Welcome to Part Two of my Homesickness series! If you read my last post, you will be aware that I am very familiar with being homesick. And, fun fact, it’s terrible. Over the years I have developed many strategies for coping with being away from home. Most of these are from my years of living abroad, but they can also be adjusted to help you if you are traveling to many different places or for a single night away from home.
Whenever I looked up articles online about getting over homesickness, I felt that most were people talking about their personal stories (like my last post). These stories are comforting to read, but less helpful when it comes to specific steps to help work through homesickness. Those articles that did offer advice spoke in very abstract terms (i.e. ‘stay positive’ or ‘make new friends’). Though not wrong, these words were very hollow to me sitting in my room alone at night feeling like crap. I am a person that likes lists. I like concrete steps.
That is what I hope to offer you here. I cannot claim that any of these will make you feel instantly better. These things take time, but there is a lot that you can do to help yourself avoid or defuse a bad situation. These are the twelve things that I do to prepare for and get through my worst days.
1. Recognize your triggers – you know you best.
It is important to recognize what situations are more likely to cause you stress. If you want to have the right tools on hand, you need to know what it is you are preparing for. For me, I am much more likely to get homesick at night. During the day you are busy exploring or going to class. At the very least there are usually other people around creating noise and providing distractions. At night everything tends to quiet down, and my mind has the free rein to run wild.
This often used to happen on those long transatlantic plane flights when I headed back to college after visiting home. Because of this, I now always have the movie Mamma Mia with me when I fly. Just watching that movie at a low volume distracted me from the oppressive darkness and silence of the airplane, especially when I had the thought of six months away from home looming in front of me. I have seen it so much I usually fall asleep before I get to Dancing Queen. Identify the conditions that make you feel sad, scared, or unhappy and find ways to distract yourself.
2. Create a routine.
Yes, this is one of those tips that pops up on many generic lists of homesickness cures. BUT routines are great for giving structure to experiences that would otherwise overwhelm you. Your routine can be anything. Read a book before bed. Write in a journal every day. Maybe go to a coffee shop every Friday. Take a walk first thing in the morning. Find something that you can do no matter where you are. It can help make the strangest of surroundings feel more familiar.
In general, I think it is important to have a routine at night. Doing the same thing everyday before you go to sleep helps to teach your body to shut down. Maybe you do things in a specific order, do some stretches, brush your hair. By developing a routine before you are in a stressful situation, you can help to reduce stress later on. I am terrible at having a nightly routine, but if I am going somewhere new, I at least make a concerted effort.
3. Set up a regular time to call home or a friend.
When I arrived in England for my month-long exchange, I called home at least once a day for the first week. Having a specific time to call home gave me a focus. I could get through the day because I knew that at 6:00pm I would call home and get to talk to my family again. Now, calling home every day is not sustainable. After the first week it was every other day. Eventually I got it down to once a week. I still had something to look forward to, but limiting myself to one call a week forced me to be less dependent on my family.
It’s like running. I don’t enjoy it, but I know that after x number of minutes, I will get to walk again. Knowing with absolute certainty when that will be gives me something to strive towards. I can push myself through because I have a fixed goal.
4. Make your environment feel like home.
This may seem like no big deal, but having a welcoming room to come back to at the end of the day is a big deal. When I first arrived at college, I was really nervous. I left my parents for a bit to go grab my first college dinner with the people on my hallway. When I came back, I found my mom sitting in a fully decorated room. She had taken out all of my pictures and my clock and set up my stuff to make the room feel less barren. That was really sweet of her in and of itself, but it also made coming back to that room easier because it felt cozy.
If you don’t have the space or budget to go ham and cover your room in fairy lights and decorative pillows, focus on one thing. For me that is my bed. I will spend the extra money to get a really nice comforter or a mattress topper so that every time I climb into it, I immediately feel comfortable. You do you. Get some cool posters or cover your wall with photos of your friends and family. If you are travelling, bring a cheerful pillowcase or carry photos of memories that make you smile. Whatever it is, do something that will make you feel more at home.
5. Find a place that serves cake.
Wherever you are, find a place that makes you feel at home. If you can get food there, even better. Everything seems worse when you are hungry. In my experience, cake is always a good choice in these circumstances. If you know of a place like this ahead of time, you can always head there when things get worse.
When I first arrived in Edinburgh for my master’s degree, I didn’t have a place to live. I was bouncing from hostel to hotel for a few weeks, and I never felt settled. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I went to the one place in Edinburgh that I had visited before: the Elephant House cafe.
Known as the spot where J.K. Rowling began to write Harry Potter, this cafe is a pretty popular tourist attraction. I love cafes in general because they feel familiar and safe. Sitting at one of those tables with a pot of tea and a slice of cake helped to reset my state of mind. It was basically my living room for the first two weeks of my Master’s program. And reading all of the HP themed graffiti in the bathroom was an added bonus.
