Sometimes I write on topics that aren’t necessarily personal to me, but today’s topic is. I’m originally from South Africa, and I moved to Munich, Germany, in 2018. Let me start with this quick anecdote:
I’ll never forget the time when I was walking in the street (public space) here in Germany, talking on the phone with my mom. All of a sudden, this older man started shouting at me for talking too loud on my phone. It was during the daytime, cars were driving past, and I was simply walking past his house. After this encounter, I was upset and started thinking about how this never would have been an issue AT.ALL back home in South Africa.
And it’s on these days that I’m a bit more homesick than usual.
DISCLAIMER: This post deals with homesickness in students and mainly with people who do have the option to return home. It is a much more complex issue and out of the scope of this article when it comes to refugees and people being forced to leave home for various reasons.
Home Is Where the Heart Is: Homesick Meaning
OK, but what exactly do we mean by ‘homesick’? A quick dictionary definition will tell you that homesickness is when you experience ‘a longing for [your] home during a period of absence from it.’ Some dictionary definitions even describe it as a depression or melancholy at being away from your family and home. (PS when I say home, I mean things that are familiar to you, like your family, friends, country you grew up in, etc.).
Sometimes, when you move to a new place for studies or work, you’ll have your ‘honeymoon’ phase where you’re experiencing a new way of life, and everything is fun and exciting. But soon enough, you’ll start to experience situations that make you long for home and its familiarity. If you’ve moved to a different country (especially one that is very different from your own culture), you’ll probably have culture shock, and you’ll realise that trying to navigate life (and all the admin that entails) in a new language and culture isn’t always the easiest. You’ll also probably encounter grumpy old men shouting at you for talking. And all this might make you contemplate: WHY did I do this to myself?!
Now, of course, we all handle situations and new experiences differently. You might be the kind of person who enjoys a challenge and fits in easily wherever you go. On the other hand, you could also be like me: I had a few ‘honeymoon’ days when I first came to Germany in 2012 as part of a study abroad program, but very quickly, I became depressed, and my anxiety was through the roof. But whichever kind of person you are, homesickness happens to all of us.
PS I like the German translation of homesick: Heimweh. Heim means home, and Weh means pain, so literally, home pain!
Think You’re Feeling Homesick? Symptoms to Look Out For
Homesickness is psychological, but as is very common with mental health conditions, these psychological symptoms can manifest as physical symptoms (like headaches, pain, change in sleeping patterns, and low energy). Homesickness is also different from simply missing home. Now and again, you’ll have fleeting moments of, ‘I miss my home country’, but that feeling will quickly pass, and you’ll get on with your day. Homesickness, on the other hand, is stronger and can be overwhelming. It may last for a short period of time, but it can be much longer for others (to the point where the person simply has to go back home). Here are some common symptoms of homesickness:
- An intense yearning and deep desire to go back home (whatever that may look like for you).
- Experiencing constant feelings of loneliness (including isolating yourself from others) and feeling insecure, even anxious.
- A loss of confidence and generally feeling uncomfortable in your environment (feeling out of sorts and missing familiarity and a sense of stability and belonging).
- Feeling sad or experiencing mood swings.
- Feeling lost.
- Experiencing a lack of motivation, an inability to perform tasks, and depressive thoughts.
As you can see from these symptoms, homesickness is more than just a quick, fleeting feeling of ‘I miss the way people do things in my country.’
Is It Depression or Homesickness?
Full disclaimer: I am not a clinical psychologist, but I do have personal experience with depression. When I went to Germany in 2012 for my student exchange, I was clinically depressed, but it wasn’t because I was homesick. Sure, I missed home, but what I was experiencing was tied to actual mental illness. Some of my symptoms included sleeping all day and all night, isolating myself from and not talking to anyone, not answering any messages, not attending uni classes, not having any energy or motivation to do even the simplest of things, and wanting to end my life. My depression had to be treated with medication and therapy, which you might not necessarily need for dealing with homesickness.
Sure, homesickness (if the symptoms of it persist) can lead to depression (and vice versa), so you need to monitor how you’re feeling carefully. It’s definitely not easy finding a good therapist, especially in a new country. Still, if you can find someone (universities should offer counselling services), you should go and see them. They will give you some good coping mechanisms to get back on your feet!
Experiencing intense homesickness can also be an indication of something called adjustment disorder. Adjustment disorder is a mental health condition stemming from not being able to cope with change. For international students or immigrants/refugees, this could also be an acculturation difficulty.
As mentioned above, please speak to a therapist/counsellor if you’re really struggling. This post from Choosing Therapy offers some fantastic resources and contacts for therapy: How to Choose a Therapist, Counselor, & Psychologist. If you can’t head to a university counsellor, you can also try online therapy with online platforms like BetterHelp. Each country will also have a suicide hotline that you can phone at any time.
17 Ways to Deal With Homesickness at Uni and Abroad
One thing to keep in mind is that home is not going anywhere! So whether you’re away for a short period of time or you’ve actually moved to a new country ‘permanently’, home will ALWAYS be just a flight or train journey away. When going home, one thing that always strikes me is how nothing has changed! Maybe there will be a new shopping centre or two, but for the most part, home (in terms of the suburb I grew up in) is pretty much exactly the way I left it. If you’re only going away for a semester or two, just remember that you’ll be going home soon. And if you’ve made a move to a new country, don’t overwhelm yourself by saying ‘this is permanent’ – nothing is permanent in life, and you can always go back home.
So whether you’re able to go back home soon or simply can’t for various reasons, here is some advice on how to deal with feeling homesick:
- Recognise that you’re feeling homesick. Look at our symptoms above again. If you’re able to identify why you’re feeling a certain way, you’re well on your way to taking the right steps to getting better.
