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Homesickness is the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home. Its cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects. Sufferers typically report a combination of depressive and anxious symptoms, withdrawn behavior and difficulty focusing on topics unrelated to home.
In its mild form, homesickness prompts the development of coping skills and motivates healthy attachment behaviors, such as renewing contact with loved ones. Indeed, nearly all people miss something about home when they are away, making homesickness a nearly universal experience. However, intense homesickness can be painful and debilitating.
Fortunately, prevention and treatment strategies exist for both children and adults. There are protective factors which can help people to cope with homesickness. Youth-serving organizations, such as the American Camp Association, have developed a homesickness prevention program. One study showed that this inexpensive intervention can lower the intensity of homesickness of first-year campers by an average 50%.
Homesickness is an ancient phenomenon, mentioned in both the Old Testament books of Exodus and Psalm 137:1 ("By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion") as well as Homer's Odyssey, whose opening scene features Athena arguing with Zeus to bring Odysseus home because he is homesick ("...longing for his wife and his homecoming..."). The Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460–377 BC) believed that homesickness—also called "heimveh" (old German word for "Heimweh") or a "nostalgic reaction"—was caused by a surfeit of black bile in the blood. In recent history homesickness is first mentioned specifically with Swiss people being abroad in Europe ("Heimweh") for a longer period of time in a document dating back to 1691. A normal phenomenon amongst the many common Swiss mercenaries serving in different countries and many rulers across Europe at that time. It was not uncommon for them staying many years away from home and, if lucky enough, return home if still alive. This phenomenon at that time was first only thought to affect Swiss people until this was revised, probably caused by big migration streams across Europe suggesting the same symptoms and thus homesickness found its way into general German medical literature in the 19th century. American contemporary histories, such as Susan J. Matt's Homesickness: An American History eloquently describe experiences of homesickness in colonists, immigrants, gold miners, soldiers, explorers and others spending time away from home. First understood as a brain lesion, homesickness is now known to be a form of normative psychopathology that reflects the strength of a person's attachment to home, native culture and loved ones, as well as their ability to regulate their emotions and adjust to novelty. Cross-cultural research, with populations as diverse as refugees and boarding school students, suggests considerable agreement on the definition of homesickness. Additional historical perspectives on homesickness and place attachment can be found in books by van Tilburg & Vingerhoets, Matt, and Williams.
- Experience factors: Younger age; little previous experience away from home (for which age can be a proxy); little or no previous experience in the novel environment; little or no previous experience venturing out without primary caregivers.
- Attitude factors: The belief that homesickness will be strong; negative first impressions and low expectations for the new environment; perceived absence of social support; high perceived demands (e.g., on academic, vocational or sports performance); great perceived distance from home
- Personality factors: Insecure attachment relationship with primary caregivers; low perceived control over the timing and nature of the separation from home; anxious or depressed feelings in the months prior to the separation; low self-directedness; high harm avoidance; rigidity; a wishful-thinking coping style.
- Family factors: Low decision control (e.g., caregivers forcing a young child to spend time away from home against her wishes); governments forcing a person to be in a novel environment (e.g., being drafted into military service away from home or being sentenced to prison); unsupportive caregiving; caregivers who express anxiety or ambivalence about the separation (e.g., "Have a great time away. I don't know what I'll do without you.")
- Environmental factors: High cultural contrast (e.g., different language, customs, food); threats to physical and emotional safety; dramatic alternations in daily schedule; lack of information about the new place; perceived discrimination
- Experience factors: Older age; substantial previous experience away from home (for which age can be a proxy); previous experience in the novel environment; previous experience venturing out without primary caregivers.
- Attitude factors: The belief that homesickness will be mild; positive first impressions and high expectations for the new environment; perceptions of social support; low perceived demands (e.g., on academic or vocational performance); short perceived distance from home
- Personality factors: Secure attachment relationship with primary caregivers; high perceived control over the timing and nature of the separation from home; good mental health in the months prior to the separation; high self-directedness; adventure-seeking; flexibility; an instrumental coping style.
- Family factors: High decision control (e.g., caregivers including a young person in the decision to spend time away from home); individuals making their own choice about military service; supportive caregiving; caregivers who express confidence and optimism about the separation (e.g., "Have a great time away. I know you'll do great.")
- Environmental factors: Low cultural contrast (e.g., same language, similar customs, familiar food in the new environment); physical and emotional safety; few changes to familiar daily schedule; plenty of information about the new place prior to relocation; feeling welcome and accepted in the new place.
- Doing something fun (observable method) to forget about being homesick (secondary goal)
- Thinking positively and feel grateful (unobservable method) to feel better (secondary goal)
- Simply changing feelings and attitudes (unobservable method) to be happy (secondary goal)
- Reframing time (unobservable method) in order to perceive the time away as shorter (secondary goal)
- Renewing a connection with home, through letter writing (observable method) to feel closer to home (secondary goal)
- Talking with someone (observable method) who could provide support and help them make new friends (primary goal)
CampSpirit.com – Ideas about homesickness prevention and treatment, especially with children, plus empirical research on homesickness phenomenology.
CampParents.org – The American Camp Association's main page for parents, with links to more research on homesickness and materials for homesickness prevention.
"Preventing and Treating Homesickness" – Direct link to the American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report published in the journal "Pediatrics"
"Curing Homesickness" – profiles Dr. Christopher Thurber and his methods for preventing and dealing with homesickness.
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