Originally published on 09/04/2012 by Ryan Rivera.
Moving abroad, whether you are teaching, studying, interning, volunteering or just traveling for an extended period of time, is complicated. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or in the private-jet-owning tax bracket. The experience can be thrilling, energizing and eye-opening, but it can also be incredibly challenging in a number of ways that go far beyond learning to cope with a culture that doesn’t eat dinner until 10 pm.
It's important not to let that degree of homesickness prevent you from enjoying the travel experience.
One of the most significant challenges that people abroad face, especially those living abroad for the first time, is homesickness. Go Overseas is here to tell you what it is, and how to cope. It's important not to let that degree of homesickness prevent you from enjoying the travel experience.
What is Homesickness?
Those of us who were subjected to sleepaway camp at an early age may already be familiar with this feeling – for the rest of you lucky mortals who missed out, homesickness is essentially an acute form of anxiety or emotional distress that results from feeling disconnected from familiar people and places and forced out of your regular routine.
Homesickness can arise from a number of different factors -- difficulty adjusting to a new environment, feeling lonely or cut off from your regular support system, confusion or problems understanding a new environment/culture/language, a perceived lack of control over what’s happening around you, culture shock, and the list goes on.
Homesickness, like any other vaguely communicable disease, won't go away overnight.
Just as homesickness doesn’t have one precise cause, it also manifests in many different ways: constantly wanting to call friends or family, critically comparing everything in your new environment to what’s “normal” for you and withdrawing from or rejecting the local social life are all common symptoms of homesickness.
Homesickness, like any other vaguely communicable disease, won’t go away overnight. It takes work and effort to get through it, and it can sometimes seem impossible, but it is doable, and well worth the trouble. Once you remove the homesick glasses, you’ll be able to see everything around you in a new, more positive light. Each individual has his or her own way of overcoming homesick feelings, but here are a few strategies that can help get those glasses off a little faster.
Tips for Dealing With Homesickness Abroad
Before you even start working abroad, consider the following 19 homesickness reduction techniques, so that you'll be able to enjoy your adventure.
1. Start As a Tourist, Then Be an Expat
Go to the most popular sites and attractions to get to know the city like a vacation right in the beginning, to essentially get to know the country's culture and history right away. Then, once you have a good feel for the place, begin to find "your people", your niches, the places you feel most comfortable, a restaurant that has food you're obsessed with, a great park for jogging, or whatever is most important for your day-to-day life.
2. Overexpose Yourself
If there are issues that are causing homesickness, consider over-exposing yourself to them until you've habituated to what they feel like – for example, if crowded markets are overwhelming, then spend a lot of time there until you feel more relaxed. Especially if you're in a rural area, it will have the double effect of exposing you to your surroundings while letting your surroundings (i.e. your new community!) know who you are too!
3. Send Gifts Back Home
Staying connected to your family and friends back home is important. Consider giving gifts from your new country and sending them back home. This will give your days a fun purpose, keep you connected to those that are important to you, and become a tangible way for you to share your experiences abroad with your friends and family back home.
4. Try Local Food
Finding food that you enjoy right away will ensure that you always know what to order and where, and though it's comforting to eat some familiar foods every once in awhile, it's better to rip the band-aid off sooner, rather than later, and be present in your new host nation physically, mentally, and even gastronomically!
5. Take a Break From Skype
Technology is an amazing way to stay in touch with people no matter where you are in the world, but there is such a thing as being too connected. If you’re spending two hours every day talking to your parents and catching up on every tiny thing happening at home, you’re not using that time to explore and connect with your new space. It’s important, of course, to keep in contact with folks back home, but finding a healthy balance between your ties to home and being present in the place you actually live is vital for developing your life and a sense of belonging in your new location.
6. While You're At it, Take a Break from Other Social Media Too
FOMO while abroad is a real thing, and it can be brutal. Social media has made it easier than ever to keep track of what everyone is doing (or at least what they want you to see), even down to what people ate for lunch. It can be hard to tear yourself away from those updates and photos (especially when you really miss that lunch), but it may actually be making your homesickness worse. Instead of following people’s every movement, focus on finding content for some exciting posts of your own.
