overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness. It took her by complete surprise: “I hadn’t felt homesick in eight years.”
For Johanna, it wasn’t the first time she was away from home by herself. “I’ve lived abroad from a young age onwards, also without my family,” she explains. When she was a child, Johanna experienced intense homesickness while staying with a host family abroad. “I learned how to cope with homesickness at the age of ten. I was taught some tips and tricks to minimize homesickness, which I’ve continued to use since. Afterward, I didn’t experience homesickness again. Until I came to Tilburg.”
“Preventing or treating homesickness is very difficult”
Homesickness doesn’t just happen to children. Although no exact figures are available, homesickness may be as common on campus as it is in summer camp. The problem is that it’s often dismissed as something silly and immature and that it’s stubbornly overlooked by psychologists and academics. “Homesickness receives very little attention. It’s simply not taken seriously”, says Tilburg University professor Ad Vingerhoets, who specializes in stress and human emotions. “Because homesickness is so poorly understood, preventing or treating it is very difficult.”
‘Don’t be a baby’
Lili Stroud from Italy has just arrived in Tilburg for an exchange program in foreign languages. She had dealt with severe homesickness in the past, when she moved to England at the age of seventeen to become a working pupil at a horse riding stable. Being of English descent and speaking the language perfectly, Lili never considered the possibility of becoming homesick when she left for England. “I thought it would be a walk in the park,” she recalls.
Living on her own for the first time, Lili shared her new house with seven girls. She didn’t fit in. “I was bullied,” she says, “and I really started to miss my friends and family.” Stuck in the English countryside, she remembers feeling isolated within an isolated place. “After two months, I broke down. I became really homesick.”
Lili eventually went into therapy, which helped her get a better understanding of homesickness and how to deal with it. She stresses that it’s a condition to be taken seriously. “It’s a horrible, horrible feeling. Dismissing it can make things worse for the person who is experiencing homesickness. It adds fuel to the fire,” she says. “Even if you don’t fully understand it, you shouldn’t dismiss it. You shouldn’t say ‘don’t be a baby,’ or ‘you’ll get over it.’ It’s not like that. It can be really difficult for someone. It’s a valid issue.”
So what do we know about homesickness? “It’s a form of reactive depression,” professor Vingerhoets explains. “People with homesickness exhibit emotional, behavioral, cognitive and physical symptoms. They feel sad, they cry a lot, they become inactive, they idealize their home and keep thinking about it, and they have trouble eating and sleeping. In some cases, it can even cause fever.”
Vingerhoets compares the emotional and physical pain of homesickness to the experience of grief or a broken heart. “It’s very similar. Only when you’re homesick, you don’t mourn the loss of an idealized partner, but you mourn the loss of an idealized home situation. This can be the social environment, but also the physical environment.”
“In previous centuries, homesickness was considered a fatal illness”
We all know that it hurts to lose someone we love. But sometimes it’s not the loss of a beloved person that breaks our heart—sometimes it’s the loss of that other four-letter word: home. The difference is that while grief and lovesickness are recognized as severe conditions that can be detrimental to someone’s wellbeing, homesickness is not. “Especially in today’s world, we’re expected to move to another country on a whim if our job or education requires it. You don’t whine about it, you just pack up and go. But for some people, it’s not that easy.”
Interestingly, homesickness was taken seriously once upon a time. “In previous centuries, homesickness was considered a fatal illness,” Vingerhoets says. “It was even said that in times of war, more soldiers were killed by homesickness than by violence.”
Somehow, our old fear of homesickness developed into a failure to recognize it as a serious condition. Even if it doesn’t kill you, as our ancestors believed, homesickness can seriously mess with your mental and physical health. And at a time when mobility is growing at an unprecedented pace, and a global refugee crisis has left millions of people displaced, you’d think homesickness would be something we speak about. “I find it utterly surprising that we barely talk about it today,” Vingerhoets says.
Is there a cure?
While Johanna and Lili have learned to arm themselves against homesickness over the years, many international students continue to arrive on campus ill-prepared. When homesickness strikes, it can be an overwhelming and paralyzing experience. “It hits you like a ton of bricks,” Lili says.
According to Lili, there are ways to deal with homesickness. “It’s not something you stand powerless against,” she says. “It feels like that, though. You feel alone and misunderstood. You don’t think you can get out of it, but you can.”
So what can you do when homesickness sets in? Is there a cure? Not really, professor Vingerhoets says. “Since there is no official clinical definition of homesickness, there is no official treatment. For some people who suffer extreme homesickness, I think going back home may be the only solution. But in most cases, there are certain things you can do.”
REMEDY #1: Build a support network
The most important thing is to build a support network, Vingerhoets says, even though that can be a challenge when you’re struggling with homesickness. “The difficulty is that you need to avoid doing the things you want to do,” he says. “When you’re homesick, you feel like staying in and isolating yourself from others. That’s precisely what you shouldn’t do.”
Lili agrees. “You have to push yourself to interact with others. Even if it’s just one person. Comment about the weather if you have to, but just take that first step to talk to someone.”
REMEDY #2: Find distractions
Distraction can help you prevent spiraling down a tunnel of homesick thoughts. “Feelings of homesickness are often most intense when you’re alone with nothing to do, like right before you go to sleep,” Vingerhoets says. “Finding distractions can help you take your mind off missing home. Physical exercise is good, so try to do something active, like running or cycling.”
Johanna believes distracting yourself is one of the best ways to bring yourself out of a depressed mood. “When you feel homesick, do something fun to help yourself forget it. Find some people, go to a park, listen to some music, explore a new area — whatever floats your boat.”
REMEDY #3: Stay in touch
Although making new friends is important, talking to your old ones can be comforting too. “Thanks to Skype and social media, I could stay in contact with friends and family when I was experiencing homesickness,” Lili says. “That made me feel less alone, less isolated. My friends from home were my salvation; they were the ones who really helped me get through it.”
Johanna advises to stay in touch, but not too much. “Don’t forget your old people, but also don’t communicate daily. I know that’s difficult, especially with Facebook and Whatsapp, but if you feel like you’re still part of their daily lives without actually being able to experience it, you will miss them and wish you were there,” she says. “Accept your new surroundings as your new home. During my first half year in Tilburg, I didn’t do that, which made it really difficult for me actually to be here.”
REMEDY #4: Induce nostalgia
Another helpful strategy, professor Vingerhoets says, is to try to turn your feelings of homesickness into feelings of nostalgia. “Nostalgia is a positive emotion,” he explains. “If homesickness is a ‘horizontal’ longing for another place, nostalgia is a ‘vertical’ longing for another time. Inducing nostalgic feelings, for example by bringing an old photo album or by listening to music that evokes memories, may help you if you’re homesick.”
REMEDY #5: Get professional help
Lili emphasizes that there’s no shame in looking for psychological help. “This might still be a taboo for many people,” she says. “But if you feel like you’re not able to cope with homesickness alone, there’s absolutely no shame in looking for someone who can help you—a psychologist, a counselor at the university. You’re not left just to your own devices.”
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