Why we feel homesick and what we can do about it.
It may seem unorthodox to feel alone even when you are surrounded by people, however homesickness is a natural physiological response to unfamiliar environments. As happy as everyone around you may seem, a 2020 study found that all undergraduates consider dropping out at some point during their first year. Whether you’ve travelled from Bradford or Bangladesh, homesickness can take effect regardless of your distance from home, and most often occurs in the first few weeks of university or upon returning from the Christmas holiday. It can cause emotional distress including feeling nervous, lonely, and shy regardless of prior self-confidence. If this wasn’t already a rough deal, physical symptoms of anxiety such as difficulty sleeping, headaches, and lack of appetite may be present also, resulting in a cycle of feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Overall, this can hinder our ability to form important social connections and study well.
“All undergraduates consider dropping out at some point during their first year.”
When we enter an unfamiliar environment, the hypothalamus in the brain stimulates the adrenal glands to release hormones; similar to the ‘fight-or-flight’ response via the sympathetic nervous system except without the risk of imminent danger. Hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline then facilitate a variety of physical actions which is often what makes us feel how we do. Digestion becomes slowed or stopped which reduces our appetite or even makes us feel sick, and dilation of blood vessels can cause headaches from hypertension (high blood pressure); not to mention increased heart rate and anxiety. These are instinctive defensive processes our body has evolved to protect us from potential danger. However, when we think of the familiarities of home, these symptoms subside and we begin to miss its safety and wish to return. In the comfort of these thoughts, we can then end up being distracted by them and start to feel disconnected from both home and university. Homesickness isn’t necessarily a particular person or activity we miss, just the security of a space that we know.
Luckily, homesickness isn’t usually a long-term condition and can be eased in many simple ways. Short-term anxiety relief can be brought through acceptance of how you feel, understanding why you feel the way you do, and knowing it is completely normal. A way to ‘trick’ your body into feeling less anxious is to smell something familiar or homely such as a candle, perfume, or blanket. This works because when we smell something, the information is processed in the olfactory cortex which is placed next to the hippocampus in the centre of the brain – where memories are shaped. Hence why smells can evoke strong memories. Calling someone you miss should also provide quick relief, but frequently contacting home can make forming close relationships at university difficult.
This is where long-term strategies help – the best way to stop feeling homesick is to make your new city feel like home so you no longer feel out of place. A great way to do this is to spend time getting to know your flatmates better and opening up to them. In addition, joining a society or sports team will enhance your social life and can ease anxiety through physical activity – releasing pleasure hormones serotonin and adrenaline. The first step to getting adjusted to your new city is understanding that homesickness is simply a natural reaction to change and continuing to socialise with those around you will soon make you feel at ease.
By Rose Shipley
Header image: Victoria Heath/Unsplash