Sure, your friends back home are going to concerts and hosting barbecues and running half-marathons or whatever else friends do these days, but many of them are probably waiting to see photos of the street food you’re eating or hear about your adventures hiking in the Pyrenees.
Limit yourself to a certain amount of time on Facebook or Twitter each day or week (I hear they even have an app for that!) and try to make sure you’re contributing as much as you’re consuming.
7. Plan a Trip With a Friend From Home
There's nothing wrong with trying to convince some friends to come visit. See if any of your friends can come for a short vacation and get to know the country with you.
Planning the trip -- be it a weekend getaway or a longer adventure -- for yourself and your friend will serve the double benefit of encouraging you to get excited about seeing more of your host country, and it will mean that when you talk to this particular friend back home, you'll both be chatting less about the things you miss, and more about the great adventure that awaits the both of you!
8. Make a Bucket List for Exploring Your New Country
Do a little research about where you’re living and find a few places you absolutely have to explore –- the ten best coffee shops in the city, the favorite locations for local street artists or all the different places you can go kayaking. Make a list of these places or activities and challenge yourself to do/see all of them before you leave. This will give you something fun to do and keep you focused on the next adventure where you are, instead of dwelling on what’s happening at home.
Make a list of these places or activities and challenge yourself to do/see all of them before you leave.
Again, the point here is to create a project for yourself that gets you out of your house, exploring your new country, and mentally present in where you are now. Let it remind you why you decided to study abroad, teach abroad, or volunteer abroad in the first place!
9. Keep Up Your Habits
Lots of things change when you move abroad, but everything doesn’t have to change. If you were part of an activity, group or team at home, it’s understandable that you’ll miss that part of your social life – so why not try to find a version of it in your new location?
Maintaining a favorite sport or activity helps bring balance and routine back to your daily life and can make new spaces feel a little more familiar and welcoming. Keeping up with a book club, going rock climbing, attending yoga classes, practicing with a band – if activities like these are an important part of your normal life, don’t feel like you have to give them up. There are probably people doing the same activities in your new location – do a little research to find them, and you might even end up making some new friends.
10. Create a Routine
Figure out what you're going to do as a daily and weekly routine. This means not just waking up at the same time and cooking yourself a great breakfast, but also incorporating something fun or interactive -- like going to a nearby market for your groceries, or meeting your friends for drinks or a sports game on Thursdays. Research shows that those that feel they're in more control suffer from less homesickness stress.
11. Exercise Regularly. Go Outside and Run Around!
Exercise is a crucial coping tool. Not only will it help you combat homesickness, but it will also keep you healthy and in shape while you're abroad -- both of which are important for anyone who's a bit down in the dumps. Conversely, eating badly and being inactive can make you feel lethargic and bring down your mood – which isn’t helpful if you already feel less than great.
It might take a few weeks for you to get oriented to your new space, but once you start figuring out where things are, try to come up with a plan that allows you to get some exercise and fresh air every day. Go for daily runs, commute to class by bike or just try to walk as much as possible – whatever you prefer, but make an effort to create healthy habits. Your body will be happier, and endorphins are biologically programmed to make you feel better!
12. Treat Yourself...
... to healthy food. On the note of healthy habits, try to be aware of what you’re putting into your body as well. Of course, one of the main appeals of living in a new place is investigating all the tasty new food, and you should absolutely take advantage of opportunities to try new dishes and flavors.
Still, moving abroad isn’t an excuse to eat fried food three times a day –- or worse, to resort to typical fast food like what you’d find at home, if everything in your new location seems strange and unappetizing.
Negative feelings like homesickness and loneliness can often manifest in unhealthy eating habits like craving sugar all the time or overeating. If you notice yourself sliding into these kinds of habits, it’s time to take charge of the situation. Make sure you’re getting enough fruits, veggies and other vitamin--packed foods every day -- this can also be a great excuse to get out and explore new places to eat, or to improve your cooking skills!
