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11th November 2022

Homesickness: Illness or evolutionary advantage?

Homesickness can slap us in the face at university… but maybe we should embrace missing home? 
Homesickness: Illness or evolutionary advantage?

As the semester rolls on and summer days blur into hazy memories, more and more of us are bound to experience homesickness. Maybe a familiar smell or song transports us back in time, leaving us longing for home comforts. For many, homesickness results in an overwhelming feeling of sadness as we leave, or prepare to leave home.

What is homesickness, really?

Homesickness is categorised as a psychological syndrome, characterised by stress and anxiety. Recently, it has been described as a ‘mini-grief’ given its parallel symptoms with bereavement. While most cases are minor, others are extreme and can be associated with mental and physical health problems such as agoraphobia, separation anxiety, nausea, and depression.  

Homesickness is no joke

Today’s society often dismisses homesickness as a childish sentiment. However, it wasn’t always this way. In the 17th to 19th centuries, it was regarded as a serious disease, with doctors prescribing homesick soldiers time at home. Escalated cases of homesickness were even reported to result in heart palpitations and death when left untreated.

Johannes Hofer, a 17th-century Swiss physician, coined the Greek term ‘nostalgia’ (meaning the pain of returning) to describe homesickness in his patients. As time has passed, the use of nostalgia as a medical term has faded, and with it the serious concern once given to homesickness. In a world that relies on mobility for economic output and social progress, sufferers are often branded as immature and trivial, although the experience is clearly widespread.

Is homesickness an ancestral trait?

Rather than being a weakness, homesickness is actually a credit to the sociality of our species. For our hominid ancestors, missing home was an essential survival mechanism that served to maintain social ties. 

Cohesive social groups exhibit better teamwork and are therefore more likely to survive. Group hunting was more effective and offered increased predator protection. Groups also allowed cooperative care of children and increased offspring survival rate. Therefore, genes that favour sociality were selected for our gene pool. An urge to remain in the group, which manifests as homesickness, may well have contributed to the success of the human lineage. 

A positive take on missing home

Homesickness is prevalent at university, with 50% of UK university students experiencing it within their first year, with levels amongst females disproportionally high. Adjusting to a new culture and making friends is all part of the fresher experience, but can also induce a degree of stress. Stress, depression, and low self-esteem are risk factors that render us students vulnerable to homesickness. 

But don’t despair! Homesickness at university can be easily prevented and treated. One study found that 70% of homesick cases at university were caused by issues prior to leaving home, such as unresolved familial tension. This provides a compelling argument for mitigation.

Universities should initiate social connections between students prior to university and encourage practising time away from home. But what can you do to help yourself? Socialise with friends, be active, join a society, explore your new city, and if possible resist the urge to go home too often! 

Even if homesickness is no longer considered a disease, it still requires compassionate treatment.  In fact, we need to reframe our current view of homesickness as a weakness and instead celebrate missing home. It simply means we value our friends, family, and a sense of community.

Some articles to cope with homesickness

A cure for homesickness: Books to annotate and gift to loved ones

Monday blues: How to start your week well

A Fresher’s Guide to: Finding your people

Grand design your home on a budget

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