What Happens To Your Mind And Body When You Feel Homesick

Homesickness is a very normal but sometimes very painful experience.
Ji Sub Jeong/HuffPost

Whether you’ve gone away to college, moved to a new city or even just traveled for vacation, homesickness is a common emotional experience. Longing for home is the subject of books, songs and films. Celebrities have opened up about feeling homesick, and many people have shared their tips for overcoming it.

But what exactly are we feeling when we experience homesickness and why do we feel it so deeply ― in a way that sometimes manifests physically? HuffPost spoke to a number of psychologists to find out.

What Is Homesickness?

“Homesickness has everything to do with attachment,” said 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.”

The feeling has little to do with the specifics of your past situation or your current circumstances, Klapow noted. In other words, a person can have a less-than-ideal home life, perhaps struggling with poverty, violence or other challenges, but still feel homesick after arriving at a beautiful, peaceful college campus.

“The analogy I always use is a swimming pool. It doesn’t feel good when we get in at first.”

- Tamar Chansky

Tamar Chansky, a psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety, emphasized that homesickness is a very normal part of the human experience.

“It’s a transition between two worlds. The analogy I always use is a swimming pool. It doesn’t feel good when we get in at first,” she said. “If we immediately got out, we’d think, ‘Why do people like swimming pools? This feels awful.’ But if you stay in, you see that you do adjust and then you feel good.”

In the same vein, homesickness is about a period of adjustment. “It could be about missing home, but really it’s also about not yet feeling comfortable where you are,” Chansky explained. “At first we feel like the discomfort we’re experiencing is a forever thing, which is kind of irrational, but that’s what human beings do with uncertainty.”

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Chansky said she encourages people feeling homesick to find a coffee shop or another place they can visit repeatedly that will start to feel familiar. Over time, they will form new attachments.

“Homesickness is part of a process, and 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,” she said. “We are successful as humans by adjusting to our circumstances and making connections to people. That’s the bread and butter of our emotional well-being.”

What Is Happening In Our Minds And Bodies?

Although it’s normal and common, homesickness can be associated with very difficult emotions and experiences, according to Ricks Warren, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.

“Homesick has been described as a grief reaction, similar to having lost a loved one, but what the person is grieving is the loss of the familiar place. There’s a yearning and longing for the familiar,” he said.

“Homesickness is associated with feelings of depression and anxiety and oftentimes difficulty coping with the new environment,” Warren added. “It’s associated with insomnia, problems with appetite, difficulty concentrating. It’s a very painful condition.”

“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.”

- Joshua Klapow

Of course, different people experience homesickness in different ways. Klapow said he generally categorizes its physical manifestation in two different buckets.

“One is more of an anxiety bucket. You feel it 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,” he said. “It’s an evolutionary, adaptive thing that wires us to protect ourselves from danger when something is unknown. When we think about home, we know that the sense of unknown and potential danger is not happening there, so we want to return.”

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The other bucket is more about grief, longing and sadness.

“The comfort of home becomes like a person you’ve lost and miss,” said Klapow. “You may have some 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.”

Feelings of nostalgia can play into homesickness.

“When we’re homesick, we tend to paint a picture of what we’re missing in a way that is idealized,” Klapow explained. “We don’t say ‘I miss the smog’ or ‘I miss my mom yelling at me.’ Instead, it’s ‘I miss the comfort of my room,’ ‘I miss my old friends’ or ‘I miss the feeling of my neighborhood.’”

“The comfort of home becomes like a person you’ve lost and miss.”

- Joshua Klapow

Chansky also noted that homesickness in an unfamiliar situation can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight alarm system. “Some people will feel an upset stomach, some people will feel shaky, some people will feel tearful,” she said. “The body is saying, ‘Something’s wrong,’ and that produces more of that fear and negativity.”

Although homesickness is not a clinical condition like anxiety or depression, having those disorders can exacerbate a person’s longing for home.

“If people are already feeling anxious or depressed, they may have more anxiety going into these situations than someone else might,” Chansky said. “Negative emotions are only going to be amplified in those circumstances.”

How Do We Treat It?

Chansky, Klapow, and Warren all said that one key way to deal with homesickness is to normalize it.

“Tell yourself it’s OK and normal to feel this way, these bad feelings are temporary, and this is part of how change happens,” said Chansky. “It sounds simple, but that sends a message to the body that we don’t need the fire trucks. Nothing is actually wrong. Normalizing it helps the negative feeling go away faster.”

It also helps to recognize that the homesick feelings will come and go in waves, so you can anticipate them and realize you won’t feel that way forever. Although homesickness tends to be most prominent at the beginning of a transition, Klapow noted that it often returns after you’ve settled in and the reality kicks in that you’ll be there for a while.

“At first it’s ‘This is not what I’m used to,’” he said. “Then we adapt and get used to it. But we go back and say, ‘Wow, I’m used to this and comfortable with this,’ and start thinking about the old days, which can trigger a homesickness experience as well.”

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Once you’ve accepted homesickness as a temporary part of the transition process, the best thing you can do is make connections with your new environment.

“There are small things you can do to feel more connected to where you are or you can lean into the things that make you feel most at home,” said Chansky, who listed simple steps like having more conversations with people at work or out in public or exploring your new surroundings.

“You want to build up your home underneath where you are,” she added. “That way, you can still miss home, but you don’t feel so bereft because you have more of what you need where you are.”

Making new connections involves getting engaged with your new environment.

“Instead of the proverbial ‘stay busy,’ I say ‘stay engaged’ ― whether that’s with school, your job, other people, the gym, your church or synagogue,” Klapow said, noting that people tend to feel homesick in the morning and at night when their minds aren’t focused on other things.

“When you’re doing an activity, it distracts you, but you’re also creating a new normality, a new predictability,” he said. Klapow also suggested creating a daily routine to give yourself further stability and predictability.

On an emotional level, it’s important to confront your feelings.

“Instead of saying ‘I just don’t want to think about that because I’m going to get too upset,’ you could ask yourself, ‘If you were feeling more rooted where you were, what would be different?’” said Chansky. “Ask yourself the question, ‘If things were better, what would it be like?’”

“Ask yourself the question, ‘If things were better, what would it be like?’”

- Tamar Chansky

The answer to that question can help you create a to-do list of things you want to pursue. Maybe it’s performing in a band, making more friends or volunteering in the community.

Confronting your feelings can also involve sharing them with other people. It’s OK to talk about feeling homesick, Klapow stressed.

“A lot of times we bottle it up, or the only people we’re sharing it with are people at home,” he said. “That creates a vicious loop because we’re telling home how much we miss home, and we’re getting all of these signals from home about how bad everyone feels about how much we miss home.”

Instead, you should try to share your feelings with some people in your new environment, whether they’re fellow students, co-workers you’ve developed a rapport with, clergy or others.

“People will be compassionate with you and say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. I remember when I was homesick. It’s gonna be OK,’” Klapow said. “Once you feel compassion from other people in the same place, you tend to feel less homesick.”

Self-compassion is also key, according to Warren.

“People who are self-compassionate are less likely to be homesick and lonely. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ve always got yourself. You’re like your best friend,” he explained. “But if you’re really hard on yourself, you don’t have that.”

With some time, self-care and support, homesickness too shall pass.

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