The adults who suffer extreme homesickness

Composite image featuring, clockwise from top left: A British cafe-bar in Spain, a man looking wistfully through a hotel window, a letter being posted and a sign reading "Home Sweet Home"

Footballer Jesus Navas, who is moving from Seville to Manchester City, has had a career shaped by homesickness so severe it stopped him playing for Spain. It's a condition that affects a surprising number of adults.

For years Jesus Navas was a staple of football gossip columns. Newspaper websites would link the jinking winger to a big money move to the Premiership. But a knowing reader would always point out that Navas was going nowhere. His homesickness would surely stop him.

For years Navas suffered so severely from homesickness that he could spend no great time away from Seville, itself less than 19 miles from his birthplace of Los Palacios y Villafranca. Anxiety attacks forced him out of training camps and pre-season tours.

Now it is said he has overcome his homesickness through counselling. But in an age of globalised working, there are many adults still struggling.

Jesus Navas Navas rejected a move to Chelsea in 2006 because he feared he'd be homesick

Homesickness in adults is often associated with students moving out of home for the first time - research suggests that up to 70% experience it at some point - but as people increasingly migrate to bigger cities or even further afield, it's a feeling shared by many older people.

Opposite sides of the world

Living abroad has been OK, but not something I want to do again. Home is where the heart is, and home is definitely England.

I'm dying to return. This wasn't a move I wanted, but it was important to my wife, who is from New Zealand.

In the beginning, it was new and exciting. But the yearning for home returned. I missed family, friends, old haunts, old work. I also missed good television, certain foods, hearing English accents.

Weirdly, the most homesick I think I've been was during the 2011 England riots.

Being in a mixed-nationality relationship is tricky because someone's friends and family will always be elsewhere.When it comes to living in one place or another, there really is no viable compromise for most - you just have to choose one.

Wellington is a fine place to live, but England is the best place for us. Riots and all...

Simon Ragoonanan, Wellington, NZ

Relocating to another country can be a daunting prospect, particularly if you don't speak the language. Homesickness can have similar symptoms to depression, says psychologist Dr Caroline Schuster.

In extreme cases it can develop into a panic attack, she says, while it can also result in social withdrawal, sleep disruption, nightmares, and concentration problems.

British model Keisha Lall, 25, moved to New York in October last year. Despite normally loving to travel and explore, she's found it difficult to adapt.

"Because I feel lonely I like to sleep, stay home and stream programmes," she says, "[I'm] not very active compared to how I would be at home."

On the really bad days earlier this year, she says she'd often go home and cry.

Almost anything can trigger homesickness, says Schuster - a smell, a taste, even a colour.

For Argentina-based charity worker Fiona Watson, it's mostly visual triggers. "You see an image and it immediately goes straight to your heart.

Start Quote

Fiona Watson

You see an image and it immediately goes straight to your heart”

End Quote Fiona Watson

"It can be from anywhere I have lived in Europe - and in my case it's definitely Europe, not one specific country - old farmhouses in Switzerland, village photos of the south of France… fruit and veggie markets in Paris."

While Watson can feel homesick for an entire continent, it usually resonates at a more particular level.

"People can feel homesick by moving just a street away," says social psychologist Dr Gary Wood. It's all about how we cope with change, he says.

Moving to new places involves having fewer "anchor points" in your life, adds Wood, and "some people tolerate this ambiguity [in their lives] better than others."

Literary references to homesickness go as far back as Homer's Odyssey. But the modern term was coined in the 17th Century to describe the feelings of Swiss mercenaries, who longed for their homeland while fighting elsewhere in Europe.

The life of the journeyman

Rohan Ricketts while at Wolves

Former Tottenham midfielder Rohan Ricketts has been on a nomadic footballing journey.

He's played in Canada, Moldova, Hungary, Germany, and India. He's now in Ecuador.

But he says he's never felt homesick.

"I don't allow my mind to go there. Mentally, you can't afford to go down that road."

Even when he disliked places - in Moldova he didn't get paid for three months, while there were racial issues in Hungary - he says he just wanted to get out, rather than get home.

"Football is a ruthless business. I became hardened by the experiences [of trying to find a club in England]."

He's embraced the opportunity to live in warmer climates and discover new cultures.

But he never lets himself fully settle.

"I develop friends and you do get attached to a degree. But I'm aware that it could end in a moment."

Much in demand for their skills with the pike and near-suicidal bravery, it was said that they were banned from singing Swiss songs on the basis that nostalgia would overwhelm them, leaving them useless.

In the 17th Century it used to be seen as a dangerous disease that people could die from, says Dr Susan Matt, author of Homesickness: An American History.