13. Schedule Some "Me" Time
It's not a good idea to hide from your problems, but 30 minutes of pure alone time in a calming environment can be very helpful.
Write only positive thoughts in something like a journal, and look for ways to spin the negative thoughts.
Try to find an empty room -- even if you're living in student housing or with a family --, dim the lights, close your eyes, and just breathe deeply and relax. Taking this type of break can be very calming.
14. Get "Adopted"
Being lonely is a huge part of homesickness. You're far from your family, friends, and usual support network. But just because the people you once relied on are no longer a short drive or walk away, it doesn't mean you can't re-create that same support network in your new country. One of the best ways to do this is to get "adopted", make a close local friend who will invite you to their family functions, will help you when you're feeling most lost and in need, and can be a sympathetic ear when you're having a bad day.
Even if the idea of asking someone to set you up with a family may sound weird at first, it really is a great way to make you feel more welcome, supported, and less on your own that you would otherwise.
If you're not particularly extroverted, consider asking your program provider / university / language school if they can help you arrange a homestay for you or sign up to be an Au Pair. Even if the idea of asking someone to set you up with a family may sound weird at first, it really is a great way to make you feel more welcome, supported, and less on your own that you would otherwise.
15. Learn Something New
Research has shown absent mindedness is common in those with homesickness. Studying a topic or learning every day will keep your mind active. No better time than this to start learning a new language, how to cook every one of your host nation's favorite dishes, or begin that yoga/martial arts/diving course you saw advertised in your favorite coffee shop the other day. Also, the more you can relate this learning activity to your host country, the better. After all, you're here to immerse yourself in this culture, baby!
16. Find One Really Good Friend from Your Home Country
Making friends in your new town or city can be an amazing way to get involved in the local culture, but there’s something to be said for having a friend who understands when you just need to complain about why nobody in this country seems capable of forming a functional line, or keeps up with the latest celebrity gossip as much as you do.
You shouldn’t restrict your entire social life to other foreigners, but having a few friends who come from a similar background and have similar viewpoints can make you feel less alone, especially at first.
17. Do Something You Love
Chances are you had hobbies in your home country. When abroad, find places that can help you enjoy those hobbies -- or new ones! -- and doing something you love. Maybe, you might want to get more involved with your host country by volunteering and putting your skills to use doing something you love and look forward to every week. Whether it's getting involved with women's rights or conservation, make your time there feel purposeful and enjoyable.
18. Hide Behind a Camera
You don’t have to have a fancy DSLR to take good photographs, or simply to enjoy taking photos. Looking through a lens can be an effective strategy to change the way you see the world around you, and to pay more attention to what’s happening instead of getting lost in your own thoughts and feelings.
Taking photos also helps keep your mind active -- instead of sitting in a park thinking about how much you miss your dogs, you can stroll around looking for new blossoms, interesting moments and maybe even some especially photogenic dogs. Photos are also a great way to document your experience and your environment, and you might even surprise yourself with some positive stories once you start showing off and explaining your photos to others.
19. Work on Positive Thinking
Homesickness, like most anxiety, is prone to negative thinking, such as "I feel like I stand out here." Learn to think positively. Write only positive thoughts in something like a journal, and look for ways to spin the negative thoughts, such as "I am going to find new ways to make sure I feel like I fit in."
20. ... and Document Your Positive Moments
Negative feelings have a tendency to snowball: you start off annoyed about a bus running late, and end up blaming an entire country and looking up the cheapest flights home. This is natural, but it can get out of control quickly if you allow it to.
So what’s the best way to counter the negative emotion avalanche effect? All together now: with positive emotions! If you’re feeling grumpy all the time, try carrying around a little notebook where you write down one nice thing every day, or do something like the 100 Happy Days social media project.
