Holidays are a rough time for many of us living abroad. It’s a time that makes us confront how life in a foreign country can be lonely and make our heart yearn for some familiarity. In this post I share every tip and trick you can use to deal with homesickness.
It doesn’t help being far away from friends and family during traditions that have a lot of meaning for us. For some of us, holidays can also mean being reminded of the fact that we don’t have friends and family to go home to.
Feeling homesick while you’re supposed to be living your best life in a new country can also make us feel ungrateful and spoiled. And if it’s not our own inner critic doing all the criticizing, unhelpful comments from others can certainly do the trick.
So if you want to feel a little less crazy for feeling homesick during the upcoming holidays, I’ve compiled the ultimate list of things you can do to get over homesickness.
Pick what works for you and discard the rest.
What causes homesickness during holidays
There are really no rules for homesickness. Some holidays can be really hard for you and others just fly by. It all depends on what else is going on in your life.
If you’ve recently moved to a new country and been living there for a few months, the first holidays are likely to hit you the worst. It’s as if one day you wake up and someone decides to punch you in the stomach out of nowhere for days on end.
Or you may have not felt homesick at all but all of a sudden – now you do. It’s like all the things you suddenly miss coordinated to catch the same flight to be with you and torment you.
Homesickness is also aggravated when you don’t feel like you click with anyone around you, even if they may be nice people otherwise. It makes you face the reality of being without friends and family and miss them even more.
Or it can make you relive the pain that you don’t really have old friends and family who are dying to see you.
The feeling of alienation forces you to be reminded of all the things that were much better, and familiar, at home or in a previous country where you felt more comfortable and where you had a good life going on. Or to simply wish that things were better than they are right now.
You can also be fine for many years or after many moves, until one year, homesickness hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s quite unnerving when you thought that you don’t miss home like other expats do, but then find yourself wailing over music from back home late at night.
Whichever way homesickness finds its way to you, the only way to get over it is to go through it.
Homesickness symptoms – do you have them?
For starters, you may feel a terrible need to hole up and withdraw from everything around you. You may also want to cry more and more. You may be gagging to vent to people but feel like you have no right to complain.
I should be happy that I have this opportunity to live in a different country. I shouldn’t be wasting this opportunity and feeling miserable!
Or you might just feel bored as all hell and unmotivated.
Some of you can find yourself being very irritable and easily annoyed with everything in your host country. The way the cashier doesn’t smile at you or the way that work suddenly feels unfulfilling – all of those are reason enough for you to want to blow someone’s head off (metaphorically speaking… I hope).
Regardless of how you’re reacting to your feelings, the clue that you’re going through a (bad) case of homesickness lies in your thoughts always returning to things back home, in a previous home country or to thoughts about how you simply wish they could be instead.
It can be anything at all that triggers homesickness.
A waft of a familiar smell, the lack of creature comforts, a random person smiling exactly like your best friend back home, even seeing a bunch of tourists from the country that you miss can fill you with unimaginable joy (followed by feeling like someone kicked you in the stomach because you realize that you’re not actually there yourself).
How to deal with homesickness during the holidays
The bad news is that there is no magic pill to get over homesickness. But the good news is that you have options. You always have options.
1. UNDERSTAND WHAT TRIGGERS YOUR HOMESICKNESS
If you want to deal with homesickness so it doesn’t make your life abroad worse than it already feels, it’s crucial that you understand what triggers it.
Pinpointing what you’re feeling, lacking or longing for is the first step towards being able to do something about it.
Is it the people around you that make you miss your friends? Do you miss a certain kind of food or cultural experience? Would you like to speak more in a specific language? Is your new routine just too different from how you used to live?
Once you figure out your triggers, you can figure out which needs are not being met and what you can do to meet those needs.
2. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE CREATURE COMFORTS
Successfully dealing with homesickness abroad can take as little as getting your hands on some goodies that remind you of the place that you miss. Books, movies, music, speaking in your language, asking a friend to send you a package full of goodies.
You can also find a way to do your favorite activities – go for a hike, see a play, play boardgames, stay in bed and watch Netflix all day, decorate your home, bake a damn cake.
The point is to replicate the things that you miss as much as you can in the context that you’re in. You might be surprised how much it lifts your spirits and makes you feel like you have some sense of belonging in this world after all.
For instance, Christmas is always a tough time for me. Mainly because the option of “going back home” is not an option for me at all – it no longer exists in the way that it does in my memory. So I’ve learned to make do with small things (and because I got tired of moping around year after year).
I obsessively make dishes typical for this time of the year with the ingredients that I ask my friends to send me. I literally binge-eat clementines, something that I’ve done during winter months since I was little. I watch crappy Christmas movies. I decorate the sh*t out of my home with fairy lights and silly trinkets (while still staying classy, haha). I lay an extra fluffy blanket on my sofa next to my existing selection of blankets and pillows.
