Coping With Homesickness in a Far-away Land
Published on 3rd February, 2020 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
In recent years, more people are migrating to a new country to seek out better opportunities for themselves. According to the UN’s International Migrant Stock 2019, migrants account for 37% of the population in 2019. While it can be fulfilling and exciting to fully immerse in another culture, being away from home in a foreign land for a long period can be rather stressful. 38% of people globally reported having difficulties adjusting to the new culture and missed the comforts of their homes when they were abroad for work or travel (HR & Education, 2014). Specifically, Singaporeans who had to travel overseas for work or school were more likely to miss home and the local lifestyle (42%). Even when the trips were only for a few months, many still reported feeling depressed and exceptionally stressed (Götz, Stieger, & Reips, 2019; Doki, Sasahara, & Matsuzaki, 2018).
Potential Negative Impacts on Well-Being When In A Foreign Country
Impact on mental health
The feeling of social isolation and difficulties in adjusting to a new culture have been shown to led to homesickness in expatriates. Physical ailments such as “gastric and intestinal pains, lack of sleep, headache, feelings of tiredness and some eating disorders” were common amongst expatriates and migrants who reported an excessive longing for home (Hack-Polay, 2012, p.63).
Impact on emotions
Expatriates also prone to experiencing emotional difficulties like “low moods, lack of security, loneliness, nervousness, lack of control and depression” (Hack-Polay, 2012, p.63). Although this sadness might be fleeting for some, the stress from being alone in a foreign country might persist for a rather long time for others (Hack-Polay, 2012).
Why does living abroad lead to that many negative physical health and psychological consequences?
Firstly, moving overseas is a major life transition (you may find out more about coping with major life transitions here). Major transitions, in general, can be stress-inducing as one is faces new and unfamiliar responsibilities.
When an expatriate moves abroad, he is plucked from his everyday routine while also losing the familiarity of their home and support system. Simple tasks, such as going out for dinner or meeting new people, might suddenly feel intimidating as loved ones can no longer provide immediate support. For instance, family and friends can no longer physically accompany you to try out the new restaurant down the street and you might not be able to talk to your loved ones after a stressful day at work as they might be asleep due to time differences. As such, loneliness is a major concern troubling those who move abroad for work or school.
With technological advancements, your loved ones are usually just a video call away. However, constantly communicating with loved ones back home may remind you of what you are missing back at home (Saravanan, Mohamad, & Alias, 2019). This could further intensify your loneliness and negative emotions towards the host country.
Communication issues and cultural differences are also a great source of stress for expatriates and international students. Especially when one is not familiar or fluent in the country’s official language, it might be difficult to make new friends and/or adjust to the new work or school demands (Doki, Sasahara, & Matsuzaki, 2018).
Tips to help you adjust better when living abroad
1. Set regular times to talk to your family and friends back home
The initial period following the move abroad is associated with the most anxiety and stress (Götz, Stieger, & Reips, 2019). Setting aside time to talk to or video call loved ones back home can help ease one’s initial anxieties about being in a new environment (Saravanan, Mohamad, & Alias, 2019). Understandably, we feel more safe and secure after talking to our family and friends back home as we are most familiar with them. However, it is also important to balance the amount of time spent with your loved ones back home and putting the effort in making new friends in your host country.
2. Make friends with people in your host country
Making new friends and meeting new people helps establish a new support system in your host country. This new camaraderie might not only provide a source of comfort in times of distress but you might also discover interesting titbits (such as the best restaurant or the best place to get groceries) about the country that locals might know better. With new friends by your side, the feelings of isolation can be cushioned.
A study by Doki, Sasahara and Matsuzaki (2018) found that a lack of language proficiency did not directly lead to stress. Rather, it was the subject’s perceptions of their proficiency and whether they felt that they could communicate effectively with the locals that predicted their anxiety. Although being fluent in the host country’s language would be helpful, learning simple phrases to communicate with locals can help you meet new people and boost your confidence knowing that you are able to befriend people from the host country.
More than just the language, it would be good to be aware of the major cultural differences between your home and host country. For instance, expatriates new to Singapore may be surprised at how almost everyone seems to be blood related. In fact, addressing the elders as ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’, be it your next door neighbour or the food stall owner is a mark of respect for the elders. Understanding different cultural intricacies may increase the chances of expanding one’s social circle by preventing one from committing a social faux pas in a foreign country.
3. Focus on solving problems rather than avoiding negative emotions
A study by Stahl and Caligiuri (2005) found that expatriates were able to cope with their move abroad better when they used problem-focused coping strategies rather than emotion-focused coping strategies. Problem-focused strategies refer to solving the initial problem that might have led to stress. For instance, if you were stressed over not knowing how to get to your workplace via train, you could spend time before your job officially starts to find the best route. Whereas emotion-focused strategies are methods used to soothe negative emotions. An example would be constantly calling family and friends back home as they provide a great source of comfort. Emotion-focused strategies arguably only temporarily calm one’s emotions while the root cause of stress and anxiety is not addressed. Therefore, one should focus on solving the origins of the negative emotions one step at a time to gradually accustom oneself to the new environment. Conclusion
Many, especially working adults, might not talk about their sadness about moving abroad. They might think that there is no reason for them to feel the way they do as they were gifted with a great opportunity to travel that many would die for. As a result, talking about their sadness and anxieties about being in a foreign land might seem rather ungrateful. However, it stands to reason that coping alone in a foreign land is no easy feat and it takes continuous effort, time and patience with oneself to fully adjust to an entirely new country. Though, when one does overcome these challenges, living abroad can be a very rewarding experience.
If you are an international student or you are going overseas to complete your studies, you might be interested in this other article which highlights effective methods international students used to cope with their homesickness.
Doki, S., Sasahara, S., & Matsuzaki, I. (2018). Stress of working abroad: a systematic review. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 91, 767–784. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00420-018-1333-4
Götz, F. M., Stieger, S., & Reips, U.-D. (2018). The Emergence and Volatility of Homesickness in Exchange Students Abroad: A Smartphone-Based Longitudinal Study. Environment and Behavior, 51(6), 689–716. doi: 10.1177/0013916518754610
Hack-Polay, D. (2012). When home isn't home - A study of homesickness and coping strategies among migrant workers and expatriates. International Journal of Psychological Studies, 4(3), 62–71. doi: 10.5539/ijps.v4n3p62
HR & Education. (2014, May 12). Home sick home: Singaporean business travellers' homesickness beat global average. Retrieved January 2, 2020, from https://sbr.com.sg/hr-education/news/home-sick-home-singaporean-business-travellers-homesickness-beat-global-average.
Stahl, G. K., & Caligiuri, P. (2005). The Effectiveness of Expatriate Coping Strategies: The Moderating Role of Cultural Distance, Position Level, and Time on the International Assignment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(4), 603–615. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.90.4.603
Article written with Charmaine Leong. Charmaine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Charmaine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who is passionate about raising awareness of mental health issues in Singapore. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.