When homesickness bites: the intricate emotions of moving abroad

Moving to a new country to pursue a dream, a job, or an idea is a big deal. Within that big deal are a lot of emotions: excitement, nervousness, fear, joy, sadness, hope. And there’s also exhaustion and…admin. A lot of admin.

All of the above can, at some point (or at numerous points along the way), play into an overwhelming experience of homesickness. Characterized as distress felt due to being away from home, homesickness shows up in different ways for different people. Sometimes a hit of emotions cascading all at once, and sometimes a persistent ache that makes you feel detached from the present moment, and makes it really hard to enjoy the good stuff in your new home.

For all the inspirational writing and sunshine-filtered TV shows you see about moving away for a new life abroad, that isn’t really what it is. Moving can give you a new lifestyle, new perspective, loads of new experiences—but you’re still living the same life you’ve always been living. You’re just doing it a bit differently.

This is good. In the depths of homesickness, remember that you haven’t given up your old life for a new one. What you are experiencing right now is still your life; still threaded with the challenges and love you’ve carried with you and built over the years. Still closely tied with the people who are most important to you. Still rich with the unknowns of the future, and rolling with the seasons of the environment you’ve come from, and the one you’re in right now.

In 2018 I moved from London to a small town in south west France, with my partner and our then one and a half year old. It was a choice we were excited to make—we embraced a unique opportunity to build a different way of living, and to go all in on a project we’d dreamed about. We wanted to spend time together in a way that just wasn’t possible for two freelancers with a kid trying to make ends meet in London. And we wanted to be able to spend real time with the other people in our lives too; we were craving more than rushed coffees and fleeting chats on our way to other places.

But we also love London and our life there. And having a young child made the move even more intensely emotional, for our families as well as for us. So it was inevitable that homesickness would bite.

Here’s the thing:

As hard as it is, feeling homesick isn’t all bad. It gives you a chance to reflect. It makes you more thoughtful, and motivates you to care for your relationships. And eventually, it forces you to be honest with yourself: was this move the right choice for this time in your life? Do the positives outweigh all of what’s missing?

What is homesickness?

Homesickness is a common experience. Everyone can relate to some degree—we’ve all felt that tug of longing for a familiar place or sense of comfort. But is homesickness actually a thing? When did people start feeling it?

Feelings of longing for a far or lost place go back a long way, with mentions in the Old Testament, and in Homer’s Odyssey—Athena argues that Odysseus longs for home. Later, homesickness became a more serious condition, recognized by American and European medicine as a real health threat. In 1688 a Swiss doctor named Johannes Hofer identified nostalgia as a new syndrome, experienced acutely by Swiss mercenaries, soldiers, and students living and working away from home for the first time.

Sufferers felt removed from the reality of the present moment as they focused on what they’d left behind, and became indifferent to their new surroundings, confused between the past and the present, and sank into a state of lifelessness, lethargy and sadness.

At that time, nostalgia—or “hypochondria of the heart”— was seen as a curable disease. Doctors prescribed a range of surprising remedies, including leeches, opium, and “hypnotic emulsions”. One account tells of a Russian army officer in 1733 burying a nostalgic soldier alive in order to stop the syndrome in its tracks.

But today, as lives change so much more dramatically and more often, and people are less likely to live in the same place as their parents (or to live in the same place for their whole adult lives), nostalgia has evolved and become a part of our every day emotional language. We share feelings of nostalgia for past years; for books and films; for the scents and sounds we associate with particular times in our lives. Nostalgia in the way that Hofer described it has morphed into “homesickness”—and for the most part, we accept homesickness as a normal part of life.

However, although I hope no one will bury a homesickness sufferer alive in 2020, it can still be really serious. Interestingly, most of the clinical studies I found about homesickness and mental health were focused on students leaving home for university. The data out there for homesickness as a result of moving abroad seems to be limited. One study found that the stress of working abroad can cause depression in immigrants and business travelers. A 2012 report on homesickness among migrant workers argued that homesickness is an illness, and “detrimental to social and psychological wellbeing.”

And then there’s the homesickness rabbit hole of the Internet. Start searching for experiences of homesickness, or how to deal with homesickness, or what to do when you’re feeling homesick, and you’ll discover a whole world of forums and blogs by people missing home for all kinds of reasons. It was there, among those personal accounts, that I found the most insight into homesickness when living abroad. Some people find their way through pretty gently, but others become so low that they end up moving back to where they were before, or become very depressed and struggle to manage life in their new home.

Possibly the most useful thing to take from the thousands of accounts of homesickness online is that you’re not alone. As with all emotional struggles, someone else can relate to how you’re feeling—you’re not weird, you’re not failing, and you are allowed to ask for some extra support.

It’s important to remember that homesickness isn’t just about missing a place, or even just about missing people. Psychologist and Tedx speaker Katie Woodland says, “homesickness is an unusual and eclectic mix of anxiety, grief and identity crisis all rolled up into one.” It’s not necessarily about where you were before or where you are right now; it’s more about what you feel attached to, and what makes you feel unsettled and insecure. We crave stability and predictability, and validation from those around us; a sense of belonging. Those feelings can become even harder to manage if we acknowledge that we didn’t feel a strong sense of belonging in the place we were before, either; so we are neither here nor there, with no solid ground to return to when we feel unsteady. 

