The experience of homesickness has common features for all of us. At the same time, each of us can experience homesickness in a number of different ways, including its duration. For some, homesickness can pass fairly quickly, while for others it can take much longer.
How long does homesickness last, in general? Studies have shown homesickness to last between 3 weeks to 1 year and 4 months. The length of time and intensity of homesickness is heavily influenced by a number of factors: personality, culture, duration of time from home, frequency of visits or contact with home, and reason for leaving.
Though this range seems large at first glance, as you dig into the factors that influence the duration of homesickness, it becomes clear the experience of homesickness comes in all shapes
Factors That Influence Homesickness
Personality can be seen as a unique pair of glasses we all wear and view the world from. It’s also our unique way of being in the world. How we related to our environment and within relationships.
Personality is important for homesickness because of the fact that it influences two important things:
- A person’s susceptibility to experiencing homesickness
- A person’s coping style for dealing with homesickness
Traits MORE Susceptible to Homesickness
- High on neuroticism
- High on anxiousness
- High on Introversion
- Low self-esteem
- High on harm avoidance
- Low self-directedness
Traits LESS Susceptible to Homesickness
- Low on neuroticism
- Low on anxiousness
- High on extraversion
- High self-esteem
- Emotional stability
- High self-directedness
Helpful Coping Styles
- High self-disclosure (being open about what you’re dealing with)
- Seeking social support
- Distractive activities
- Physical activities
Unhelpful Coping Styles
- Low self-disclosure (not being open about your experience)
- Isolating from social support
- Reliance on drugs/alcohol
Personality isn’t something that we should judge or try to change. Sure, there may be some wiggle room, but we shouldn’t necessarily try to change our core personality.
Instead of trying to change your personality, just try to become more aware of it. And ask yourself:
- What strengths is my personality bringing me in this situation?
- What challenges is it bringing me?
- What things do I have control over in this situation?
- What are things I don’t have control over?
Freedom of Choice
In general, with all other factors equal, the more choice you have in leaving your home, the less you will struggle with homesickness.
It’s important to not view freedom of choice as an either/or situation. Instead, view it on a spectrum.
For example, compare the freedom of choice between these three examples:
- War refugee leaving their hometown to seek safety
- Moving to a new country alone just to experience a new country
- A couple moves to another country because one of them received an international job assignment
According to Van Tilburg, freedom of choice is synonymous with perceived control in a situation. And the more control one feels, the more they believe they can influence their situation. And they more they feel like they can influence their situation the more action they will take to fight homesickness.
So, the more freedom of choice one had in leaving home, the better they will be at managing the negative emotions caused by homesickness.
And for a person who perceives that they have low or zero control over being away from home, the less likely they are to take steps to counter homesickness and the more intense their emotions will be.
Distance From Home (Physical and Psychological)
A study conducted by Gruijeters found that length of stay and companionship (i.e., moving alone vs relocating with a companion) were more important factors in how one experiences homesickness compared to the actual physical distance from home.
In short, ‘psychological distance’ (that is, one’s perception of how ‘close’ or ‘distant’ they are) from home is more important than actual physical distance.
Psychological distance factors:
- Opportunities to communicate with people back at home
- Opportunities to visit home or see loved ones
- How similar (or dissimilar) their new environment is relative to home
- Length of stay
- Moving away alone or moving away with a friend or family member
In general, the more psychologically disconnected one feels from home, the more intense and the longer the duration of homesickness.
Gruijters also found the likelihood of experiencing homesickness increases if a person has no friends or not trusted individuals at their new location.
Experience and Expectations
Though research has not tackled this area of homesickness, I think it’s important to acknowledge how previous experience of moving away from home can impact a person’s expectations, and as a result, impact homesickness.
It’s intuitive to think that the more experience one has in moving away from home, the more equipped they are at dealing with homesickness. From my experience working with clients, this can be true, but not always the case. In fact, the belief of “I’ve been through it before so this transition will be easier” can be a setup for a letdown.
When expectations aren’t met, it can lead to even more stress than the homesickness itself. It can also lead to denial or negative self-talk (e.g., “I shouldn’t be experiencing homesickness, I’ve been through it before”).
It’s important to understand that experience can help as long as it doesn’t lead to unrealistic expectations of one’s self.
It’s also important to understand that not all moves are equal. For example, Jill moved to Ireland in her 20’s and experienced homesickness for 3 months. She was constantly missing the comfort of her boyfriend at the time. However, this move, Jill is in her 50’s, and her thoughts are mostly fixated on missing her aging parents.
