Home is not a place, it’s a feeling
For all the benefits of working overseas, most expats will probably agree that homesickness is one of the biggest downsides. In fact, a survey by Harmony Counselling in 2020 found it to be the single most common issue – not just for workers, but for their partners and children too.
What is homesickness?
This is the feeling generated in response to our need for connection, love, security and familiarity associated with our family, friends and home. Being away from home, without our normal support system, our coping skills are challenged and we are required to function by adapting to the unfamiliar.
Expats often seek familiarity and support by making friends with other expats, but they come and go. As a result, even after living in a place for some time, there are times where they can feel just as lonely as when they moved to a new place.
Symptoms of homesickness include:
Preoccupation with home to the point of not engaging in the present
Comparing new situation with an idealized, old situation
Withdrawal & isolation
Struggling with work/home life
Feelings of loss of control
Indications of low self-esteem
Disturbed sleep patterns
Guilt from not being able to provide full support for our families at home
Anxious/stressed/irritable/unable to concentrate
Uncharacteristic behaviour such as sudden bursts of anger
Loss of sense of identity
Change is a form of loss. Hence, symptoms of homesickness are associated with grieving for this loss and our yearning for the familiar and secure. There is also the realization that family life at home continues without you and there is the added loss of missing out on shared experiences.
We all have different levels of tolerance to change and different coping mechanisms. The transition takes time and it’s important to have a good balance between maintaining connections with the old and adapting to the new.
What can we do to alleviate our feelings of homesickness?
The below table shows strategies employed by our survey respondents to cope with adjustment to overseas life, ranked by frequency of response. It also gives a good insight into some poor coping mechanisms which can actually increase the difficulties we face.
Other helpful strategies:
Keep familiarity with the old…
Keep in contact with family and friends from home and talk about what is happening in both places. In your home or workplace, keep things like photos or items of cultural identity on display. Continue the traditions, rituals and activities that help you feel a connection to home. You can even share memories of home, your family, food, culture, etc. with new friends.
…but build familiarity with the new
Avoid preoccupations with your previous environment by getting involved with things in your new situation. Going to museums, the theatre, parks, and cultural tours will help you to feel part of the new environment, as will getting involved with things in the local community or doing some charity work. Also, try to look for similarities in people and situations between home and your new place. Exploring your new environment may mean stepping out of your comfort zone, but it will help build familiarity and allow yourself to grow and experience change.
Allow yourself to enjoy
Allow and acknowledge feelings of sadness or homesickness but allow yourself to enjoy life as well. This is not being disloyal to those you miss. Also try to identify positive aspects of your new experiences rather than focusing on the negative.
Self-care can make a big difference. Try to exercise regularly, as this will generate endorphins which will help alleviate your mood. Going for a walk in nature is also great as it can help keep you grounded. Also try to eat healthily and take steps to get enough sleep, as well as keep a good work/life balance.
Be kind to yourself and ease the burden
Know that your feelings are normal and give yourself time to adjust. Share your feelings with people you trust, ideally those who have similar shared experiences. It is not easy to share with people at home – you don’t want to worry them and want them to think you are coping well.
Seek professional help
If your symptoms are severe or if they persist and are interfering with your life, consider seeking professional help. Do not suffer on your own and allow things to get worse. Speaking to a counsellor can help alleviate the feelings of low mood and feel better about what’s going on in your life, help you to integrate new experiences and relationships, and manage the symptoms of homesickness
Encouragingly, the results of our survey found that a lot of people seem to be open to the idea of speaking to a counsellor and recognised the importance and impact it can have. In fact, 89% thought companies should provide expats and their families with access to counsellors to help in the adjustment process, whilst 47% said counselling would have been most welcome within the first year of their move and 41% would have welcomed counselling at any time after their move.
If you are interested in speaking to a counsellor or finding out how counselling can help you, visit our website at harmonycounselling.com.sg, call/SMS/WhatsApp us on +65 8908 2187 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.