Homesickness

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Homesickness is normal when you move away to a new and unfamiliar place. It is so common that there are even websites dedicated to helping you cope. But what can you do if the homesickness doesn’t ease off?

Homesickness ‘stems from our instinctive need for love, protection and security — feelings and qualities usually associated with home. When these qualities aren’t present in a new environment, we begin to long for them — and hence home. You’re not literally just missing your house. You’re missing what’s normal, what is routine, the larger sense of social space, because those are the things that help us survive.’ The issue is such that blogs exist with sections dedicated to combating homesickness.

Numerous academic and industrial research studies and surveys have shown that homesickness is the second most important expat concern and there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that homesickness is an illness and detrimental to the psychological and social well-being of displaced people.

CAUSES OF HOMESICKNESS

Moscow and the Russian culture is often very distant and different from what we are used to in our real homes, and this can lead foreign workers to feel ‘out of place’, have difficulties with integration, and feel ‘stupid’ when not understanding how things work. Fear that causes feelings of missing home is normally related to the demands of integration, the risk of making mistakes and breaking societal or governmental rules, personal safety, and the practical issues of life (e.g., transportation, social systems). I personally spent an hour in the company of three frustrated, tired and footsore children the first time I used the metro, changing from one line to the same one again over and over because I couldn’t read Russian, nor understand the navigation system.

One of the challenges of moving abroad is that the expatriate partner often becomes a household caretaker/stay-at-home parent, having given up a job/career, financial independence, and extended family support. Conversely the expat employee finds themselves with the responsibility of being the sole breadwinner. We often hear working expats complaining about the life of leisure they perceive their spouse to be leading. Without close family around with whom to share these frustrations, expats can find themselves feeling lonely and unsupported.

Adding to these stresses, expatriate family members also find themselves suddenly more dependent on each other for support and companionship than they were in their home country. Further dilemma is faced by dual-career couples that may be worried about opportunities for the partner abroad or the security of their jobs on return.

Without the right support any of these issues can become a ‘psychological trauma’ coupled with isolation and difficult conditions in the new environment which could culminate into an acute case of homesickness.

TIPS AND TRICKS

Recent statistical evidence from the Centre of Future Studies also reveals that the expats who adjust most successfully and quickly are those who relocate with families, but this is not always possible, and sometimes even moving away from members of your extended family, let alone your immediate family, can leave a big hole in your life.

The Moscow Winter, which we are now in the middle of, is probably the time when we miss our families the most. Short dark days and long nights, bad weather, the seasonal activities we missed, the expectations of the people you have left behind can add to the challenge of settling into an expat assignment.

Helpful hints before, during and immediately after the move:

• Involve everyone in the decision-making process of taking an assignment

• Involve those you are leaving behind, so they can add to the positive side of the challenge rather than adding to your feelings of guilt and separation

• Put firm and solid plans in place to hook back up with family on as regular a basis as possible

• Talk on the phone or email with old friends and family members

• Get yourself a smartphone – learning to use new gadgets and applications channels your mind on something other than homesickness and keeps you connected with people at home through email, facebook, and Instagram. Smartphones allow you to Skype without a computer; providing you with subway maps or bus routes, and more

• Set up regular Skype calls and video conferencing, especially where different time zones are involved

• Join clubs with other expats who are likely to be supportive when you first arrive – the extent to which the new environment is supportive determines the degree to which the newcomer experiences difficulties and the extent to which he or she feels homesick. Volunteer if you have the opportunity to get more involved

• Say ‘yes’ to every invitation for the first 6 months, whether you are tired or not

• Exercise, even if it’s just walking to a bus stop or metro further down the road

• Set yourself targets – one new discovery a day or chapters of a book

• Alternate between having family to stay and you returning to visit them – perhaps adding in a trip to a third country that is relatively equidistant from all family members where you can have a regular reunion?

MIND OVER MATTER

• Connect in some way to your former life – have a few photos, watch movies and listen to music that reminds you of what you long for

• Stay focused on the present and what you need to do to settle into the expatriate lifestyle

• Think of where you are as being one part of your life’s journey

• Ask yourself, honestly, if you are really trying to settle in and adjust. If not, what do you have to do to make that happen?

• Keep a daily diary to look back on. This will help you to remember your achievements

• Police your thoughts and viewpoints to make sure you are looking at the experience in a way that will help you settle in abroad!

RECOGNISE THE SYMPTOMS

Symptoms of ‘intense homesickness’ are tangible physical, cognitive and behavioural. Sufferers complain of:

• gastric and intestinal pains

• headaches

• feeling of tiredness – not sleeping well or sleeping too much

• some eating disorders – not eating or overeating

• hair loss

• apathy

• listlessness

• lack of initiative

• not interacting with others

• an intense preoccupation with home, not thinking about anything else

• little interest in the new environment

• obsessive thoughts about home and sometimes simultaneously negative thoughts about the new place

GET HELP

Don’t wait till you feel in crisis before you look for help! Unacknowledged and untackled, the symptoms of homesickness are likely to lead to emotional problems such as low moods, lack of security, loneliness, nervousness, lack of control and depression.

If you feel that you are becoming depressed, seek help from your partner or spouse, and from friends in your expat network or club, find out who your employer’s Employee Assistance Programme is delivered by and keep the number handy, or if you feel your symptoms are overwhelming, see a local health professional. Details of these resources can be found in the back issues of Moscow expat Life magazine.

KNOW AND CONTROL THE RISK FACTORS FOR HOMESICKNESS:

• Little control over your situation

• Low morale

• Low expectations for your new environment

• Not building social networks within expat communities and clubs when you arrive

• Don’t go abroad to run away from problems or boredom at home

• Unrealistic expectations of the lifestyle and financial benefits (or not) of moving abroad

• Failure to adapt to the realities of the new culture, language or environment

• Inability to communicate in the local language

• Physical illness

If you are not working at the moment, you should adopt a different approach, such as plan a strategy for finding work.

Several studies also show that the spouse’s support to move abroad and ability to adjust to the new environment is one of the most critical predictors of expatriates’ successful relocation.

Expatriates and their partners need to have access to a wealth of personal, work, and family resources that help them respond effectively to the demands entailed in the move to a foreign environment and to help reduce the impact of homesickness:

• Involve spouses early on in the relocation

• Relocate as an entire family unit, if that is practicable – spouse support in the early days will reap rewards in productivity and integration of the employee into the new environment

• Cultural training prior to placement – if expats are culturally adjusted, they will be able to do more in Russia

• Take language classes

• Get relocation assistance including helpful information that addresses school for children, activities/jobs for spouses, residential areas popular within the company and other international companies if you can

• A schedule should be developed to reduced travel early on in the assignment, to create reduced or flexible work hours, and capability to work at home