Gradually it came to be considered childish and immature, she says, ill-fitting to a culture of capitalism and imperialism.

But Schuster thinks there's been a counter-trend in recent years, which has made people less afraid of talking about it.

Olympic gold medal-winning rower Kate Copeland, from Teesside, admitted that she almost quit the sport due to homesickness while training in the south.

British actor Robert Lindsay recently discussed breaking down in tears on the side of a Hollywood freeway when Elgar came on the car stereo.

Combating homesickness

Students are among those affected. The University of Cambridge says contributing factors include distance from home, a sense of anticlimax, work overload, family difficulties and the contrast in lifestyle. It recommends:

  • Talking to someone - friends or a counsellor
  • Keeping in touch with those left behind
  • Encouraging friends and family to visit
  • Accepting that you are homesick
  • Realism about expectations from student life
  • Getting help with organising time
  • Getting enough food and sleep
  • Making friends through sports or societies
  • Giving yourself time to adjust

Soldiers typically spend many months away at one time, and often in hostile places.

"Some people get [homesickness] really, really badly," concedes Maj Charles Heyman, who has served on several continents and is now editor of Armed Forces of the UK.

"But the vast majority just get on with it," he says, and the Army's camaraderie tends to pull most through times of hardship.

In fact Heyman's most acute experiences of homesickness came during his civilian career after the Army, in which he regularly travelled for consultancy work.

The isolation he felt when staying alone in foreign hotels, along with being unable to share his experiences with anyone, was far worse than any homesickness endured while in the Army.

"No amount of luxury in a hotel could make up for the fact that you were on your own. It would gnaw away at you."

Modern technology can limit this isolation, allowing almost constant contact with loved ones wherever they may be.

"Skype is a lifeline," says Wood. It can allow grandparents a world away to still watch their grandchildren grow up, he says.

Homesick footballers

Carlos Tevez

But it can also exacerbate homesickness.

"Skype and Facebook are great tools to keep in touch with everyone you miss from home," says Watson. "But at the same time actually seeing the people you love, the comfort of the homes you miss, photos of happy times all together over there… it kind of rubs it in [and] can actually make you feel worse off."

"Seeing my couch, my home, my friends together, sometimes makes me feel I'm missing out," agrees Lall, "It's everything I know and it feels far away."

Some might wonder why people suffering from homesickness don't just return home.

But it's not always that easy. Mixed-nationality marriages are ever more common, meaning that at least one partner faces the prospect of living away from their hometown forever.

It's this sense of permanence that Mike Burton, originally from London, found particularly difficult after moving to his wife's home country of Ireland in 1976 - even though he'd already lived abroad for a number of years.

"It took the best part of 15 years to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to move back to England," he says.

Student on homesickness

Lara Wyatt

When the homesickness hits I usually get lazy and tired and just feel like going home and sleeping.

I miss the safety of my family and the comfort of home but most of all I miss my mother and just being able to talk to her whenever I want.

The homesickness usually hits when I feel out of place, or when I hear a song, or see something that reminds me of them. Usually when I Skype them it makes me feel worse because I can see them and talk to then but I can't be with them.

Lara Wyatt, 20, Boston

Even after so many years, he says he still feels 100% comfortable in England, compared to about 98% so in Ireland.

People need to build "support networks", says Schuster. In more extreme cases people undergo cognitive behavioural therapy.

Wood advises people suffering from homesickness to write down three new things that you've been grateful for every night, as well as three things you're looking forward to every morning.

With the growth of expat communities and internet shopping, materialistic home comforts can be easier to come by.

Homesickness can also bring your family together, Watson says.

"You learn to prioritise and fill your suitcases [on trips back to Europe] with what means the most to you when you are away from home - you cannot take family and friends, so you take food."

Here is a selection of your comments on adult homesickness

I am one of those exchange students who never came home. Left Sydney at age 17, married a Frenchman, moved to London and now Berlin. As an exchange student homesickness is short lived and you can go home at the end. As an expat who has been away too long, going "home" is an elusive dream. The "home" you left is now in the past, things have changed and people have moved on and you find yourself a foreigner both at home and away.

Edwina Dunn, Berlin, Germany

After living 12 years abroad, I will never forget the feeling of returning to my country and taking a nap on my mom's bed... I can still remember that feeling of being home again. You know, one of those "I could die right now" moments... To me, home is not attached to a place but to your childhood memories.

