How to Deal With Homesickness When Living Abroad

by Maria February 26, 2019

For those fortunate enough to choose where in the world to make their home, living abroad is life-changing for better or for worse. It’s exhilarating. New cultures, fresh perspectives, and unique experiences shape you into a whole new person who’s 100% more fun at parties.

But some days it makes you miserable. Uprooted, lonely, and fed up with the weather—now you’re just a big human-shaped pile of regret. This is normal and you’re definitely not alone. Here’s how Jobbatical’s expat community deals with homesickness in a new country.

Go back to your “why”

“Why did I even come here?”

On tough days, you might find yourself questioning your motives and the decisions that led you to this strange place.

Adrian and Vira Suarez, a Cuban-Ukrainian couple who moved to Estonia from the U.S., devised a very specific method of keeping themselves happy in their adopted home. “We made a list of the things we wanted to gain from an expat experience,” says Adrian. Their list includes, for example, spending more time together as a family and practicing winter sports.

“We also included the things we wanted to remove from our lives—long commutes, long work hours, hot weather,” Adrian says about the list they keep in their kitchen. “Whenever I am feeling homesick, I go back to that list and make sure that I am working on the things that I wanted to improve on. That usually cures the homesickness.”

Whether you stick a literal list to your fridge or just keep them in your head, remembering your reasons for relocating is a good way to keep yourself anchored to the bigger picture. Take stock of your goals and check in occasionally to see if you’re on track.

Winter activities galore: Welcome to bog hiking, waterfall watching, Christmas tree cutting, and ice skating with the Suarezes.

Watch and listen to sad and nostalgic things

Watching someone on screen going through the same thing you’re experiencing can help you feel less alone instantly. “I remember watching Lost in Translation alone in the cinema when I was particularly homesick while living in Portugal,” experienced expat Dea Martinjonis recalls.

Indeed, a 2012 study found that watching sad movies makes people happier with their lives in general. Known as downward social comparison, this is the human tendency to feel better about ourselves when we see someone else struggling. Sad songs have a similar effect, with one study in 2014 finding that “listening to sad music can lead to beneficial emotional effects such as regulation of negative emotion and mood as well as consolation.”

Now, add nostalgia to the mix—songs that remind you of home, for example—and you’ll also have the benefit of becoming more motivated.

Yup, a 2017 study found that “nostalgia motivates pursuit of important goals by increasing meaning in life.” Basically, feeling nostalgic puts your priorities in perspective and helps you focus on the goals that matter the most to you. Which is pretty much exactly what you need at times like this. So go ahead and blast whatever your equivalent of “Sweet Home Alabama” is.

Make food that tastes like home

If you’re not much of a cook, living abroad is a fantastic time to pick up the habit. Odds are you’ll be missing flavors and textures that remind you of your roots. The further you go from home, the stranger the tastes. When she moved to Estonia, Usoamaka Aninyei from Nigeria found that many of her favorite flavors were gone from her life overnight, which was disorienting at first.

Usoamaka’s fellow countryman Olabode Adedoyin had a similar experience, which drove him straight to the stove. “I dealt with a lot of homesickness in my first few weeks,” he says. “All changed a bit when I made a conscious effort to go out, buy groceries and cook meals the way they would taste at home.”

Tracking down ingredients specific to your homeland will give you a small but significant side quest. Plus, home cooking is a good way to stay healthy and responsible with money, too. So this is solid life advice whichever way you slice it.

Additional pro tip: In cold countries with low levels of sunlight, make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D in your diet or with supplements. It really makes a difference.

An Estonian’s survival kit in Malaysia. Eating potato salad in the tropics feels wrong… yet somehow so right.

Just let it happen

Is none of this really working so far? Tired of forcing yourself into denial about your homesickness? So take a break from trying and let it all out.

Ugly cry into a tub of ice cream. Stare out of the window angrily. Build a blanket fort in which to watch Netflix and hate everything for a full weekend.

Most importantly, tell yourself it’s OK to be sad sometimes and that these feelings are temporary.

