I remember the day I boarded the plane at John F. Kennedy airport, a one-way boarding pass in hand. I felt a mix of excitement and trepidation as I embarked on a journey from New York to London, which was about to be my new home.
While the prospect of starting fresh in a vibrant city was alluring, as days turned into weeks and weeks into months I began to experience homesickness tugging at my heartstrings like an invisible force. Personally, I missed the comforting aroma of my favorite dishes cooked by my mother, I yearned for warm cups of coffee at my favorite cafes, and I craved in-person friend dates and banter that was replaced by virtual conversations. I also often felt isolated, sad or anxious.
Homesickness is essentially distress related to being away from home and a longing for people, pets or places that are connected to home. Whether it’s going to college, moving to a new city or country, or simply being in an unfamiliar environment, the absence of comfort and familiarity can have emotional and physical impacts on a person.
A range of emotions and physical symptoms can manifest when one feels homesick. Here’s what going on in your body and mind:
Unresolved feelings of homesickness can lead to anxiety and depression.
It’s absolutely normal to miss being in an environment where you are comfortable and feel secure. In fact, according to Patrice Le Goy, a psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, feeling a little homesick is a good sign, because it means you have a home or environment that is stable, loving and nurturing. It’s when those feelings persist continuously that it can be problematic.
“When we’re homesick, at times it can have mild effects on our emotional and mental health,” Le Goy said. “But if left unchecked, it can become more advanced, leading to feelings of anxiety, isolation, and depression. When all you’re thinking about is home and missing people and your old environment, it can stop you from enjoying and being present in your current circumstances.”
For anyone feeling severe isolation or anxiety, it’s also beneficial to get professional counseling or talk to a neutral party about this big life adjustment.
Homesickness can contribute to feelings of apathy and lack of motivation.
Chronic feelings of homesickness can cause people to feel an amorphous sense of emptiness and a desire to return to what makes them feel “safe.” When these feelings of isolation and loneliness occur repeatedly, they influence the dorsal vagal nerve, the part of your brain that responds to cues of danger and pulls us into a state of self-protection.
“Chronic feelings of loneliness, isolation, and fear can result in full dorsal vagal shutdown, where the nervous system is overwhelmed and the person becomes stuck in freeze mode,” said Avigail Lev, a licensed clinical psychologist in San Francisco. “During dorsal vagal shutdown, the person feels numb, apathetic, unmotivated and disconnected.”
Homesickness can mirror feelings of grief.
Homesickness often manifests in bodily symptoms, including but not limited to internal jitteriness, rapid heart rate, difficulty falling or staying asleep, headaches or “mind fog,” and unrelenting chest pain. According to Dr. Daniel Rifkin, board-certified neurologist and clinical assistant professor of neurology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, these symptoms are similar to what people experience when they are grieving or dealing with an unimaginable loss. Plus, there’s a neurological reason that this happens in your brain.
“These phenomena are due to abnormal distress signals originating in the deepest parts of your brain, called your amygdala,” Rifkin said. “From there, through your sympathetic nervous system, your adrenal gland is triggered to release abundant amounts of adrenaline. Usually, you have your parasympathetic nervous system to offset those abnormal signals, but in heightened states of anxiety or stress, your parasympathetic system is no match.”
Usually, the body adopts what is known as the fight-or-flight response in circumstances of high stress to help you return to balance. But, in the context of homesickness, the nervous system is dysregulated, causing the fight-or-flight response to frequently be activated, which is a bad thing because chronic exposure can harm the body.
One way to address this imbalance is through daily exercise, yoga, meditation, or just moving the body to release some of the extra adrenaline. When necessary, Rifkin also recommends seeking professional help for medication.
Homesickness can also cause physical numbness or tingling.
Another physical symptom of homesickness is paresthesias, or abnormal sensations that can cause numbness or tingling in your toes or fingers and even around your lips. Rifkin said that these sensations are a result of over-breathing, or hyperventilation.
“In this instance, your blood vessels and nerves are exposed to too little carbon dioxide, affecting the pH of your blood, and simply don’t function properly,” he explained.
Try some breathing work if you notice this issue. Box breathing ― which involves breathing in for a count of four, holding that breath for a count of four, breathing all the way out for a count of four, and holding for a count of four ― or any other breathing technique can help you relax.
It takes some active effort to feel less homesick.
Addressing homesickness is a balance between validating normal, apprehensive feelings and trying to not let homesickness limit your ability to adjust to the new setting. That usually means finding a balance between being rooted to home and fostering new connections.
“Try joining student clubs or affiliation groups, be more open to work friendships, or if you’ve moved to a new country, connect with people in a similar situation,” De Goy said. “The idea isn’t to replace the people from home, but to expand your relationships and your positive connections.”
Staying connected may also mean having memorabilia or pictures in your new environment that is a bridge to your home, as well as actively engaging with loved ones. Many people find that time-blocking, or scheduling time with family and friends each day, helps ease the stress of being in an unfamiliar place.
Most importantly, according to Lev, it’s key to practice self-compassion and interpersonal mindfulness to manage difficult feelings and to detach from distressing thoughts. The goal is to stay present and gently adjust to this new experience, knowing that it may take time to feel comfortable in your new home and that’s perfectly normal.