While it’s not the same (and I’m not the same person anymore either!), these small practices (which I clearly take to an extreme) remind me of where I come from and how I used to live. These are things that help me keep a sense of roots and belonging, even if the places and people only exist in my memory.
3. WORK ON ACCEPTING YOUR NEW LIFE
Part of the pain of homesickness comes from not being able to live your life as you’re used to living it or as you would like to live it.
As expats we can really trip ourselves up by getting stuck in comparisons and critizing things for not living up to our expectations. It’s really difficult to deal with homesickness abroad if we have rigid expectations and don’t work with what’s actually available to us and realistic to achieve.
Of course, not being able to replicate what you miss can bring on an extra layer of sadness on top of the already existing homesickness. Allow yourself to feel sad about how different your life is from what you would like it to be.
Consider this your permission slip. Really. You’re allowed to feel homesick, and sad, and all the other feelings on top of it.
You’re also allowed to say it out loud to someone – I’m feeling really homesick even though I know I shouldn’t be. Could you just listen to me vent a little bit?
But when you’re ready, or simply sick of yourself, take a deep breath and ask yourself – which options are in fact available to me?
4. DEALING WITH HOMESICKNESS WHEN YOUR NEW HOME COUNTRY IS JUST TOO DIFFERENT
Depending on where you live now versus the place that you miss, you will be more or less successful in getting your hands on things or experiences that remind you of home.
Since I’ve only lived in Western countries, which has made things a little bit easier for me, I reached out to my followers on Instagram to see how they deal with homesickness in countries completely different to their home(s).
Vixstarella, a serial expat from the UK (@_vixstarella_), shared her experience with getting over homesickness during holidays in China and Mexico. I was blown away by her creativity so I decided to include her story in full:
I lived in Shanghai with my husband and we spent our first Christmas away from family there. China doesn’t celebrate Christmas and I hadn’t been ‘grown up’ long enough to have collected any Christmas decorations. Ikea was the only place I could find to provide them. That cemented Ikea as a safe space for me in China. I even had my bag stolen there once and it still remained my happy place.
I couldn’t find the ‘right’ Christmas food – vegetables, turkey or the like but I got a visiting friend to bring me a pot of filling for mince pies, which tastes like Christmas to most English people!
The greatest comfort was sharing Christmas with other expats who felt dislocated and dicombobulated by the prospect of Christmas in China. Together we created our own mishmash of traditions mixed with what was available and added a Shanghai twist – Christmas bowling! Christmas karaoke! Christmas sushi! It was a great time to gather people who might have otherwise been by themselves.
Sharing your own style of Christmas with natives of your host country is a good way to connect with your local community. I threw a Christmas party for the Mexican parents at our childrens’ little school in Guadalajara, Mexico. They were intrigued by the carols and the food I had made – and we enjoyed it all in T-shirts in the sunshine. Our Mexican guests made a special effort to arrive and leave on time because they knew we were British, bless them – and I had been nervous about that!
In truth it can be a really challenging time of year for an expat. Find comfort where you can and find others to share the experience with – you’ll giggle about it all as you reminisce in years to come.
So if you’re living a entirely different country to what you’re used to – how can you get creative and bring bits of your home into your new home?
5. GET PROACTIVE ABOUT YOUR GOALS
Homesickness is one of those completely debilitating feelings. But once you realize that it’s indeed homesickness that’s making you grumpy and miserable, getting proactive about your life can serve as a much-needed distraction and help you deal with homesickness during holidays in a more constructive way.
Yes, I know, it’s the last thing you want to be doing.
Don’t you understand that whatever I’ll do, it just won’t be the same?!
You’re right, it won’t be the same.
But when you’re reeling from homesickness you need to tap into that part of you that moved abroad precisely because you wanted something that isn’t the same.
Now more than ever, you need to lead the way with your curiosity for what’s new and different.
That doesn’t mean you can’t miss your friends, family, the traditions, the things you’re used to doing and the things you would like to be doing.
You can do all of that, just ALONGSIDE getting the hell on with your life.
Start exercising (again), make plans you can look forward to, create something with your hands, finally start your passion project or take it to a new level, explore a new part of the city or country that you live in. Find a new hobby where you can meet people and give it a solid try. Get a potted plant. Make plans to find a new job or do a market research for your business idea. Learn a new skill. Do anything that brings you joy, doesn’t matter what it is or how small it is.
Little by little, you’ll be too busy living and making every day count to let the feeling of homesickness drown you. I won’t promise you that the feeling will go away completely (although it might) but it will be less overwhelming.
6. STAY IN TOUCH BUT LIMIT YOUR USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Of course, virtual contact through Facetime or Skype is far from the same as sitting in a cafe and chatting about everything under the sun with your besties. There is nothing quite like it. But being able to have real life human interaction, even if via technology, goes a long way towards feeling like your relationships are real and meaningful.
Chatting about local news and gossip can do a world of good for you and make you feel connected to life in your other home(s) versus if you only focused on how staying in touch online is just not the same.