Although opinion is divided on how bottling up emotions affect us, there is evidence to suggest that not acknowledging negative emotions can make them worse. So airing your distress in a controlled environment every now and again is arguably an important part of your mental wellbeing. The crucial step here is to snap out of it and get back in the saddle after a while.

Find at least one thing to do outside of home and work

“It’s really easy when you move abroad to just go to work and go home after that,” says Alex Wellman, an American in Estonia. “It’s a dangerous recipe for homesickness.”

“Get out of the house” is one of the most common things people hear when they’re dealing with loneliness while living abroad. Because it works. “Finding the same activities that you enjoy back home, especially social ones, is great,” says Vira Suarez, a big fan of embracing the cultural and social potential of a new homeland.

So make some friends! Get a hobby! Sure—easier said than done, though. Because where do you even start?

Here are some options:

  • Language classes. This one kills two birds with one stone if you’re living somewhere where you have a language barrier. Make the most of it and snag yourself some friends.
  • Improv classes. Not for the fainthearted, improv will force you right out of your comfort zone and make you a stellar communicator. Which, in turn, will make you feel less awkward about trying to make new friends as a grownup. Or so we’ve heard.
  • Book clubs. Book clubs are the perfect place to socialize because you’ll always have something to talk about. If you can’t find a book club near you, start one.
  • Meetup groups. You know the drill. Find groups of people who like what you like. Make friends. Profit.
  • The gym. Bonding over lifting heavy things seems to work somehow. And it makes you fit, so there’s that too.
  • Expat communities. Although you should probably avoid getting stuck in an expat bubble, the shared experience of moving to a new country tends to help bring people together. Start with Facebook expat groups and InterNations.
  • Concerts and other cultural events. Sometimes just consuming culture is enough for the soul, no socializing needed. For Usoamaka Aninyei, going to a concert is the first thing on the list when homesickness attacks. “It reminds me of family time,” she says.

Estonian language classes at Jobbatical—the pronunciation exercises are brief but the friendships are for life!

Read the local news

One of the easiest ways to make yourself feel like part of a community while living abroad is to keep an eye on the local news. Learn the inner workings of the society you’ve been transplanted into. Once you’re ready to complain about the same stuff locals are complaining about, you’ll have new common ground. Instant belonging!

Politician X said what on national television last night? The taxes are how high? Reality star Y was seen kissing whom?

Outrageous, to be sure. But for you—a fantastic way to stop feeling like an outsider.

PS, keep reading news from back home, too, so you don’t fall out of touch.

Adopt a shelter animal

If you’re planning to stay in your new home long-term, why not fill that gaping void with an animal? Find your local shelter and bring home a living thing that will have no choice but to love you. Costa Rican Angie Meneses Ryan adopted her shelter cat Bruno when she moved to Estonia. “Getting an animal has become one of the best things,” she says. “It makes the apartment feel more like a home, since there he is, always waiting for you.”

If you don’t know how long you’re staying or whether you can bring your new friend with you to your next destination, volunteering at shelters and pet sitting are great low-commitment alternatives.

Bruno the shelter cat is here to provide his wisdom, love, and snuggles to the expat far from home.

Stay in touch with loved ones back home and don’t panic

It’s a great time to be alive. Wherever you go, your old home is just a WhatsApp message away. Your best friends’ Instagram feeds tell you exactly what they’re eating and what they think about it. Mom’s Facebook updates are reassuringly mundane and awkward. You can stare at your Dad’s forehead on Skype pretty much whenever the mood strikes. (“Come on, Dad. Just tilt the– the camera’s on the— you know what, never mind.”)

Keeping in touch with loved ones back home has become so easy and everyday that it doesn’t need to be a huge deal each time. Instead of becoming an emotional crutch for the worst days only, the comforting online presence of your family and friends keeps part of you steadily grounded in something familiar as you adjust to your new life.

Regular check-ins with family are number one on the coping list for Chris Simpson, an Australian in Latvia, who moved to Europe thirteen years ago. Having been away for so long, Chris is a master of reining in the homesickness. “Home is where the heart is,” he sums the whole thing up. “So open yours to your new home and community.”

Get matched with your dream job on Jobbatical and read the stories of successful jobbaticlers to see what your life could be like in another part of the world.

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