Homesickness: What it is and what to do about it

Whether you’re moving to a new city or to the other side of the world, leaving home for the first time isn’t easy.

Homesickness can be experienced at any stage in life, but heading off to university can be a big trigger.

Your new city might be awesome, and everyone seems to be having a fab time – but you just can’t shake that feeling that you’d rather be back home.

So why do we feel homesick, and what can we do to beat the blues?

‘I felt locked inside my small university room’

Riddi, 22, came to the UK from Chennai, India, at the age of 17 to study Business Studies and Economics at the University of Manchester. She has now been away from her family for five years but remembers her third week at university as a time she really struggled with homesickness:

“Travelling miles away from home, having my parents drop me to university and being sucked into all the freshers’ events kept me busy for the first two weeks. The reality struck me in week three,” she said.

Riddi met loads of people in Freshers’ Week but by the third week started to feel isolated.

“I was 17 and couldn’t attend any events with alcohol and parties that many of my flatmates went to. I felt locked inside my small university room while my other friends enjoyed nights out.”

Riddi travels home at least twice a year.

What is homesickness?

Dr Dieu Hack-Polay, a professor at the University of Lincoln, described homesickness as “a state of mental distress that people who are away from home experience.”

He said the unfamiliarity of a new environment, the absence of social networks and the discontinuity in a person’s routine can all lead to feelings of homesickness.

Homesickness can have physical, mental and behavioural effects.

Dr Hack-Polay, said someone suffering from homesickness “might develop an obsession about home” and have “negative thoughts about their new environment”.

Although it’s normal to have feelings of missing home, they can limit our ability to enjoy our new environment.

Dr Hack-Polay adds that absent mindedness is also common among the homesick.

Homesickness can stop us getting involved in our new environments. A lack of motivation to go out and meet new people can lead to increased isolation and further feelings of missing home.

Dr Carie Schuster, a chartered psychologist, said our minds and bodies are linked and play off one another. She said:

“Negative thoughts and emotions will link to not feeling well in the physical body.”

Typical reactions to homesickness can be stomach aches, (literal) heart-aches, headaches, lack of sleep and some eating disorders. Other signs of distress from being away from home can be tears, tummy rumbles (which are nothing to do with being hungry) and yawns (which are nothing to do with being tired).

Sometimes home can feel a world away.

‘Cultural void’

While anyone can experience homesickness, being far from home at such a big time of change in life can be tough for new university students.

Dr Hack-Polay said the degree to which homesickness affects students is dependent on how intense and persistent their triggers are.

“Social isolation, lack of opportunities that mirror their previous social position, or being perceived as an outsider can all cause mild stress in some students and deeper depression in others, depending on the intensity and the lasting presence of said stressors,” he added.

Language issues and the lack of a social network can be deeper issues for international students. The cultural void that many international students land in is a significant stressor that Dr Hack-Polay said can cause acute levels of homesickness.

A cure for homesickness?

When Riddi realised homesickness was getting to her she made efforts to increase her social networks. She joined societies at the union, requested societies to host alcohol-free events, reached out to peer mentors, and asked to meet up with the people she had met in Freshers’ Week.

According to Dr Schuster, social media can also be a great way to tap into our usual friend networks because we are comforted by connecting with the familiar - encouragement and motivation from people close to us is important.

Of course it isn’t just international students that experience homesickness. Being away from what Dr Schuster described as our “safe place” can trigger a fight or flight response in anyone, no matter how far you have travelled.

She recommends positive confirmation that our homesickness is a normal reaction - we can get past it and allow ourselves to enjoy the new experience, places and people we are encountering.

Meeting up with new friends for dinner, engaging in clubs and activities, eating and sleeping well, doing physical activity, engaging with your university work and keeping busy can help distract from feelings of homesickness, and help you invest in your new life.

Group chats, texting and video calls are good ways to stay in touch with people at home - but remember to spend time with new people as well!

Riddi’s advice:

“My number one advice for students to cope with homesickness is to speak about it and reach out for help. It can be talking to a friend, a counsellor, a parent, an advisor or a mentor, but it’s extremely important to confront what one feels.”

Universities have well-being and counselling services to help students who are finding the transition to university difficult.

If you are struggling with homesickness of any level, speak out and ask for help, you aren’t the only one.

You can find help and support at your student services. Organisations like Student Minds and Young Minds also offer support and resources.

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