In military psychology, they call this process the deployment spiral. Every deployment is different because the family is a different stage of their lives. The kids are a different age, meaning different concerns and issues. The couple’s relationship is likely in a different stage. And their extended families are older and likely dealing with different issues.
In short, every move is unique and comes with its own challenges.
Commitment to New Environment
How committed a person is to their new environment will influence how they experience homesickness.
In general, the more committed one is to their environment, the less intense the homesickness.
What variables impact one’s commitment to the new environment? Things like general satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with the new environment and met (or unmet) expectations regarding the new environment.
Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. The more satisfied a person is and the more the new environment met a person’s expectations, the more focused they are on making it work.
In addition, according to Van Tilburg, the more a person is committed to making the new environment work, the more they are willing to seek out new information about it is. For example, learn about the culture and language.
This accomplishes two things. By consuming one’s time with seeking out new information, they have less time to be focused on home. And as a result, experience less homesickness for less amount of time. In addition, the more someone learns about their new environment, the more it increases the known. That is, the quicker the new environment becomes home.
Common Thought Distortions
Thought distortions are gaps between our thoughts and reality. They are lies that our minds convince us are true.
Thought distortions are common, no matter in your home environment or not. However, they have a tendency to be more frequent and persistent when we’re experiencing change and transition (like moving to a new environment).
Below are a few common distortions:
Forecasting: Your brain is convinced it knows what’s going to happen in the future. “I won’t get over homesickness and can never live overseas again.”
Black and White Thinking: Your brain convinces you something is good or bad; no room for the grey. “People in Tokyo are cold.”
Negative Filter: Your brain hyper focuses on the negative and dismisses all the positive. “There’s nothing positive about this transition.”
Catastrophizing: Your brian convinces you the worst-case scenario is going to happen. “I’m going to lose contact with friends back at home, I’m going to lose them as friends, I won’t find any new friends, and I’m going to be lonely the rest of my life.
Should Statements: Your brain puts unrealistic expectations on yourself. “I shouldn’t be homesick. I’ve many times before.”
Though thought distortions are more of a result of homesickness rather than a cause, they are definitely a factor in the intensity and duration of homesickness.
How to Shorten the Duration & Intensity of Homesickness
Know What Homesickness Is
First, it’s important to understand what homesickness actually is:
Our brains feel comfortable when they are in the know. We feel comfortable and at ease. And moving away from home disrupts this mental state.
In short, to some degree, homesickness can be seen as a disruption to our normal routine.
It’s also important to understand that homesickness is very much connected with grief. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. When an individual leaves their home they experience all types of loss:
- Loss of familiar sights and sounds
- Loss of routine
- Loss of relationships (either entirely or how they once used to be)
- Loss of previous identity
Understanding homesickness from a grief point of view can bring a lot of insight into the experience and what to do about it.
According to Sue Morris, grief has three psychological components: Loss, change, and control.
Loss usually happens on multiple levels. For example, Morris describes when someone dies, the focus is usually on the person who died. However, underneath the surface, there’s more. Who or what did this person represent? Maybe they were someone who “represented [your] hopes and dreams for the future.”
So, yes, you lost some thing, person, or situation, but more importantly, what did it represent to you?
Change means we’re forced to adjust. As mentioned above, our brains like the known. And change is a threat to the known. So, inevitably, the more change we encounter, the more our brains are busy trying to adjust, changing the unknown into known.
Our brains also like control. When we feel that we are in control, our brains have more known. When we are in control we understand our current situation and what’s coming. We feel comfortable.
And the process of homesickness can have a snowball-like effect. As a person begins to experience homesickness, they in a way, have two losses: their home and what it was like there, and also their previous, calm emotional state. As a result, we feel stress about our stress. Two layers of stress. And if we don’t manage it, it can snowball quickly and the two layers feed off of and intensify one another.
The snowball effect is especially true when we experience homesickness for the first time. It hits us out of nowhere and it’s a completely new experience. We can start to feel like we’re going crazy.
Recognize Homesickness Symptoms
If we don’t know that we’re even experiencing homesickness, it’s going to be hard to minimize the impact and duration. So, the first step is to recognize and accept that you’re experiencing homesickness by paying attention to its symptoms:
Cognitive Symptoms (Thinking)
- Racing thoughts
- Continually thinking about home
- Thinking about what you’re missing out on at home (real or imagined)
- Negative thoughts about the current location (culture, people, food, weather, etc.)