I’ve really had to embrace how majority of my long-term friendships have become virtual. We have regular Skype calls and check in on each other via messaging apps. Of course it’s not the same, but just being able to talk to people that know me and who I know very well takes off the stress of alienation and whatever latest thing that I’m missing.
But be mindful of your use of social media when you’re feeling homesick.
Spend too much time on it and you can get suckered into thinking that you’re missing out on all the good things happening in your other home while you suffer in your new home. Take a time out from social media for a while if it turns into an excuse to wallow rather than do something constructive about your life abroad.
7. TAKE TIME OFF TO FEEL ALL THEM FEELS
Sometimes what you need the most is to let your feelings out. How you do it is up to you (as long you don’t hurt anyone in the process!). Choose a medium that you have an easy time expressing yourself with.
Journaling, singing, talking, boxing, dancing, running, crying, sauna, painting, cleaning, winter bathing or pampering yourself to heaven and beyond with massages and beauty treatments. Whatever works for you to get negative energy out, do that.
If you’re going through a particularly bad case of homesickness, you may not even feel like doing it. In such a case, aim to commit to just 5 minutes of something that isn’t wallowing and see where that takes you.
There are also excellent expat coaches and therapists online who can support you through this process regardless of where you live.
Take the time that you need, because it may be all that you really needed – just a good cleanse to keep going! This may not be the happiest holiday for you, but don’t add further stress on yourself by judging yourself for feeling homesick.
8. REFLECT ON THE PROS AND CONS OF LIFE ABROAD
If you’ve gone through the process of identifying what it is that you’re missing or longing for but you came up with a very long list of those things, you may be going through a deeper crisis about your life abroad.
Now will be a good time to reflect on and remind yourself of the reasons why you moved to this country. What are the things you can do here but couldn’t do in your other home(s)? Similarly, what are the things you can’t do here but which are proving to be difficult to live without?
As I’ve written before, living abroad has a way of showing us what we like and don’t like. Living abroad shows us who we are and what we need for a happy life.
We’re not going to land equally well everywhere. Some places are more suited to and aligned with who we are and what we need.
I recently created a worksheet (click the image below!) with 25 questions that can help you identify what you truly need from your life abroad, so take some time to revisit your goals and dreams.
If there’s a particular place you miss the most, make a similar list for that place. What are the things you’re able to do there? And how would living there not meet your needs?
Reminding yourself that things would not all be peachy in the place that you miss will really help you put things into perspective. Because when you feel homesick, it’s easy to remember your life in another home based on the amazing days and not based on the everyday struggles.
Faced with a black-and-white list like that, you’ll be more easily able to see whether you’re just going through a rough patch or whether you’re far too tired to keep going with expat life. Act accordingly based on what you learn.
9. BOOK A TRIP TO THE PLACE THAT YOU MISS (BONUS: DON’T TELL ANYONE ABOUT IT)
I left this option for the last because going back to the place that we miss can become a form of escapism if we’re not careful. Running from our problems in a new country by going home won’t truly solve those problems unless we face them.
But if you deal with homesickness in a way that actually teaches you something new about yourself, you will be more aware of where you need to push yourself to grow as a person.
Assuming though that you’ve done the self-reflection and you simply need to go home to rest and recharge, do precisely that. Make appointments with your friends or family and plans to go to all your favorite haunts. If you can’t be there for holidays proper, book a trip for when you can be there.
Of course, trips back home can sometimes be super stressful because we try to squeeze every single appointment into a short period of time. If you feel the need for it, don’t let anyone know that you’re coming and just hang out on your own or with a select few people.
One time I didn’t let anyone know that I was coming and instead housesat for a very understanding friend of mine. I felt super guilty for not taking the rare opportunity to see friends and family, but I also knew that I terribly needed an appointment with myself in my old haunts.
Although I did not time it so intentionally, the week that I went also happened to be the week for big national festivities. I went to all of the public events and sang my little heart out together with many others in a way that I had never done even when I lived there.
If you didn’t know any better, you would have thought that I’m a die hard nationalist, not a serial expat visiting my home country because I’m feeling lost and homesick.
There is just something about going to the extreme of meeting your longing for something that can really balance things out in your soul.
So if you can afford to be sneaky, push past the guilt and book a trip back home on your own. Your soul will feel so much lighter afterwards.
How long does homesickness last
Most people will tell you that homesickness takes the time that it needs and then goes away. While that’s true, it will need your active participation to deal with homesickness. Especially during the holidays where you can be provoked almost on an hourly basis to fall back into the dark pit of homesickness.
The tips above should help you figure out what it is that you can do to improve your emotional state.
Whether you’ve just moved to a new country or you’re already more or less settled, there is no shame in feeling homesick for any length of time.
Homesickness is a temporary phase but it is a necessary one. It is there to demand your attention so you can take better care of yourself. So don’t miss the opportunity!
How do you deal with homesickness during holidays while living abroad? Let me know in the comments below.
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Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.