How do you know if you’re homesick?

Here’s a list of common signs of homesickness. You might experience some and not others. Some signs are tied to anxiety about the present situation, while others are more deeply tied to a sense of grief for the place we were before.

All of them are normal; and although your brain might try to convince you otherwise, it’s unlikely that any of them will last forever.

  • Physical unease; tension in the body, churning stomach, and self-conscious movement
  • Anxiety about day-to-day encounters or tasks in your new home
  • Excessive thoughts about what you’re missing out on in your old home
  • Constantly comparing your experiences in your new home to experiences in your old home
  • Reluctance to leave the house
  • A sense of detachment from the present; thinking about the past excessively, or feeling as though you’re in a dream
  • Tearfulness or shakiness
  • Persistent sadness
  • Change in appetite
  • Calling or texting people from your own home very regularly, and avoiding cultivating friendships in your new home

This list isn’t exhaustive. And you might not have any notable signs of homesickness at all, but experience an overall sense of out-of-place-ness and discomfort.

My journey, and handling homesickness

For me, homesickness started before we actually left the UK. In a way, that was sort of helpful—I was missing home while I was already there, which gave me a heads up that I’d feel homesick and that those feelings didn’t necessarily reflect what was actually happening.

It was about six months into living in France that I got really sad. The main thing was family: I’m very close to my parents and siblings, and being further away from them felt (and still feels) hard. But I was prepared for it; I was expecting those feelings to become more intense, and ready to remind myself that they weren’t all based on reality.

Because our move wasn’t a huge one. We’re not on the other side of the world. We go to the UK often, and see most of our family members just as much or more than we did before. There’s a psychological barrier to recognizing that—we live in a different country, so it feels like we’re more detached. But for me at least, the reality is that I’m less detached than I have been in the past. With the exception of my older brother (because he and I lived together on and off for all of our adult lives, until I became a mum) I see all of my close family more than I did in my early and mid twenties.

But I also started to romanticize London from the moment we left; the things I’d hated, like the noise and heat of the underground, and the constant crowds of people when you’re trying to get anywhere, became comforting. I forgot that my partner and I barely saw each other, and that he barely saw our child, because of the hours we had to work; and spent my time imagining all the spontaneous drinks at the pub with friends we’d have if we were back in London.

I still feel the pull almost every day, and it’s more difficult some days than others. Also, definitely more difficult at certain times of the month than others.

But a few of the things that have helped me to find a positive perspective and appreciate where we’re at include:

  • Establishing a few routines. Everyone says it about moving to a new place, and it’s true—routine helps you settle in. I’m not a very routine-based person, and my job doesn’t lend itself well to a rigid routine either. But adding little fixtures to the days has helped to make me comfortable. Just coffee; going for a run; walking to the shop; simple stuff.
  • Reminding myself that it’s normal to be homesick. Accepting all of the feelings as they come and remembering that they won’t last forever (even when it feels like they will) is good.
  • If, like me, it was your decision to move abroad, it might feel hard to open up and tell anyone you’re feeling low. There’s the potential for responses like “well, it was your choice,” or “I told you so,” that you’re just not ready to face. But give the people close to you a chance. They probably want to know how you’re doing, and will glad of the opportunity to offer their support.
  • Remember the reality of your life in your previous home. Did you really see your friends and family every week? How often did you actually say yes to an impromptu pub gathering? (I realize the answer to that one is more likely to be “often!” if you don’t have a kid, but stay with me…). Did you feel comfortable and at ease all the time? Did you appreciate the time you spent with the people you love? Were you as content as you imagine you were?
  • Focus on the positives of where you are right now. Why did you decide to do this? What do you love about your life at the moment?

And finally, the biggest thing that helps me move through the tough days without being too hard on myself: that honesty I mentioned earlier.

Why feeling homesick isn’t always a bad thing

After a little time dwelling in the depths of homesickness, you have to get honest with yourself. You either have to face up to the fact that your move was a mistake and you want to work towards going back; or you have to accept that the reasons you made this move still stand, and the benefits it brings are worth the element of sadness it’s added to your life.

It’s OK to go back. Nothing has to be permanent—a realization that was incredibly liberating for me, when we were trying to decide whether to take the plunge or not.

And it’s also OK to build a life in your new home if it really is worth it for you right now.

That’s where my honesty has taken me. It feels really, really difficult sometimes; harder than I imagined it could. But at the end of the day, where we are now is right for my family at this point in our lives. We feel as though we’re living, instead of sleepwalking through each week. We’re making big decisions and following our hearts, instead of giving in to the expectations of what our lives should look like as a young family.

We’re exploring the edges of who we are, and embracing the potential that lies in our willingness to take risks. Some days, I hate it and want to be in a little London flat with the rain tapping on our window, scribbling words at a cramped kitchen table and dreaming of a different world. But no one loves their life every single day, and that’s absolutely fine.

Izzy Arcoleo

Izzy Arcoleo

Izzy Arcoleo is a writer and yoga teacher from London. Having grown up with a family of musicians, she has endless curiosity about creativity - and the practices which help us harness it.

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