- Idealizing home
- Negative thoughts about one’s self (e.g., “I shouldn’t be homesick,” “I’m not going to adapt”)
- Over-concern regarding your health
Emotional Symptoms (Feeling)
- Sadness and depression
- Anxiety and nervousness
- Easily irritable or frustrated
- Feeling insecure
- Feeling a loss of control
Behavioral Symptoms (Actions)
- Avoiding new environment
- Urge to return home
- Emailing, texting, or calling friends and family back home often
- Substance abuse
- Risky sexual behavior
- Overuse of Internet
- Overuse of video games
Physical Symptoms (Body Sensations)
- Chest pain
- Gastric and intestinal pain or other issues
- Sleep issues
- Appetite loss
- Minor aches
It’s important to know that homesickness tends to hit hard in the morning and night time. When we wake up and before we go to bed.
It also tends to happen more often when we’re engaged in mental and passive tasks, as opposed to active and physical tasks (Fisher, 1989).
Recognize Thought Distortions
It’s important to understand that thought distortions are normal and impossible to avoid whether your experiencing homesickness or not. As long as you’re human, you will continue to experience them.
So, it’s important that a person doesn’t set themselves up for failure by making it a goal to stop thought distortions altogether. It’s impossible.
Instead, a more realistic goal is to simply become aware of the thought distortions, more often.
In general, the less aware a person is of thought distortions, the more distorted their view of reality is, and the deeper and longer they will experience homesickness.
The more aware a person is of their thought distortions, the more control they have to stop reacting on them. We can interject more realistic and logical thoughts instead. That way, instead of reacting to the thoughts, we are responding.
Recognize That it’s 100% Normal
Experiencing homesickness doesn’t mean you have a mental illness. It means you valued your home and previous routine. It also means your a human.
It’s important to think about YOUR normal and not compare yourself to others, who may be dealing with a similar situation of leaving home, but not the EXACT same situation you are.
Even a couple leaving home together are going to have different perspectives on the move. In addition, they have different personalities. Inevitably one is going to experience homesickness longer and more intense than the other. That’s ok.
In short, comparing yourself to others is never really fair because you’re always going to be comparing apples to oranges.
Though maybe it’s possible to not experience homesickness, I would be more concerned if I had a client report to me they didn’t experience any homesickness after leaving home. Research has shown that even people who leave terrible home environments experience homesickness.
Understand that Homesickness Might Last Forever (to Some Degree)
We can’t erase our memories of home 100%, which means, as long as we’re away from home, we’re susceptible to homesickness to a certain degree.
Though the intensity of homesickness should decline as you slowly adjust to your new environment, there will always be triggers of home:
- Email or phone call from a certain person
- Family/friends visiting
So, it’s important to know and expect that homesickness comes in waves or episodes. The first wave or episode is usually the strongest, but it’s not rare to be blindsided by another good-sized episoded years later.
It’s also important to know that returning home isn’t always a cure to homesickness. The longer we stay in our new environment, the more we find things that we enjoy that are unique there. So, when we return ‘home,’ we realize, in a sense, we added a second home to miss for the rest of our lives.
The more you experience new places, the more you have to miss later on.
When to Seek Help
First, it’s important to seek help if you want it. Your homesickness doesn’t need to be debilitating in order for you to reach out to a professional. In fact, it’s much better to reach out sooner, while things are still good or ok than to wait until things get really difficult.
Rather than asking yourself, “how long does homesickness last” or “is this normal,” maybe better questions to ask are:
- Is this working for me right now?
- How big of an issue is this for me?
- Is this interfering with important things in my life? and if so, how much is it interfering?
- What do I need to do to get to a state that works for me?
What’s common between all these questions? It brings the focus away from comparing your situation to others and more towards your own needs and desires. This is important.
People usually reach out to me for one of the reasons below; all of which are great reasons:
- There are no major problems and the person is just looking to get further ahead, get through a transition a little quicker, and gain a little more insight regarding their situation
- Emotions are getting stronger, but day-to-day things are still ok. The person seeks help to prevent things from progressing to something more serious
- Functioning day-to-day is a challenge and solving the issue doesn’t seem possible on his or her own
I offer: online therapy in California, online therapy in Okinawa, and online therapy in Japan.
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