6. Have a security blanket.
Because I went to college a plane flight away from home, I had to buy a lot of my stuff there. On my first shopping trip, my mom and I found this adorable little dinosaur pillow. It made me laugh, so my mom suggested we buy it. Ever since then, I always have that pillow with me. No matter where I live, having that pillow makes it feel like home. I brought it to Edinburgh, and it now lives with me in Brooklyn. Yes, it is childish. But it makes me laugh, so I keep it. And whenever things are going poorly, it is nice to have something to hug.
When my sister and I were trekking across Europe, it wasn’t really practical to bring a dinosaur, but I did have a little stuffed heart I crocheted myself earlier that year. It was a small thing, but when I was sleeping at night, just knowing I had it made me feel comfortable.
7. Make a paper chain.
I was a mess the first few days of my month-long exchange in high school. I called home every night. The school had a seriously limited wi-fi service, and I didn’t have a fancy smart phone. Instead, the school had a Skype phone, a hunk of plastic with a screen that’s sole use was to make Skype calls. Yup. That was a thing. One Skype phone for hundreds of girls is not convenient to say the least, and I was already racking up ridiculous charges calling home.
My mom suggested that I make a paper chain. Each loop represented one day, and every night I would write down the best thing that happened that day. That way when we Skyped once a week, I could tell her all of the cool things that were going on. Not only did this help me focus on the good things every day, but it also allowed me to visualize the amount of time I had left. Seeing this huge chain my first night seemed daunting, but as the chain got smaller and smaller, I realized that I was closer to going home. I used boring lined paper, but you can be super creative with this. Better yet, work it into your nighttime routine (see – things come full circle!).
When things are in motion…
8. Have a soundtrack.
Now that you have determined when you are more likely to feel homesick, design a playlist to counteract the situation. For example, whenever I am feeling sad and missing home, I put on Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. Yes, I Rick-Roll myself. This song reminds me of home, but it also make me smile. I can’t listen to that song and be sad. Make yourself a playlist of songs that make you laugh because they are so cheesy. The important thing is that they are happy and upbeat.
When I can’t sleep at night, I listen to Enya’s A Day Without Rain. This album is the perfect relaxing music. Several of these songs are on my Most Played playlist because I have them on loop when I sleep. This album in particular does an incredible job of calming me down. Focusing on the ethereal, magical songs helps to distract my mind from its whirlpool of fear and sadness.
9. Plan your day the night before.
Keeping busy is an important way to distract your mind during the day, but eventually you have to lie down and try to sleep. Instead of letting those nagging doubts wiggle their way into your head, try planning your next day. Visualize exactly what you are going to do.
When I start to feel homesick at night, I will literally walk through an entire day in my mind from waking up, washing my face, and choosing my clothes all the way to the activities I am going to do. No detail is too small. If I have no plans for the next day, I will try to think of things I could do. Focusing on every little detail of the next day helps me distract myself long enough to fall asleep.
10. Break it down.
Travelling or living away from home for an extended period of time can seem impossible. Surviving for one night away from home once felt out of reach for me. Like any large project, breaking things up into smaller tasks makes the struggle of getting through another day of feeling miserable seem more manageable.
Remember when you were planning your day when you couldn’t sleep? Take a minute of your day to breathe deeply and think about each of those tasks. Each one is a benchmark. Just make it through one class, one tour, one meal. Get through things one day at a time. Every time you pass a benchmark will feel like a victory (or at least like a relief to have made it one step farther).
11. Talk to someone.
If you listen to only one thing on this list, let it be this: talking to someone is the best way to get through being homesick. I would not have gotten half as far as I have if my family wasn’t there to support me. Every time I call home sobbing, they are ready and willing to have a three-hour Skype session with me. Even just messaging with my sister for a few minutes to talk through how I am feeling is a huge help. Knowing that the people I care about are just a text away makes the world feel smaller.
You could also talk to a friend, a roommate, or another person in your hostel. Talking things through before they get out of hand can really help. Lots of people understand what you are going through. If there is no one you can talk to, try writing out your feelings. Bottling up your emotions only makes things worse. Get them out however you can.
12. Sometimes things will suck. Cry it out.
No matter how well you prepare or how many strategies you have, there will be days that just suck. It happens. Maybe you can’t reach any of your friends on Skype. Maybe you got sick on a trip. Maybe culture shock has gotten the better of you, and you just want to talk to someone who speaks your language. It happens. It’s okay. Let it out. Sometimes the pressure builds up and the only way to release it is to have a good cry. Once you get it all out of your system, you can pick yourself up and move on.
Remember, being homesick means you have something worth missing.
Travelling and living away from home is an incredible experience, but it isn’t all sunshine and daisies. Being homesick is challenging, but having something worth missing is pretty great. If someone reading this right now is currently miserable and trying to find a way to feel normal again, this probably provides little comfort. But given a little time and distance, I am sure you will realize that you are very lucky to have a place or people to miss so much. Not everybody gets to have that.
And that’s a wrap on my 12 ways to manage homesickness! Next week I am going to be talking about the ways you can help someone who is currently homesick wherever they are.
Have you ever had a trip completely derailed because you were homesick? What do you do to help yourself get through? I’d love to hear any tips you’ve got. You can never be too prepared.