Every year, college students leave their schools and families to embark on academic programs abroad. Being alone in a foreign land can cause stress and anxiety. Some miss their friends, family, and most importantly their comfort. Imagine having all these feelings and going to college in a country on the other side of the globe. Imagine having no community of support or counseling to help you cope through it.
Students can feel misplaced and lost. Culturally, everything is different. Communication can be challenging because your knowledge of the native language may be limited and you are unfamiliar with the area or customs.
Anxiety at college is so relevant NAFSA wrote an article, Mental Health and Study Abroad: Responding to the Concern. When studying abroad the risk of anxiety, depression, and mental illness increase substantially.
Where do you turn? It’s not as easy as checking in with your advisor or counselor. The time difference can make accessing help back home a challenge. It may also not be as easy to check-in with a campus clinic. Culture shock and homesickness can derail a rewarding experience, but they don’t need to.
In the summer of 2008, I went on a short term study abroad trip to Guizhou Province, China. It was a new and exciting adventure. In preparation for the study abroad program, I took a course, watched documentaries, and read articles about China. When I finally landed in Beijing, much to my surprise, it was not what I expected.
The city of Beijing is crowded, from dusk till dawn bikers and cars populate the dirty streets. Hovering over the city, a thick cloud of smog blankets the town. There is a strong sewer odor in the air. Unlike the city, rural Guizhou Province is like a sea of rice patty fields embellishing the countryside. Roads are neatly paved as they loop through the green mountains. There is a scent of freshness tricking through your nostrils. It is a beautiful sight to see. This part of rural China is untouched, far removed from technology the average American relies on everyday. The change in environment and accessibility to technology can be challenging for many students.
A week into our program, one of my classmates suddenly became anxious and weary. He felt uncomfortable and out of place. The room he shared with another classmate made him feel claustrophobic. He informed our group leaders of his discomfort and wanted to go back home. After a thorough discussion, he and the group leaders came up with a plan. They moved him into a bigger room where he would not have to share with anyone and encouraged him to be open about his feelings. If he did not feel comfortable after the move and additional support, they would look into other options or send him back home.
After talking to our classmate, one of the group leaders sat down with the rest of us and explained that he is experiencing culture shock and was homesick. We would need to be encouraging and supportive. My classmate was finally starting to feel more like himself with a renewed attitude, larger room, and positive support.
Conquering Homesickness and Culture Shock
Homesickness is the feeling of anxiety and distress when you are removed from what is familiar such as your home, family and personal belongings. Research has suggested at some point in our lives, 70% of us will experience homesickness. Symptoms are similar to that of depression and may include:
- social withdrawal
- sleep disruption
- concentration problems
- panic attacks (in extreme cases)
- loss of appetite and weight loss
Homesickness often leads to culture shock. It is the loss of your social world, what is considered normal to you. It can be as simple as the food you eat to the facial expressions others make around you. How do you know if you are experiencing culture shock? According to the Worldwide Classroom, here are some indicators:
- You are worried about the cleanliness of the new city, country (You associate what is new and strange with dirty)
- You feel helpless and desire someone who is from the the country to which you belong
- Minor frustrations are blown out of proportion
- You have minor aches and pain
- You miss home
Coping and Prevention
Please note homesickness is a serious condition and it can change your life forever. If you feel more stressed than usual or have thoughts of sadness, seek guidance. You also need to build a network of support to help you overcome your feelings. What if you don’t have a counselor or clinic where you are studying? Contact your school and be honest about what you are going through. Don’t let anyone blame or shame your feelings or disregard your situation.
Chris Thurber, PhD suggests families need to practice and prepare their children. The idea is to get teens and young adults to understand feelings of sadness and loneliness when away from home, hence changing the intensity of these emotions when they actually occur. This may ultimately help students build a coping mechanism when they do feel homesick.
Although, it may be difficult to “practice and prepare” for a study abroad trip, another option is to get in touch with students who have previously spent time abroad (especially those who have studied where you plan to go). It’s always a good idea to have a safe harbor. Know the American embassy in the foreign country and how to contact them if you feel you are in trouble, or your health is at risk.
Coping with homesickness and cultural shock is challenging. In an article recently published by the BBC, looking at adults struggling with anxiety, it took Fiona Watson fifteen years to accept Ireland as her new home and put England in her past. Another individual, Jesus Navas’s homesickness was so bad he experienced anxiety attacks and couldn’t work. After years of therapy and self acceptance, he has overcome his anxiety and homesickness.
Don’t wait. If you feel any of the symptoms described in this article – seek support and counseling. Study abroad can be life-changing in many ways, make yours positive!