When I left Houston and moved to Los Angeles, the newness was awesome. There was the dry, cool breeze, fun comedy shows, and the food was stellar. After a while though, the novelty wore off. I started to feel resentful, cynical, and mostly, homesick.
Being in my late 20s, I was a little embarrassed to admit I was homesick. This isn’t summer camp, this is life! And I’m a full-grown adult! Adults aren’t supposed to miss their moms and get sad because their friends back home are still having fun even though you’re not there. We’re supposed to make new friends, forge new lives. But the truth is, even now, in my 30s, I occasionally get homesick. But it’s okay, and I’ve learned how to cope.
What Homesickness Is Really About
After a year or so of living in LA, I started to get depressed. I was angry at my family for not visiting often enough. I was judgemental of the people I met here—they were nothing like my friends back home. After a while of feeling like this, it hit me: I didn’t hate LA. I just missed my old life.
Learning to identify my homesickness made all the difference, because instead of taking out my feelings on everyone around me, (read: the entire city of Los Angeles), I learned to deal with what was really bothering me. Clinical psychologist and professor Josh Klapow says homesickness is about our “instinctive need for love, protection and security—feelings and qualities usually associated with home.”
So when we’re not feeling this in our new environment, we might start to miss home. It makes sense. When I moved here, I knew people, but they were all new to me. It’s hard to feel protected, loved, and secure with people you don’t know very well. Even if you live for new places and experiences, the lack of familiarity can be surprisingly jarring.
In a paper published in Pediatrics, researchers pointed out that four different “risk factors” can affect homesickness:
- Experience: If you’ve never lived away from home before, you’re probably more prone to miss it. You’re not used to coping with feelings of unfamiliarity.
- Attitude: Sometimes homesickness can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re already prepared to feel uncomfortable in a new situation, you probably will.
- Personality: Researchers talk about “insecure attachment” in terms of children coping with new caregivers, but basically, if you’re not good at warming up to new people, this can obviously affect how you cope with the change.
- Outside factors: Of course, your level of homesickness will depend on how willing you were to make the move. Did you have to do it, or is this something you embraced? Your homesickness depends on how your family reacts to the change, too.
Like anything else, learning how homesickness works and what impacts it is a big first step in figuring out how to handle it.
“Inoculate” Yourself Against Homesickness
Researcher Chris Thurber says that the best way to nip homesickness in the bud is to work through it, rather than try to resist it. He told CNN that homesickness is the “very thing that noculates against a future bout of homesickness.” When you live through it, you learn how to cope.
The article (and a lot of research on homesickness in general) is focused on what parents can do to keep their kids from missing home too much:
If there’s any sort of deal parents can make, it is to agree to stop communicating — be it text messages or via e-mails — with their freshmen every five minutes. Instead, [clinical psychologist Josh Klapow] said, parents should schedule a specific time, once a week, to contact their children. It also allows space and time for college students to make strong social connections among their peers — perceived absence of social support was a strong predictor of homesickness, according to Thurber’s report — and gain much-needed independence.
As an adult, though, you can take this same advice and limit your communication back home. After I moved, I’d call my mom every other day and a friend from back home on the days that I didn’t talk to my mom. It was almost obsessive; it made me feel secure and safe. But in doing this, I was prolonging my problem. Remember, experience is one of the four factors that impact how homesick you feel. The more you get used to being away from home, the better you are at coping. You inoculate yourself. Allowing yourself to feel a little sad is a necessary part of moving forward.
Stop Dwelling on the Past
When I was homesick, I had a bad habit of idealizing my old life, forgetting about all the annoying little things that came with it. “Back home, people were friendlier,” I’d say. “You’d say hello to strangers walking down the street. Can’t do that in LA!” Which is true, but people back home had their faults, too, just like people anywhere do. Not in my head, though—not while I was idealizing the past. I came from a perfect place and this new place just wasn’t as cool. The grass is always greener on the other side of the country.
There’s nothing wrong with a little of nostalgia, but longing for the “good old days” became problematic when it kept me from appreciating what I had in the present and also opening myself up to new experiences and people.
Here’s an even better idea than just resisting nostalgia: try using it to your advantage. Research shows nostalgia can actually improve your idea of the future and make you happier. You just have to know how to harness in a way that it becomes productive instead of destructive.
As Psychology Today points out, it’s all about how you focus your nostalgia. Are you dwelling on the past or are you focusing on how it can help your future?
People who see each good experience as permanently enriching are more likely to get a mood boost. But a person who mainly focuses on the contrast between past and present damns every good experience with the attitude that nothing in the future can ever live up to it…To avoid dwelling on this contrast, [Psychologist Fred Bryant] recommends connecting the past with the present. As you think about your current job or family, for example, recalling your younger self who once dreamt of this future can enhance your outlook on the life you have now. “Recalled anticipation spices the moment,” he says.
In short, nostalgia can be a pain, or it can make things better. It’s all about how you use it.
Create New Traditions and Familiarity
Remember, homesickness is about the “instinctive need for love, protection and security — feelings and qualities usually associated with home.” Whatever you can do to establish a sense of security your new home, the better. That usually means making the new place your own.
Aside from just meeting new people and giving it time, one simple way to do this is to build your own new traditions. And traditions don’t have to be complicated. A tradition can be as simple as going to the grocery store every Sunday morning (or weekday evening, if you want to beat the crowds). The more you get used to do doing the same thing over and over in your new life, the more you build familiarity, and before you know it, you feel a sense of security in your new place and those homesick feelings start to subside.
But maybe your situation is temporary. Maybe you’re just traveling, and you’ll come back home to your friends and family soon, but for now, you’re feeling really down. I felt this way years ago when I was in Europe by myself on Thanksgiving. I didn’t expect to get so down about it, but I did. So I decided to celebrate the tradition by going to a restaurant, ordering whatever the hell I wanted, and completely stuffing my face with food (ah, what a beautiful holiday). It was a silly (and physically unhealthy) way to establish some familiarity, but the point is: that familiarity made me feel less homesick. Interestingly, I also ran into other Americans doing the same thing, and that helped, too.
If you’re feeling homesick, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. At its core, it’s about feeling secure, and that’s something we all yearn to feel, as children, college students, or adults in our 30s and beyond. It can be a tough thing to get through, especially around the holidays, but understanding it goes a long way toward learning how to properly cope with it.