Coping with Expat Homesickness – 9 simple tips

Homesickness – the painful longing for home

When we settle in a foreign place, everything familiar and beloved is now far away. That’s when homesickness may strike in the expatriate life, revealing the importance of the things/places/people we’ve left behind.

Homesickness defines the feeling of loss and longing for the familiar environment of home. But it’s more than that. A piece of our identity is also left behind, as years of belonging and important relationships have shaped us.

Homesickness expresses the feeling of being foreign, which, while uncomfortable, is natural when leaving a known place. Most people experience homesickness, though not everyone finds it unbearable. Simple aids and tricks can make coping with homesickness easier. Don’t be afraid of it.

Do you also know this nagging feeling of homesickness? Do you sometimes feel this longing for the familiar home you’ve left behind?

Don’t give up your expat life abroad because of homesickness. With some adjustments, you can deal with your emotions and lead a fulfilling life abroad.

What are the typical symptoms of homesickness?

  • Longing for home
  • Persistent feeling of loneliness, sadness, and/or anxiety
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Mood swings
  • Unexplained physical pains
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of control and increased uncertainty
  • Overwhelm
  • Racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep disturbances

Case Example

Julia, 23, is currently studying international business abroad. She has seamlessly integrated into academic groups and has already forged strong friendships. Furthermore, she endeavors to explore the country as extensively as possible through frequent travels. Nonetheless, amidst all these experiences, she grapples with an incessant longing for ‘home’ that she simply cannot shake off. At times, the yearning for her old roots is so intense that it pains her. Unfortunately, her family fails to comprehend her struggle. Instead, they often remind her that it was her own choice to leave. As she finds it increasingly challenging to fully embrace her new life, Julia begins to wonder if returning ‘home’ might be the solution to overcome her homesickness.

Additionally, physical symptoms may occur, such as nausea leading to vomiting, body aches, headaches, muscle tension or cramps, stomach aches, and diarrhea.

Studies indicate that in children, homesickness can also lead to behavioral changes, such as a noticeable withdrawal from social interactions or increased irritability, aggression, and rule-breaking1.

Homesickness manifests with varying intensity

Homesickness affects us to varying degrees. Mild homesickness in international citizens often dissipates on its own and is overshadowed by the distractions of daily life, which occupy its space. However, overcoming severe homesickness can very difficult. It can significantly burden life in the expat home.

Homesickness tends to intensify notably after the initial months in a foreign land. Within the first two years, it frequently diminishes steadily. Studies have shown that individuals with less control in the process of change experience more homesickness, such as children or life partners who relocate abroad due to their relationship3.

Mental health conditions associated with persistent, severe homesickness may include depression, anxiety disorders, or adjustment disorders.

Another aeroplane, another sunny place, I’m lucky I know But I wanna go home, I’ve got to go home.

Michael Bublé

2005

Homesickness impacts expats and international citizens alike worldwide

It’s a universal experience that transcends cultural and national boundaries. Age is also irrelevant when it comes to homesickness—it can affect anyone. Whether temporarily or permanently leaving our familiar surroundings, these feelings can sneak up on us. But don’t worry, there is help for your homesickness.

Homesickness and Grief

Homesickness shares similarities with grief. It emerges from the loss or separation from familiar places or people, accompanied by a strong longing for the past life (home). This pervasive expat homesickness following a move abroad is often termed the “relocation effect”. Similar to grief after losing a loved one, homesickness ebbs and flows. Sometimes we manage the pain better, and other times, worse.

Both grief and homesickness necessitate adaptation to the new circumstances. Merely saying “I don’t want this” won’t alleviate the situation. You’re in it, and it must be confronted. Unfortunately, understanding from others is often lacking.

Psychological Factors of Homesickness

What contributes to this nagging feeling of longing for home? Only once we understand this can we implement appropriate measures for help to overcome homesickness. According to a model proposed by three scientists from the Netherlands 5, two factors are most significant:

The Seperation Reaction („home factor“). This includes

  • Feelings of sadness and longing
  • Intrusive thoughts and worries about loved ones and familiar places
  • Attempts to stay close to the “old”
  • Avoidance of adapting to the new environment

The Adaption Reaction („new place factor“). This includes

  • The necessity of adapting to new circumstances
  • Dealing with unfamiliar challenges such as economic, social, and intellectual ones
  • Taking on new roles and identities
  • Attempts to distract oneself from or suppress homesickness

Both the separation and adaptation reactions are inevitably present during relocations. We cannot process both reactions simultaneously because our brain capacity is usually too occupied. Therefore, we must remember one thing: For successful adaptation and dealing with homesickness, it is essential to alternate between focusing on one and then the other issue.

Help for Homesickness

When homesickness arises on the mentioned two levels (the separation reaction and the adaptation reaction), we should also seek solutions on these two levels. Pursue support if you feel you’re not making progress on your own.

Long-term, severe homesickness can, in some cases, lead to mental illnesses. One of the most important coping mechanisms is perceived self-control. Since moving abroad, especially without a return ticket, can represent a loss of control (“I can’t change my mind”), it’s important to regain control in other areas 1.

