The Science Behind Homesickness

Previously dismissed as a sign of immaturity, homesickness is now seen by researchers as playing a vital evolutionary role.

All it takes is the balmy smell of lilac, the savory taste of pierogi, or the buzzing cacophony of rush hour, and once again, you feel that familiar twinge: homesickness. The triggers are as specific as the experience is universal. Pointedly expressed by the Roman poet Ovid, “our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.” About 2,000 years later, research is homing in on the painful longing for places and people lost.

Are you a Mama’s boy?

Migration is one of the most persistent themes of human history, and with it, homesickness, the distress felt when leaving one material and social environment to live and work in another. It may thus come as a surprise that the last century has been marked by relative scientific disinterest in what society has viewed as a childhood affliction. This was not always the case. The negative emotions associated with relocation were first mentioned in a 1678 medical text as “maladie du pays”, while subsequent researchers preferred the term “nostalgia,” the Greek translation of the German Heimweh.

Before the 20th century, the trauma of leaving home was widely acknowledged and debated, as recounted by historian Susan J. Matt in Homesickness: An American History. In 1887, newspapers reported cases like that of Irish Reverend J. M. McHale, who allegedly died of homesickness in Brooklyn. Doctors then believed that the only cure was to return home immediately. With over 5,000 diagnoses for soldiers during the American Civil War, the condition received systematic attention, and in Austria, army physician and psychologist Viktor Tausk named it one of the major causes of desertion during World War I.

But perceptions started to shift, inspired by the mid-18th century Enlightenment and its celebration of the rootless and free individual, and later propelled by globalization and its paradigm of geographical flexibility. Homesickness became a taboo, its sufferers stigmatized as immature and maladjusted. Stress researcher Shirley Fisher, author of Homesickness, ­Cognition and Health, showed that participants were still reluctant to share their feelings of homesickness, thinking of themselves as “childish.” The experience, however, is prevalent, as demonstrated by Elisabeth Eurelings-­Bontekoe, former associate professor of clinical psychology at Leiden University, the Netherlands, and her colleagues: In their study, almost 30 percent of employees at a multi-national high-tech company reported regularly feeling homesick.

Survival Mechanism

Far from being a sign of weakness, the pain of reaking bonds with home may once have ensured our survival. Mark Leary, Professor of Psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, is convinced that the feeling is rooted in the early evolution of our species. Our hominid ancestors lacked natural defense and escape features like sharp teeth or wings, and thus depended on cohesive social groups to survive. Put simply, the distress felt when ties to land and people are broken may have saved our ancestor’s lives. Today, traces of this evolutionary pressure emerge in brain imaging studies, which show that ostracism leads to neuronal activity similar to physical pain.

Symptoms and Risk Factors

Modern travelers and migrants may not face sabre-toothed tigers or starvation, but they do cope with intimidating practical matters like finding a place to live and more general concerns, such as integrating in an unfamiliar culture. The experience can involve “culture shock,” a temporary stress reaction when faced with novel social norms. Extensive research has shown that relocation can cause a range of psychological and physiological symptoms, reaching far beyond idealizing thoughts of home and an aversion to the new environment. Reactions can include sleep disturbances, appetite loss, congestive problems and tightness of chest – and in rare cases, subdued mood and loneliness can turn into a major depression.

But not everyone is equally susceptible to homesickness in its severe form. The most vulnerable are those with insecure attachment experiences, as illustrated by another study of Eurelings-Bontekoe with homesick conscripts. Unstable relationships with caregivers in early childhood can lay the ground for fear of separation from one’s familiar base at later stages in life. In the manual of mental disorders of the American Psychological Association, homesickness appears as a possible manifestation of separation anxiety.

Other findings show that a tendency towards fatalism, the belief of having little control over one’s environment, has a negative impact. Situational factors also matter. While the geographical distance to the prior residence is of negligible influence, the experience at the new surroundings is crucial. Social psychologists Susan E. Watt and ­Alison J. Badger from the University of New England, Australia, found that acceptance at the new location serves as a buffer against homesickness. While strong ties and deep friendships cannot easily be replaced, feeling welcome and establishing a sense of belonging are helpful.

Canine Affection and Self-love

Colleges have started recognizing the danger of homesickness even in its nonpathological form, as it affects performance and increases dropout rates. Advising students to join groups and be socially active, they have also experimented with more unconventional treatments: At the University of British Columbia, Canada, undergraduates who missed home regularly interacted with therapy dogs; after eight weeks, they were less homesick and more satisfied with life. While a dog is a man’s best friend, Professor Leary emphasizes the need for being your own best friend. Self-compassion, treating your distressed self like you would a beloved person, can be trained through meditation and mindfulness exercises. Overall, the key to overcoming Heimweh seems to lie in validating your experience without exaggerating it.

Our longing for home, previously dismissed as the cause of children’s tears at sleepovers and summer camps, turns out to be a profound and important part of human experience. Whether suffering from place centered or people focused homesickness, research shows that distress felt when venturing off to places unknown and unfamiliar is hard-wired into our nature.  Says Susan E. Watt, “this sense of loss is simply a product of our construction as ­social beings.”

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