BPP University School of Health lecturer Dr David S Smith discusses the science behind homesickness

As our November project covering the topic of homesickness continues, we asked Dr David S Smith from our BPP University School of Health’s psychology department to discuss the theory behind why students maybe feeling anxious after leaving home to further their education.

Thousands of freshers flocked to University campuses the country over back in September.

With new cities, roles and lives to get used to, it’s an exciting time.

A couple of months on, the novelty may now have worn off. Some may not be preoccupied with where they are as much as where they came from – cue constant nostalgic thoughts, hours of Facebooking old friends plus numerous late night calls to parents.

This is known as homesickness.

Homesickness is not a new concept.

As long as people have had homes to leave they’ve had ones to miss.

It even appears in ancient Greek epic The Odyssey, along with all major holy books.

It’s not unique to youths either – in an increasingly-globalised world, evermore adults are packing their bags to seek fortunes elsewhere.

Among them is Spanish footballer Jesús Navas, who famously turned down the chance to play for Chelsea out of concern for missing Seville.

Fortunately, at time of writing, he claims he has overcome this via counselling and now enjoys playing for Manchester City.

My Family television actor, Robert Lindsay, has also suffered – opening up in 2013 about how the English composer Elgar coming on the car radio, during a drive in Hollywood, reduced him to tears.

In extreme cases, Dr Caroline Schuster suggests homesickness has similar effects to depression: social withdrawal, disrupted sleep and even occasional panic attacks.

However, despite the effects of homesickness being common knowledge, it appears to be a publically misunderstood form of distress.

For a start, homesickness may not really be about a place.

Famously, Thomas Wolfe wrote ‘you can’t go home again’. Whilst a person can of course go back to where they grew up, and walk the same streets, Wolfe was characterising ‘home’ as a state of mind.

Psychologists have recently begun to think about it this way too, focusing on it as a result of missing something abstract instead of literal.

Dr Tamar Chansky, a specialist in adolescent psychology, considers homesickness to be a natural part of transitioning between worlds that leaves us temporarily displaced.

She claims that what we miss, when we miss home, are the familiar elements and feelings of security.

For instance, on the first point it is not uncommon for students to miss things like their bed or their parents’ cooking. This is not because they can’t cook themselves (although many can’t) as much as that special creamy, soft type of cauliflower cheese being the one they are used to.

Likewise, a sense of security can come from our surroundings staying as they always have, like a favourite café, and having access to personal belongings when they are needed.

In addition to our personal belongings, a further cause of tension can come from the need to feel as if we ourselves belong somewhere.

Susan Watt and Alison Badger, from the University of New England, tested this hypothesis across two studies. In both they showed that the participants most susceptible to homesickness were those with the least interpersonal relationships and those who felt least accepted by their communities.

Professor Mark Leary, of Duke University, stipulates that this idea of belonging may even be part of what makes us human. Unlike other animals, he points out, we lack natural defences such as claws or fangs that would help us survive in the wild.

Yet the reason, he argues, we came to dominate the planet is our knack for cooperation and small group cohesion.

Without wandering clans to belong to, there would have been a good chance of our ancestors ending up on something else’s menu.

From this perspective, homesickness is perfectly natural and actually necessary, evolving to discourage us leaving supportive groups.

It’s maybe unsurprising that research suggests the most successful coping strategies are those which involve immersing oneself in a new life.

Over time this will hopefully lead to them effectively replacing their old reliable support networks, and creature comforts, with new ones.

Fortunately, university can be a great setting to make new friends or find new interests, via classes or joining groups and societies.

It is also good place for students to learn independence so that they may make the most of their new found freedom. Getting to know the new environment may help too: finding new versions of that dependable coffee shop and discovering another favourite hangout.

The important thing is not to rush it as these feelings of belonging cannot be forced.

Furthermore, it is crucial to put in the effort and not to wait for this to happen, since isolation will exacerbate the problem.

And finally, for the freshers mentioned above, it is crucial they remember that – with so many others moving in and out a city for university – they will not be alone. Even if it sometimes feels like it.

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