Keeping a record of things that make you smile will provide you with incontestable proof that there are positive aspects to where you live – so the next time you feel like everything is terrible, all you have to do is look at your notebook or camera to prove to yourself that plenty of things are actually pretty great.
21. Don't Numb the Fears
Temporary fixes like alcohol, shopping, gambling, etc., are not effective ways to overcome homesickness. All they do is numb it temporarily and cause you to depend on ineffective coping strategies.
22. Talk to Others About How You're Feeling
It might seem like you’re the only person who isn’t immediately enamored with Florence, but the truth is that you’re not the first person to feel homesick – you’re likely not even the only one in your program. You might feel a lot of pressure to be positive about the whole experience, especially if you had high expectations when you arrived, or feel the need to put on a happy face when you talk to folks back at home, but there’s no shame in being homesick.
It happens to almost everyone, and trying to ignore it will definitely not make it go away. You don’t have to mope around all the time, but it’s perfectly fine to confide in some friends about feelings you may be struggling with – chances are they’re going through a similar process, or have experienced something like it in the past and may be able to give you the support you need.
23. Do Something Scary Every Day
One way to reduce your anxiety in a new place is to purposely do something you find embarrassing or scary – something you're doing under your control. Speaking a new language you don't feel totally comfortable in yet, for example, will get you used to the idea that your new environment won't bite, and that you're free to be who you want to be.
24. Make Your New Home a Home
We humans are creatures of habit, and being thrown into drastic changes in habit is enough to make anyone yearn for a regular, even boring day. You can’t bring your entire room or yard from home abroad with you, but you can find ways, both big and small, to make your new space feel more like -– well, like home.
Homesickness is a very real anxiety issue, but it's not one that has to hold you back.
Turning your workspace and your home-space into something that's more comfortable for you will improve your feeling of control over your environment. After all, one of the reasons you're probably experiencing homesickness is because you haven't quite yet felt like your new country/city is home.
Spend a little time and money making your home a place you're excited to come back to every day, make friends with your neighbors, and do everything you can to make this new, somewhat scary place, feel like your second home. Little actions can go a long way toward creating a more comfortable space. If you’re not the home improvement type, you can always seek out a nearby space that provides that sense of comfort and familiarity – a library, café, music venue, park, or anywhere else that makes you feel more at home.
25. Host a Cooking Class or Exchange
Food is one of the biggest causes of homesickness for almost everyone living abroad. Even if you love everything else about your new location, you probably still miss some of your favorite meals.
Instead of scouring the city for one place serving halfway decent fish tacos, why not combine a taste of home with a social exchange by teaching a local friend or even your host family how to cook a dish you especially crave? It’s a two-for-one –- you get to eat delicious food, plus it’s an opportunity to spend some quality time with new friends! Share where you're from!
26. Don’t Feel Guilty About Immersing Yourself in Your Home Culture
Just, don't over-immerse. Sometimes when we’re abroad, we feel like we’re supposed to be 100 percent invested in absorbing every bit of our new culture – but that doesn’t mean you have to completely distance yourself from your own culture. It’s okay once in a while to go to an expat bar that plays country music, treat yourself to an overpriced lunch at the one wings place in town or get friends together for a Super Bowl party.
Living in a new place doesn’t mean completely erasing where you’re from or ignoring events that are important to you, so don’t beat yourself up if you really just want a McFlurry once in a while. It’s allowed, and those little tastes of home can go a long way toward making you feel closer to your comfort zone.
Homesickness is a very real anxiety issue, but it's not one that has to hold you back. Everyone gets through feeling homesick at their own pace, and it’s not a process you can rush. Remember that it’s a very normal and completely understandable reaction to moving abroad, and that it’s okay to miss home once in a while.
Still, you don’t want to spend all of your time abroad wishing you were somewhere else, so don’t let a few weeks of homesickness bring you down. Whether you choose to follow some of these tips or come up with your own strategies, do what you can to make your study abroad experience a time filled with good memories that you’ll later look back on with a smile. Who knows -- maybe by the time you return home you’ll be homesick for your study abroad location instead!