Homesickness: An Opportunity

By Brian A. Petersen, March 19, 2021
A message from Brian A. Petersen, PsyD, director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

IC Public Health Column video.

Transitioning to college, with all of the expected, and unexpected, adjustments and experiences can be a time of new stress. We tend to think of stress as a negative experience, but it can also represent an opportunity for growth and accomplishment. At a time where travel has been restricted due to COVID-19 guidelines, homesickness can cause new levels of stress. 

Counterintuitively, I tend to conceptualize homesickness as a positive experience. It says to me that there is something at home worth missing, whether it be relationships, family rituals, attachments to friends, a loving pet, or just the familiarity of comforting and predictable surroundings. It takes courage to intentionally separate oneself from these good things in the search for adventure or new experiences. One can develop a new perception, where you can enjoy both the new and the familiar at the same time, an “and” instead of an “either/or.” 

Signs of homesickness include: 

  • anxiety, especially related to the ability to make decisions on one’s own; 
  • constant thoughts about home or what is missed; 
  • increased concern or doubt about the decision to be away from home; 
  • an urge for constant contact, such as multiple calls or texts per day; 
  • and feelings of helplessness. 

From this list, one can see that the experience of homesickness can consist of both feelings and thoughts. These can interact in a cyclical fashion. An example is: “I wonder what Mom made for dinner tonight. I really miss her cooking. The food here is terrible compared to hers. I could have stayed home and attended school. I made a mistake in coming here!”   

What starts out as a seemingly innocent question ends up as a negative and powerful feeling. When we start down that road, we begin to look for evidence that the feeling is correct. For example, one might now tune into dissatisfaction with other aspects of the campus experience and, before you know it, you are creating a logical and emotionally reinforced argument for going home. This process creates that “either/or” dynamic mentioned above: “I can be happy at home; I can’t be happy here at school.” The way to truly address homesickness is to create the “and” between the two ideas: “I can be happy at home, and I can be happy here.”   

A Note About CAPS

CAPS houses a team of licensed and license-eligible professionals who promote and foster mental health, emotional well-being, and a sense of belonging. At CAPS, we understand that these are not one-size-fits-all matters. We welcome students of all identities, including all ethnicities, racial identities, genders, gender expressions, cultures, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, national origins, ages, sizes, physical and mental abilities, and socioeconomic status. Our goal is to work collaboratively to address the issues and experiences that are important to you. CAPS offers free, confidential resources based upon a model and philosophy of care called Stepped Care 2.0, a multifaceted approach that values individualized services. 

Depending on individual assessment, professional best practices, and the realities of CAPS’ Scope of Practice, we can recommend any number of options represented on the Support Wheel. CAPS' adaptation of stepped care allows for flexibility, respects that needs change over time, and minimizes the overall wait-time for services. 

For more information about current services call 607-274-3136.

What can help homesickness is attaching to the new place/experiences/reality.  Studies have shown that, if a student can successfully create two new relationships with peers, faculty, or college staff within the first two months of being on campus, this reliably predicts that they’ll complete their degree and enjoy the journey. Attaching to your new college experience is vital to your academic, social and spiritual success.   

This is where the courage comes in. It is a challenge to both be missing home and to take steps to make connections at school. They can feel like contradictory goals, but they can be complimentary. If I successfully attach to my school experience and I am attached to what I miss from home, then I have two positive dynamics happening in my life. 

How to create that connection: 

  • Don’t be afraid of anxiety.  Anxiety comes with any change in life and can often be the energy that helps us adjust. Openly acknowledge your stress and normalize it. You have managed anxiety in other situations, you can do so now. 
  • Thoughts of home and what you miss are normal and expected. If you find yourself thinking about it all the time, try ‘scheduling’ a time when you will intentionally feel your feelings. Through such a process, we can gain a sense of control over when and how we experience homesickness and this sense of control leads to confidence about managing our thoughts and feelings 
  • If we begin to doubt our decision to leave home, we can remind ourselves of our goals and purpose in coming to college. Anxiety can blind us to our original intentions in leaving home and it can help to remind ourselves of what we hope to accomplish. Talk to people who know and support your goals.   
  • Do your best to resist constant contact with those at home. Schedule specific times during the week when you can have that contact and stick to your schedule. This will make these interactions predictable and, again, create a sense of control over your decisions and actions.  
  • Take Practical action. Decorate your room and claim your space. Walk around campus to familiarize yourself with the layout and community spaces. Explore Ithaca and find your new favorite spaces.  
  • If you are feeling helpless to take action or cannot envision making connections, talking to a counselor or advisor may be helpful. At CAPS we talk to a lot of students about connection and we offer tips and ideas for how to overcome inertia and take action. CAPS also offers toolbox groups that focus on skill-building for overcoming social anxiety and for trying new experiences.  
  • Seek out clubs and organizations. Take advantage of student life experiences designed to bring community together. Faculty and staff can play an important role here through recognizing student withdrawal/disconnection and by reaching out to offer information and connection ideas. 
  • Parents can normalize the experience and offer support for autonomy. Helping students stay focused on the growth and accomplishment opportunities can lessen anxiety for both students and family. 

Homesickness can be a surprising experience and can initially be very uncomfortable, but it is a normal and expected part of transitioning to a new adventure and, with some attention and intention, you can have the best of home combined with the best of college. 

Brian A. Petersen, PsyD 
New York State Licensed Psychologist 
Director, Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) 

Healthy Minds Study

From March 2-March 23, 2021, Ithaca College, with the support of JED Campus, will be conducting The Healthy Minds Study.  This is a survey that asks students to honestly convey their experiences of mental wellness support at IC, to identify aspirations and areas for community change, and to discuss how the College experience is impacting them emotionally. We plan to utilize this information to identify needs and priorities, benchmark against peer institutions, evaluate programs and policies, plan for services and programs, and advocate for resources. This survey will provide our campus with a detailed picture of mental health and related issues in the IC student population.  

Every student who completes the Healthy Minds Survey can obtain a free “Mental Health Matters” sticker, designed by our very own Active Minds President, Michelle Pei, ’22. To receive your sticker, visit the Information Desk in the main lobby of the Campus Center. 

In addition, you will automatically be entered into a sweepstakes for 1 of 2 $500 Amazon Gift cards or 1 of 10 $100 Amazon gift cards.