Homesickness and loneliness
What is homesickness?
In fact approximately 70% of students – two out of three – feel homesick to some extent over the first six weeks at University. Sometimes the symptoms are mild, like feeling a bit disorientated and muddled and unsure how to manage things in a new place. But some people take longer to settle – perhaps most of the first semester – and some of their feelings will be pretty acute, even overwhelming, at times.
Beginning life at university can generate both excitement and anxiety. For some, this apprehension is quickly overcome as they adapt to a new environment; for others the transition takes longer. It can sometimes emerge as homesickness when there is a preoccupation with home-focused thoughts. There is longing for and grieving for what was familiar and secure. It can be about the loss of people, pets, places and routines, culture or the secure feeling of familiarity that home represents. If you experience homesickness you might notice an increase in low moods, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and minor physical ailments. Some students will start by being mildly depressed and anxious several weeks before leaving home, in anticipation of the impending change. Others will be fine initially and then, to their surprise, find themselves feeling homesick later in the academic year, perhaps after the Christmas break, or at the
start of their second academic year. You may not be immune just because you have successfully experienced leaving home before.
Vulnerability to feeling homesick can be affected by the distance from home, the responibility for the decision to come to university, the expectations, the workload and adjustment to requirement, the attitude of your family and the different lifestyle.
If you are homesick you may feel you have no control over your environment. You may not yet feel connected to the university or feel you have found your place in it.
What might help?
- Most importantly: own up to your feelings and accept them. Believe that they will pass; they almost always do. In the meantime, there’s nothing ‘weak’ or ‘childish’ about feeling homesick. Talk to someone. If you haven’t yet made friends here, you could try a tutor, supervisor, college ‘parents’, partner if you have one, college welfare officer or counsellor.
- Keep in good contact with the people you have left behind but also give yourself time within the university to begin to get involved here. Try not to let looking back actually hinder settling in. Encourage friends or family to come and see you in your new setting.
- Remember that all relationships, whether new or old, are subject to change. This is an inevitable part of life. Some may become stronger and deeper while you are at university; others may become more distant or even fade away. Being aware of the changes and shifts in relationships will help to reduce potential conflicts and allow you to appreciate old friends and family in a new way.
- Try to make contacts and friends through shared activities such as sport or other interests. There are so many clubs and societies within the university and city. At the start of the academic year many new people will be joining – you are unlikely to be the only new person. Don’t panic, don’t try too hard during Freshers, you have a long time to make friends. Everyone else is feeling just like you, no matter how confident they look. Don’t worry if you haven’t quite found your type of person yet – you will and they will be worth the wait. Do it your way – loud, quiet, considered, enthusiastic, organiser, follower. Don’t underestimate how lovely it is to ask if someone wants a cup of tea. Share any cooking skills you have, you will be in great demand.
- Remember that many other people will have similar feelings, although you may assume that they are doing fine. (You can’t read their minds- and they can’t read yours!)
- Keep busy. Try to establish a routine. The fuller your days are, the less time you will have to feel homesick or lonely.
- Walk around. Explore your new surroundings. It’s a beautiful campus.
- Be realistic about what to expect from student life and from yourself. Establish a balance. Don’t expect to get everything right. You’re bound to make mistakes, forget things, and get lost. The first year is all about getting it wrong, wasting time, not understanding, feeling stupid. There will be plenty of time to catch up… after all, it’s common for people to be off with flu for a few weeks and still get through the year successfully.
- Give yourself time to adjust. Don’t make any major decisions. Even if you feel strongly that you don’t want to stay, take your time and talk it over with others.
- Ask yourself if you really want to be at this university, in this city, studying this particular subject, at this time. Most people get through bouts of homesickness and go on to enjoy university. But for some it can be right to leave and take another direction.
- Those who decide to leave often find another course or university with which they are happy, perhaps after taking some time out or working. If you are thinking along these lines, get help from Sudent Counselling or your personal tutor. You will need to consider the various academic, career and financial implications.
