Adult Homesickness Is More Normal Than You Think. Here's How To Cope

Feeling homesick isn't just an experience for children going away for their first sleepover or spending a week at camp during the summer. Adults can be affected by homesickness, too. Just because you've grown into an adult doesn't mean that you've magically become immune to human nature, even if society commonly associates certain experiences like being homesick with childhood and youth. In fact, adults can often face more change in their lives as they move from city to city and workplace to workplace, and it's normal to long for the past and the life you've left behind when you get to a new place. In a way, missing daily connections with former colleagues or meeting up with friends at your favorite local spot before you moved to your current location, aka homesickness, can be a sign that you care about those people. It can also be a sign that you're holding on to the past out of fear, self-doubt, or another underlying reason.

Adult homesickness has been documented since the biblical era, reports CNN. In both the Old Testament of the Bible and in Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey" — both first recorded several millennia ago — there are references to missing one's homeland and a person's community of known confidants and family members. Today, as many as three in four people have felt homesick at some point, according to WebMD. So if you're experiencing symptoms of homesickness, you certainly aren't alone — and there are ways to work through it.

Understand why homesickness occurs

When learning about adult homesickness, it's important to realize that the majority of the population is affected by the experience at some point in their lifetime. The Atlantic reveals that adult homesickness is particularly prevalent among young adults moving away from their childhood homes for the first time, such as students going off to college or moving away from a parent's house to an apartment of their own. For teenagers and 20-somethings who are on their own for the first moment in their lives — and simultaneously responsible for paying all of their own bills to keep the lights on and the water running — the shift in home life and losing what was familiar to them for so long can lead to the development of homesickness.

WebMD defines homesickness as an emotional experience involving distressing feelings when a person endures a longing for previously familiar connections or a familiar environment, whether it be a specific house, city, workplace, family unit, or country altogether. There are hallmark stimuli that are prone to instigating feelings of being homesick, such as moving to a new place with unfamiliar customs — a form of homesickness commonly experienced by refugees, students, and military personnel. But it's important to note that experiencing symptoms of being homesick can also come from more nuanced changes in one's life, including going from living alone to moving in with a partner. As you adapt to a new environment, you can develop homesickness in the meantime.

Know the risk factors for homesickness

As you adjust to a new living situation, geographical location, or cultural standards, there are some known factors that contribute to the exacerbation of homesickness in adults. Factors that can trigger homesickness include difficulty adjusting to one's new lifestyle, making changes from familiar routines and customs to new ones, slow progress in adapting to new standards, norms, or cultural traditions, and a combined factor of feeling like you don't fit in with your new community.

The latter element can make the homesickness experience even more distressing if a person is lacking a sense of belonging, since human beings are social creatures and strive to fit in with a group for primitive measures of survival. It's believed that some elements of homesickness, particularly anxiety and markers of stress, are primitive ways our bodies and brains alert us to threats to our survival — which in the case of feeling homesick is the loss of belonging with a familiar community and subsequently feeling isolated in a new situation.

Homesickness and its correlating emotional distress can lead to side effects such as depression, anxiety, and reduced productivity or interest in activities as a person grieves no longer having a specific familiarity in their life. Fatigue, negative effects on mood and outlook, and low energy can be physical indications of being homesick. Fortunately, there are numerous research-backed methods of implementing healthy coping mechanisms to help you get through bouts of homesickness. 

Create homesickness barriers

Full immunity to homesickness — or to its cousin experience of reminiscing about past situations — is practically impossible to obtain. However, you can take steps to lower your sensitivity against the elements that might trigger homesickness. According to researcher Chirs Thurber, the experience of homesickness itself is "the very thing that inoculates against a future bout of homesickness," as he told CNN. Given small, repeated exposure to things that trigger homesickness and practice identifying the symptoms, you'll be better able to identify the specific emotions you're experiencing at any given moment so that you can logically name them for what they may be. For instance, you might find yourself mourning a familiar setting or cultural tradition, thus finding your sensations of homesickness activated when you come across a memento or reminder of your previous familiar experience.

But being better able to recognize what triggers your homesickness is only the first step to working through it. Next, you'll want to set appropriate boundaries around those experiences — enough so you can process those feelings but can focus more on integrating into your new environment and building a local support network. This step requires placing self-imposed limitations on how frequently you keep your previous environment in your purview, from calling friends from back home on a less regular basis to hiding reminders of your past home in your new residence. These changes should be conducted with the intent of challenging yourself to become immersed in your new surroundings. 

Make efforts to move forward

Becoming homesick usually indicates vulnerability in new surroundings and seeking the comfort of familiarity. But homesickness can also evolve into rumination over previous situations and become an unhealthy relationship with the past — Healthline defines this experience as a sibling of homesickness called nostalgic depression. The whimsical, positive associations of nostalgia collide with the decreased satisfaction and outlook of depression to culminate in a form of exacerbated homesickness that prevents the person affected from moving on from past situations. Ultimately, this can keep someone from forward momentum in their life that could lead to even greater outcomes than what they've been familiar with in the past.

Good Therapy shares that elements of homesickness and nostalgic depression are commonly identified in people who have recently undergone a divorce, wherein the loss of familiarity in their home life creates a longing for the past. When nostalgia takes the wheel, that's when rose-tinted shades are put on and the past can be romanticized, which can hold you back from present and future opportunities — so you'll need to make the effort to move forward instead.

Two ways to get out of a homesick or nostalgic depression rut are seeking new landscapes by regularly going outside into nature and establishing the routine of sitting in a specific area of your new residence. The latter approach assists in moving forward by creating routine and familiarity in a small area of space, then expanding that space as you become more comfortable.

Be kind to yourself

Some people have personalities that drive them to jump straight into a new community without reserve, while others fall on a spectrum with a wide range of reactions to new environments and situations. As you move forward toward finding your rhythm in your new environment, there are five stages you can expect as you progress toward establishing a supportive community in your new location, per the University of Northern Colorado.

Many people first experience a honeymoon phase wherein the new environment is mesmerizing, followed by difficult culture shock, then a perceived positive experience of initial adjustment. Be patient and kind to yourself — moving forward from homesickness toward thriving in your new community can feel like taking one step forward followed by two steps back, especially in the fourth stage of mental isolation. Similar to nostalgic depression, mental isolation can be a retreat from an initial immersion into a new setting. Ultimately, the final stage is a blend of integration and acceptance, both of one's new environment and a newfound community. 

As you work your way through the emotional experience of homesickness and the five likely stages of finding yourself in a new place, keeping a gratitude journal can provide a habitual routine of writing down positive experiences you've had each day. If you find you need further support, working alongside a therapist during life transitions can help with processing the symptoms of being homesick and finding individualized coping mechanisms as you adjust and create new routines.