Updated: Aug 25, 2019
Wherever you are, homesick is common feeling especially if you live abroad. It doesn’t matter if you are only a few hours away from home, if you live in a country you wanted to live, or if you have good friends/communities in your host country.
Why do you feel homesick? Can we avoid having the feeling? Isn’t it better if we can just enjoy everywhere we go?
“Humans become very attached to their primary people and place. To be separated, is to be lost from all that is familiar, safe, and comfortable causing painful emotions known as homesickness” said Barbara Dautrich, a former Professor of Psychology & Education at American International College. “Homesickness has evolutionary benefits for human survival as it prevents us from wandering off from our families, venturing alone into strange and possibly dangerous territory. Unlike lower animals, humans are not equipped to survive easily on their own, so affiliation and attachment to place ensure the safety of the individual among family and community.”
Since I started coaching deeply, I have been interested in our brains. And this former professor Dautrich’s message interests me very much.
There are two major parts of our brains make us as human beings. They are the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.
Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia defines the limbic system as “the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviors we need for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for our young, and fight or flight responses.”
You might be able to say that most of human history is a history of survival. If you don’t have fear and if you are not careful, you might have jumped from 10m (30ft) cliff, ate colorful mushrooms, and/or try to play with lions or bears. It might mean those who did vanish at an early age might be those who are fearless and careless. Also, we, who are descendants of careful and smart ancestors, are survivors in those long years. Therefore, we might be able to say that prudence is built into our DNA.
So when you are in an unfamiliar place, the limbic system which is the primitive part of the brain gives you a message such as “this is not where you are supposed to be”. And it was a very helpful function as a human being for most of human history. Because it was not wise to be away from your tribe and feel safe! However, in this modern society, it is not as dangerous as it used to be and it is safe most of the case even if you are away from your community.
Marc Dingman, Ph.D. is writing about prefrontal cortex in his blog, Neuroscientifically Challenged
: “The prefrontal cortex makes up over 10% of the volume of the brain and thus is likely involved in many functions. There is one category of cognition, however, that is frequently linked to the prefrontal cortex: executive functions.”
“The term executive function is defined slightly differently depending on where you find the definition. In general, executive functions focus on controlling short-sighted, reflexive behaviors to take part in things like planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control, and acting with long-term goals in mind. They are higher-level cognitive processes that people tend to display greater proficiency in than other animals---thus you could argue they are some of the functions that truly help to make human cognition unique.”
Imagine if you are on a diet and you have a choice of salad and a cupcake for lunch. The prefrontal cortex helps you to choose salad over a cupcake because you can make a decision based on a long-term goal and self-control rather than emotional reaction. When do you think you can’t make the logical decision? Probably when you are tired, distracted, and/or in self-doubt. In the situation, your brain might say “it’s OK to eat a cupcake, it’s just a small piece” or “you are tired, so you deserve to eat the cupcake”
It means it is very normal to feel homesick when you are an unfamiliar place. And you might be disappointed that your motivation, prefrontal cortex, doesn’t work as you are hoping for. However, you might be tired, distracted and/or in self-doubt in the new environment. Tiredness is normal after spending days and nights in a new environment. Every single step is new. Every single corner is new. Distraction might happen because you are not comfortable where you are, or you might keep thinking about people/place you’ve left. Self-doubt is possible because you would feel you are vulnerable when you don’t feel comfortable.
Like we have been seeing, feeling homesick is not your weakness nor incapability. It means that you are a healthy normal human being who is equipped with a great sense of connection with familiarity. And because of this, your genes are passed down for generations. You are a descendant of great survivors.
However, you might not enjoy feeling homesickness. And it is understandable. Then what can we do? We have learned about the “limbic system” and “prefrontal cortex” in our brain. The limbic system urges us to avoid unfamiliarity, risks, and difficulties. And it feels better if you follow the signal. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex helps you to think based on your long-term goals as well as self-control.
As you can see now, feeling homesick is not bad nor something you have to avoid. So, what would happen if you try to accept that you feel homesick as a part of a human being? Also, how about planning ahead what you’d do when you feel homesick? Let’s use our prefrontal cortex and embrace our opportunities to live in an unfamiliar place.