As a current or future expatriate you will be aware of the many factors involved in a big move to another country. There’s just so much to think about… which area you will live in, what school to send your children to, how you will transport your belongings, the list is endless. But what happens when you’ve made the move and the immediate upheaval is over? Unfortunately many expatriates find that this is when homesickness starts to kick in. Indeed, reports suggest that homesickness is most common within the first few weeks of a move.
What is homesickness?
Medically, homesickness is defined as ‘the distress and functional impairment caused by anactual or anticipated separation from home and attachment objects such as parents.’ People who are homesick find that they are suddenly preoccupied with thoughts of home. The isolation and sadness often experienced when we move somewhere new stems from our instinctive human need for love, protection and security — feelings that we usually associate with our home environment.
How common is homesickness?
Homesickness can affect anyone, regardless of age or gender and it may be more common than you might think; almost all children, adolescents, and adults experience some degree of homesickness when they are apart from familiar people and environments. In fact, studies in which researchers measured homesickness at the time the individual was in the new environment have shown that 83% to 95% of participants experienced homesickness.
Despite the high prevalence rates of homesickness, few people speak openly about it. Susan J. Matt, a professor of history at Weber State University and the author of Homesickness: An American History explains: ‘Explicit discussions of homesickness are rare, for the emotion is typically regarded as an embarrassing impediment to individual progress and prosperity.’ In other words, people tend not to talk about their feelings in case others see it as an admission of failure.
How to reduce feelings of homesickness
International health Insurance providers Cigna Global have dealt with and spoken to many expatriates who have experienced homesickness themselves. They found the following suggestions helpful:
- 1. Research, research, research
It is very important to understand that feelings of homesickness are a normal part of expatriation and that you may feel isolated or lost at times before you get used to your new environment. Many of the feelings of homesickness are brought about or intensified because the expatriate is not fully prepared for what life in the new country will be like.
Dr Deresky, author of International Management: Managing across Borders and Cultures emphasises the crucial importance of preparation and training, explaining that it ‘smoothes the expatriate’s landing in the new environment and reduces the culture shock, including disorientation and anxiety’.
Preparing yourself includes doing things like finding out as much as you can about your new country, for example, finding out about the public transportation systems in use, familiarising yourself with commonly understood social rules and learning the local language.
- 2. Be patient
Expatriation can be a slow and steady process. Give yourself time to adjust; no-one expects you to be up and running within two weeks of your arrival and so you shouldn’t either. Understand that homesickness feelings will most likely dissipate once you are fully settled.
- 3. Keep busy
Nothing will exaggerate feelings of homesickness more than a one-person pity party. So however tempting it may be, try not to stay in and dwell on all the things you miss back home. Instead give your emotions and energy another outlet, for example; why not try that new hobby you’ve always said you’d give a go? Not only will doing this serve as an enjoyable distraction from missing home, it may also introduce you to likeminded people and help you build your new social network.
- 4. Stay connected
A vital aspect of integration into a new society is to stay connected with your old one. Luckily with the availability of the internet today, people are more connected than ever. Studies by the Carnegie Corporation of New York showed that in 2002, only 28% of US immigrants called home at least once a week, compared to 66% in 2009.3 Friends and family can be an incredible source of emotional support, even at a distance, so make sure you schedule regular Skype calls with them.
- 5. Create a new social network
While you may feel that no-one can live up to the people you left at home, it won’t help to spend all your time messaging them and yearning for them. If you have moved with your spouse try not to rely too much on them either, as doing so can actually add to feelings of isolation and put pressure on your relationship. You are bound to find likeminded people in your new home town so try to create opportunities to socialise; get out and about, befriend your neighbours and new colleagues, volunteer etc. Another good idea is to search for local expatriate forums online; many expats say it helped them to speak to other people in the same situation.
- 6. Say ‘yes’ to invites
Relocating can be physically and emotionally draining and although sitting on the couch and doing nothing may be all you feel like doing, try to spend at least the first six months of living in your new place saying ‘yes’ to every invitation that comes your way. You never know which ones will lead to new opportunities and social connections.
- 7. Make the most of technology
Today’s technology is amazing, we can connect with people on the other side of the world, buy practically anything online and access information on every possible subject, all at the touch of a button. Get to grips with the technology and you can carry the world with you. If you haven’t already, get a smartphone; from translation apps to route planners, it can help you integrate more smoothly into your new surroundings. Another thing you can do to regain the familiarity of home is to stream your favourite TV and radio programmes online. You could even use the internet to find retailers that can ship over all the old brands you love too.
- 8. Get physical!
Now is the perfect time to get into that new gym routine you’ve been telling yourself you should or pick up that new sport you’ve always wanted to try. Physical activity causes your body to release endorphins, meaning you experience that ‘feel-good high’ which will help combat negative feelings of unease and sadness.
- 9. Remind yourself of the positives
There are bound to be things you were looking forward to about moving to your new place but it’s easy to lose sight of them when you are missing home. Create a list to help remind yourself of every positive thing about your new life. Be sure to include all the things you love about your new place and your reasons for moving there in the first place. Whenever you find something new, add it to your list. You could even start a ‘positive picture diary’ – take a photo of something that has made you happy every day, however small that thing may be. Whenever you feel down, looking through your diary or list should help give you a fresher perspective on things.
- 10. Set yourself a routine (and stick to it!)
Part of what we are missing when we experience homesickness is normality. Building a routine will help you create a new ‘normal’ and should help stop you feeling lost.
If, despite all your best attempts, you are really finding homesickness too much to cope with, don’t face it alone. Talk to people close to you and tell them exactly how you are feeling.
Remember, no one ever said it would be easy. They just said it would be worth it!