Maintaining a Long Distance Romantic Relationship
Maintaining a long distance romantic relationship can pose special challenges. Many students are able to enjoy solid, happy and successful relationships despite being miles apart. It isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible either. Success relies on these key elements:
- Effective communication. Email, text messages, and MSN all have their place, but it’s essential that you be able to share deep feelings openly with each other. Sometimes telephone calls or letters are more effective ways to communicate.
- Commitment. This will mean different things for different couples, but a demonstrated commitment to the relationship does have to be shared by both parties.
- Willingness to take risks. Being so far apart can be a challenge because there are no guarantees that the relationship will survive. If safety and security are huge issues for you, a long distance relationship is probably not for you.
- Trust. Because long distance relationships mean taking a risk, there needs to be sufficient trust between the two people. The trust needs to be strong in order to help each person cope with occasional feelings of loneliness, jealousy and insecurity.
- Independence. The relationship will need to combine a healthy balance of independence and dependence so that each person can comfortably spend time apart yet still grow and change as an individual.
- Clear expectations. It is important that you clarify these for yourself and discuss them with each other. Otherwise the danger is that each person will be working on a very different long distance relationship, and misunderstandings will soon multiply.
The experience of loneliness
The experience of ‘feeling lonely in a crowd’ can easily happen in a university setting. Here, we are surrounded by many people, often of a similar age and supposedly with similar interests, all of whom appear to be making friends and forming groups with ease and confidence. Despite this we can feel lonely. It may be the first time in years that you have had to make new friends or you maintain long distance relationships, and you feel that there is no one with whom you are close enough to share these feelings. Because we might find it easier to spend time alone, either studying or working. Loneliness can lead to you feeling socially inadequate, unlikeable, uncomfortable in the company of others or angry and critical of other people. It can all build up. Feeling burdened by loneliness can feel draining and undermine your self-esteem. All of this can make it harder still to take part in social activity or to look after yourself by doing the things you normally enjoy or that help you feel better. It can also feel hard to say no to things you wouldn’t normally do.
What you can do?
- Look after yourself. Some of us take longer to settle in socially to a new environment. If your initial efforts do not bear fruit, acknowledge the efforts you are making.
- Try to say hello, or even just smile, at people you pass on the staircase or elsewhere in college or in your workplace. That can make it easier to later strike up a conversation.
- It can feel unfair if you are having to make all the running in organising to do something with someone. But it may be the only way to initiate having more fulfilling social relationships.
- It can be aggravating and dispiriting if people don’t reply to your texts, emails or other contacts. Remember that most of the time it won’t be to do with you personally.
- Of course you can try activities that you enjoy, as well as new ones, both for the experience and to widen the opportunities for social contact. You don’t have to stick with an activity if you find you don’t like it, but do try to give it some time – initial experiences don’t always meet our expectations but can change over time.
- Pace yourself – you don’t have to try everything at once; doing so might leave you feeling overstretched.
- If there isn’t a group or society for your passion, why not start one? It may seem like a bold step, but it might be easier than you think, and having a project can also reduce your loneliness.
- Going online to connect with others safely can feel like a less challenging way to reduce your loneliness, but balancing it with fact-to-face experiences is likely to be even more rewarding.
- Carry on doing the things you really enjoy – take yourself to the movies or to an event, even if there is no one to go with. Doing things for other people can make us feel good about ourselves, and can reduce loneliness, as well as helping to build relationships.
- Some of us are more at ease in groups and others in one to-one situations. Notice your own preference and‘style’ and play to your own strengths.
We hope that some of these suggestions will prove useful. There are many things you can do to help yourself, but don’t hesitate in seeking out the help of others. Homesickness and loneliness is not unusual – and it can shift with time and effort.
University of Cambridge Counselling Service – Self-help
University of Nottingham Counselling Service – Guides and leaflets
University of Exeter – Wellbeing Services