Homesickness doesn’t actually have anything to do with home

Quick notes

  • Homesickness is common, but it affects everyone differently

  • Being homesick can cause stress, anxiety, depression and even physical symptoms like nausea and insomnia

  • There are a few simple tricks to help get over homesickness quickly

Whether you’ve moved to a new city or you’re only on vacation for a few days, feeling homesick is common. Why? Because your brain loves what it knows. In a familiar environment, you feel more capable of assessing risk and predicting outcomes. You know what to expect. But in a place you don’t recognize? Cue the anxiety.

So, what exactly is homesickness? Why does your brain go haywire in unfamiliar surroundings? And why does it affect some people so much more than others?

Keep reading for the surprising ways homesickness can affect your brain ― and how to deal.

What is homesickness?

“Homesickness has everything to do with attachment,” says Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

When we feel homesick, we’re feeling insecure or uncomfortable with where we are, physically and emotionally, he explained. “We’re longing for something that in our minds is known, predictable, consistent and stable.”

[Qu Ji] via pixabay
That makes total sense, right? You’re in a new place; you don’t recognize your surroundings or the people around you, so you feel nervous. It has nothing to do with where you came from or where you are. You could be in the middle of a glitzy resort and still feel anxious. And it seldom has anything to do with actually missing home.It’s just human nature: A fear of the unknown.

Your brain on homesickness

Although homesickness is a normal and common response to being away from home, no two people experience it exactly the same way. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • A feeling of grief or loss
  • Depression
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding other people
  • Being easily irritated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite/nausea
[Jan Vasek]/[[JESHOOTS] via pixabay
According to professor Klapow, symptoms can be lumped into two different buckets: Anxiety and grief.

The anxiety bucket you “feel in your stomach ― it’s an unease in which you feel uncomfortable, nervous, anxious, stressed, tense because you’re in a place or situation that’s not familiar, that triggers your fight-or-flight response.”

The grief bucket can be an “obsessive preoccupation with home and what you’re missing, comparing everything in your day to your experience back home, and that can create a lot of sadness.”

You may miss things you don’t even like

Feelings of nostalgia can be a BIG part of homesickness.

The things you used to have and the people you used to know ― even if you didn’t like them very much in the past ― suddenly become the absolute best. You idealize everything from your previous home: There is nothing better than your old neighborhood, or your old bedroom, or your old friends.

When we feel homesick, we’re longing for something that in our minds is known, predictable, consistent and stable.

For example, your younger brother might drive you crazy, but when you’re homesick, you suddenly miss his obnoxious voice and gross sense of humor.

Why? Because even though he annoyed the crap out of you, his behavior was predictable and stable. Your brain craves that stability way more than it wants to avoid trivial annoyances.

What To Do When You’re Feeling Homesick

Tamar Chansky, a psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety, says that homesickness is a very normal part of the process when you visit someplace new. She says, “There are things we can do to move through that adjustment curve and feel more in control. If we keep doing things to explore that transition, we find our roots anew and get connected and committed to those things and feel at home.”

One of her tips? Find a coffee shop or another place you can repeatedly visit that will start to feel familiar.

[Free-Photos] via pixabay
Other common coping mechanisms include:

  • Include photos, decorations, and other familiar objects from home in your new space
  • Get involved in your new community (this will not only keep you busy but help you make new friends)
  • Keep in touch with people from home
  • Try yoga or meditation to help release anxiety-fighting hormones
  • Talk to someone about it ― therapists are trained to help you cope with the way you’re feeling

What shouldn’t you do? Don’t stay in your room all the time and cut yourself off from the world. That will only exacerbate your feelings of isolation and depression and make you feel worse in the end.

Tell us: Have you been homesick in the past? How did you deal with it?

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

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