- If you haven’t left home yet, bring some creature comforts with you (maybe it’s food, a blanket, special photos, or mementoes). Make where you’re living (in an apartment or dorm room) as homely as possible with some photos or posters from back home. I regularly order some South African food items from the German South African store to get a literal taste of home!
- If possible, try to meet up with fellow students from the same country as you. Exchange programs are super popular, and you’re always likely to find at least one person from back home.
- That being said … try your best to put yourself out there to make friends and acquaintances who are not from your home country. I know how daunting it is to meet new people, trust me. But meeting new people and making a couple of friends will go a long way in making you feel a little less homesick. Check what clubs or social events your university offers. Use Bumble’s BFF feature to make some friends. Go to pub quizzes. Try the Meetup or InterNations apps. Go on day trips. Capitalise on the technology you have! Even if you just make one good friend you can confide in, you’ll feel a lot less lonely.
- If you feel yourself spiralling, you need to try to set some routines and add a bit of structure to your life. If you are starting to feel depressed, the only way you can beat this is to do the things depression prevents you from doing. I know it sounds counterintuitive and painful, but you’ve got to eat right to fuel your body. You’ve got to get enough sleep. You’ve got to structure your day and fill it with some activities that bring you some joy. And as I said, if you are really, really struggling, please see your university for counselling services or call the suicide hotline in your country.
- Find a positive outlet (like exercise, art, meditation). When you’re struggling with emotions and feeling overwhelmed, we humans tend to self-sabotage and use unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking, drugs, gambling, etc. Please, take it from me; you need to look after yourself and do things that are GOOD for your soul and body. Drunken nights out on the regular and smoking packets of cigarettes daily only give you a fleeting escape from reality – not worth it in the long run!
- Go on adventures! The cool thing about being in a new place is that you get to discover some incredible new things. I love walking by myself through towns and cities and discovering some hidden golden nuggets. When I’m having a particularly rough day, I walk through the countryside with ice cream in hand.
- Keep busy! Feel all the feels (because your feelings are ALWAYS valid), but try and distract yourself (with GOOD distractions, not things harmful to your health!) by keeping busy. When you’re alone doing nothing, your brain becomes your worst enemy. So keep busy with courses, studying, exercise, going out, and doing things you like.
- Keep in touch with family and friends back home, BUT try not to call your friends too much because you’ll probably start developing FOMO and all that. Send them updates from time to time, but don’t allow yourself to wallow what you’re potentially ‘missing’ back home. Remember, what you might be ‘missing’ back home is replaced by all the incredible new friends you’ll make and places you’ll see in your new country or city.
- Talk, talk, talk. Never, ever underestimate the power of talking. Tell someone you trust (a family member or good friend) how you’re feeling. Allow them to give you a balanced perspective on things. Try not to talk to someone who will simply say, ‘I think you should come home.’ No! Find someone who will listen to you and encourage you to keep going.
- Plan a trip home in advance. If you’re really missing home and need to go back for a visit before your exchange program comes to an end, go for it! Planning a short trip home (where possible) and having that date set can give you some comfort. If you’re living somewhere new for a much longer period of time, try and schedule yearly trips back home.
- Allow yourself to feel homesick and keep reminding yourself, ‘this too shall pass’. I love this saying, coupled with something I recently read that said, ‘just one more day’. If you’re really overwhelmed, keep going for just one more day, and know that these homesick feelings will come and go in varying intensity. And the longer you’re away from home and start making new friends, the better it will get.
- Remember that adjusting takes time. You’re not meant to adjust to an entirely new way of life and living in just a few weeks. Whether you’re going to a new college across the country or moving to an entirely new country, allow yourself time and breathing space to acclimate (hey, that rhymes, it could almost be your mantra!).
- Reframe some things, like your time and attitude. I’m not one for toxic positivity (like just smile and be happy!) because that’s neither helpful nor healthy, but adjusting your attitude can make a difference. Don’t self-sabotage or self-prophesize by saying things like, ‘I’m going to struggle when I get there’ or ‘I honestly hate this place and can’t wait to leave’. Trust me, before you know it, it’ll be time to go home again, and you might come to regret not putting a bit more effort into your time away.
- Do a digital detox. We have a whole post dedicated to this, but Instagram and Facebook are not my friends on days when I’m feeling especially homesick or down. Seeing your friends living their lives back home when you’re not in a good space is no good for you.
- And lastly, go slow. I know it’s such a darn cliché, but you will never be able to pour from an empty cup, ever. When you’re overwhelmed with your feelings, don’t try and build Rome in one day. If you can only manage one or two tasks for the day, like getting out of bed, making some breakfast, and showering, then that’s more than OK. Little steps will get you there.
- Oh, and extra lastly, BREATHE. Don’t make significant decisions or take on huge responsibilities when you are feeling emotionally vulnerable.
Homesickness in Adults
For some extra advice, here are some tips from one of our StudySmarter editors (she’s now in her thirties). She’s from Columbia but has been living in Germany for a number of years now:
- Arrange a video call with a friend or family member (but don’t overdo it!) to have a long chat.
- Cook something that reminds you of home and is comforting.
- Have coffee with another international friend (they don’t need to be from the same country as you) who understands your struggles.
The Psychology of Homesickness
All in all, we will all experience homesickness differently and to varying degrees. It all depends on our personal experiences, our attitudes, whether we’ve been through any trauma, and our personality type. However, what you do need to keep in mind is that homesickness is totally normal, and it should gradually fade away the more you adapt to your new life. (But always keep a close eye on your symptoms. If you think your homesickness is getting worse and you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, you must see a therapist or psychiatrist as soon as you can.)
We hope this post gives you some hope! Embrace your time away as best you can – things will get better; take it from me! I’ve been there, done that (and I’m still in Germany without any intention to go live back home!).