4 Steps to Deal with Expat Homesickness and the Separation Reaction

1. Your favorite place. Find a favorite place that you reserve for your homesickness. Here, you can cry, reminisce, and dwell on sad thoughts. Then, leave this place, preferably after a predetermined time, to avoid carrying the longing with you everywhere.

2. Fear of missing out: Many people living abroad suffer from what’s known as the “fear of missing out”. Everything continues back home, but you’re not there. Your absence doesn’t necessarily leave a gap, and that hurts. Therefore, it’s helpful to regularly schedule personal conversations and activities together. Cooking over FaceTime or playing video games while video calling can be ideas.

3. Be honest to yourself and others. Most people experience homesickness. Therefore, don’t hesitate to share your homesickness and talk openly about it. Have such conversations preferably in your “new home”, possibly with people who have experienced moving abroad. Homesickness is entirely normal. Recognize and accept this fact. Suppressing homesickness only worsens it and makes you feel lonelier.

4. Traditions. Traditions are crucial. Even in your new home, hold onto familiar customs. Celebrate the holidays and experience the rituals that have always been important to you as much and as often as possible. Involve people from other cultures in the celebrations. You’ll be able to inspire others with what you love about your culture.

5 Steps to Deal with Expat Homesickness and the Adaption Reaction

1. Distraction. Having less time for racing thoughts and sorrow is a good thing when being homesick. Therefore, seek out as many activities as possible. Distract yourself. Any activity is a plus. If you don’t know what to do or what you enjoy, just start walking without a destination. Even a short walk is helpful in activating the parasympathetic nervous system and regulating stress.

2. Groupactivities. Being part of a group has two advantages abroad: You can automatically meet many people at once and have a good chance of making new friends. Additionally, a group or club provides a new support system after leaving your old one. In a group, you have a designated place and maybe even a fixed schedule. All of this provides stability and security in an uncertain environment. 

3. Photos. Take photos of places you’ve been and people you’ve met. Perhaps create a photo album that you can look through regularly? It’s essential to remember what you’ve accomplished and experienced when your thoughts lean towards negativity.

4. Make plans, and not just a few. Having plans will pull you out of low points. You can simply follow a plan you’ve already made when you don’t feel like doing anything and improve your mood. It’s best to visualize such plans. Create a large picture or buy an old city map to unfold. Build a collage where you write, draw, or stick pictures of your plans. Your photos can also find their place here and remind you of beautiful times and achieved goals.

5. Develop self-encouragement and self-love. It’s crucial how you talk to yourself. Your own thoughts can lift you up again. Here are a few examples: “You’ve done this before. You’re amazing.” “Fulfillment comes only after you’ve overcome fear.” “Take a walk now without a destination and see how you feel afterward.” “It’s entirely normal to feel this way when living abroad, keep your head up.” It’s best to write down these sentences and say them out loud regularly so they don’t feel foreign in difficult timesEntwickele Selbstermutigung und Selbstliebe. 

Overcoming Homesickness – Pursue your route

You will overcome your homesickness. Dare to feel and act!

Homesickness should not scare you. It is a natural part of the expatriate life. Homesickness is often underestimated and just as often suppressed. Unfortunately, this only makes it worse. Homesickness is a common reason for cutting short the overseas experience earlier than planned. But it’s not necessary. By supporting each other, forging new bonds, and consciously addressing our emotions, we can find ways to deal with this feeling and fully enjoy our experiences abroad.

 Last updated March 25, 2024

    If you’re in need of guidance and support as you navigate the challenges of expatriation and culture shock, don’t hesitate to reach out. As a coach specialized in this area, I’m here to provide assistance and help you thrive in your new cultural environment. Feel free to contact me to explore how I can support you on your expatriation journey.

    Hi, I’m Sarah. It is my passion to learn and teach about human thinking, emotions, and behavior. 

    Sarah Eisenacher

    Expat Coach and Psychologist (PhD)

    »»» You wonder how you can improve your resilience to face the challenges of life abroad with more self-determination and emotional balance? HERE you will find an interesting article with important information and tips on resilience in your expat life. «««

    References

    1 Demetriou EA, Boulton KA, Bowden MR, Thapa R, Guastella AJ. An evaluation of homesickness in children: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Affect Disord. 2022 Jan 15;297:463-470. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2021.09.068. Epub 2021 Sep 25. PMID: 34740026.

    2 Ying, Y.W. (2005). Variation in acculturative stressors over time: A study of Taiwanese students in the United States. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, s(1): 59-71.

    3 van tilburg et al,. 1996, psychol med

    4 Baier, M., & Welch, M. (1992). An analysis of the concept of homesickness. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 6(1), 54–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/0883-9417(92)90055-N

    5 Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Nauta, M. (2015). Homesickness: A Systematic Review of the Scientific Literature. Review of General Psychology19(2), 157- 171. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000037

    6  Canva Picture 1: “Asian beautiful woman thinking while drinking coffee and standing in room with autumn leaf outside window background. Concept of foreign students homesick” by bunditinay

    7 Canva Picture 2 “Missing mommy and daddy but is trying to stay strong “ by Hannahn Quijano