Mercedes, Buenos Aires, Argentina

I grew up moving regularly between Australia and the Middle East for my parents' jobs. At the age of 14 I attended boarding school in Europe for 4 years. Upon graduating from there and moving back to Australia, I found that I spent a good portion of the first year feeling homesick for my friends from school (even though I was living back with my parents) using Facebook and email excessively and sleeping a lot. Once I began university and began to form friendships the 'homesickness' dissipated somewhat. However with each move into a new location, situation or social group I sense it again, and am wondering if, for 'global nomads'/Third Culture Kids such as myself, homesickness is a permanent theme, because there is always a part of yourself that is elsewhere.

Miriam, Melbourne, Australia

Despite the fact that I am 42 years old and have significant life experience, I suffer with crippling homesickness. I find it extraordinarily difficult to leave home. The prospect of going on holiday fills me with dread. My long suffering husband recently cancelled a weekend away in Amsterdam (bought as a surprise birthday gift for me), as I couldn't bring myself to leave home. I have friends and family who adore travelling/spending time away which makes my problem seem all the more ridiculous. It was extremely reassuring reading that others also suffer with homesickness, and that I am not alone with this feeling.

Martha, Canterbury, UK

I suffered severe homesickness as a child, a teenager and a young adult. I remember feeling homesick on my (first) honeymoon. As a teenager, I went on guide camp where my mum was one of the leaders, but I was still homesick! Homesickness prevented me eating when away and I was always counting the days until I could be back home. As a mature adult, I like to go away on holiday, but rarely go abroad, and am happy to be at home. Although I have lived in MK for 14 years and am happy here, I do still miss South London/Surrey which is where I lived until I moved to MK.

Gillian Bull Mott, Milton Keynes, UK

Left Leeds England at age 6. Smell and sound of a diesel bus does it for me. Probably because my mother took my brothers and me all over on the bus when small but we rarely rode them in the States. My mother got her drivers' license after we moved.

Nick, Springfield, Ohio, US

I have lived in Pakistan for 5 years and have had attacks of homesickness from time to time. I was once nearly in tears describing the Battle of Britain to my language teacher. The more integrated you are into the community where you live and the more friends you have the easier it is. Learning the local language is key to this. Skype and Facebook are great tools for feeling you are still involved with friends back home.

Andrew, Lahore, Pakistan

I'm originally from Northern Ireland but I've been living in England for uni and work on and off for about 6 years. When I first moved over to go to uni I didn't even consider homesickness because I thought it wouldn't be that different because I'd still be in the UK. I couldn't believe how rotten it felt whenever I'd get homesick. I've gotten better at dealing with it but it still hits me sometimes. A lot of it is just wanting to be able to see family and friends from home when I'm down or having a rough time. There's lots of random things too: I miss people being able to understand my accent and say my name (something most English people seem to be bizarrely incapable of!); the sense of humour and food! I've gotten really excited by finding Tayto crisps in a pub in London much to the confusion of my friend, and I still love the slight surreality of hearing another Northern Irish accent on the bus or tube. The advantage with being Northern Irish is that we're very comfortable with talking to strangers (unlike Londoners) so I find myself talking to random Northern Irish people which does actually help with homesickness.

Michaela, London

When leaving the UK with my husband and son in 1975 to go to Australia, I made a point of not allowing any of my family to come to the airport to see us off because I didn't want my last view of them to be their waving me goodbye and me looking back over my shoulder. It didn't work. For many years I would be a hopeless mess on Boxing Day and I would take all the decorations down and pack them away. I have never really got used to the idea of Christmas in the middle of summer. I didn't get back to the UK until 1997, 22 years later and by then, things had changed so radically that I felt completely bereft of any point of belonging anywhere. However, it did enable me to come back to Australia and realise that here at last, I have a home and I know where I belong. I go back to the UK now as a tourist!

Jill Johnson, Tasmania, Australia

I'm constantly homesick and have been since I left home which happened 25 years ago. I live in New Zealand and grew up in Scotland. My advice would be to try and not compare your new surroundings with your old, you just need to accept your new place and learn to adapt, leaving your former place as home and a beautiful memory. I've also found that Skype is a very good tool, just wish they had it 20 years ago.

Angela, Wellington, New Zealand

Homesickness may have deeper roots than we understand. It may have much to do with the insecurity of the world in which we live. At 81 I have lived most of my life away from the country of my birth with few visits back. Now I am desperately homesick and would prefer to die 'at home'. Is it a longing for the security of childhood, a future to look forward to in a darkening world, anxiety about never being able to re-experience what made you happy? As the circle is closing for me I can understand my homesickness - but with the young sufferers of homesickness it may have to do with the state of the world and the fear created by global warming, wars escalating everywhere - whatever the cause, the pain of homesickness is overwhelming.

Tobi Brandon, Perth Western Australia

More on This Story

In today's Magazine


Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.