A Rutgers psychologist discusses the causes of the distressed state – and ways of coping with it

Leaving for college whether you are a first-year student or returning to continue your college career is a major transition, one that can cause feelings of being lost, lonely or missing home.

Homesickness is common at this stage in life and can arise at any time during a college student’s time away, although it is most common in the first few months. Stephanie Marcello, chief psychologist at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, discusses how to manage homesickness and adjust to new surroundings.

Who can experience homesickness? 
Homesickness is very common. The highest incidence is typically with students who are leaving home for the first time. In fact, studies have shown that 70 percent of first-year students experience symptoms, which can put them at risk for adjustment difficulties. Homesickness tends to decrease after the first semester, but how fast a person overcomes it varies.  About 30 percent of all students experience homesickness, which can occur at any point of the year.

What are the signs of homesickness?
Physical signs can include disrupted sleep, lack of appetite, increased risk of infection – especially gastrointestinal – headaches and dizziness. The person might be consumed with thoughts of home or returning home, be pessimistic about their new environment or find concentration difficult.

They might experience depression, anxiety, irritability, sadness or feel isolated or alone.  

Are certain people predisposed to homesickness?
Yes. People who are dealing with other stressors and may have a lack of social support can be more prone to homesickness.

According to a report from the Academy of Pediatrics, there are four main risk factors for homesickness. They may experience feelings of unfamiliarity brought on by a new experience. The attitude toward the new experience can be influential. So, sometimes expecting to be homesick can bring on a self-fulfilling prophecy. An individual’s personality and ability to warm up to new people and situations as well as outside factors, such as how much the person wanted to move in the first place and how the person’s friends and family back home are taking the move can affect a person’s propensity for becoming homesick.

How can students cope with homesickness?
Acknowledge your feelings. There is no right or wrong way to feel during this transition and there is no right or wrong time for it to appear. And just as you can’t control when it starts, don’t stress about trying to control it when it goes away. Remind yourself this is a common, normal experience for students leaving home for the first time.

Talk to your family and friends back home and also focus on building new connections and social relationships. Look at what you miss from home and figure out ways to recreate these aspects. For example: If you loved playing a sport at home, consider joining a sport on campus. Use your nostalgia to look for clues to what makes you feel happy.

Having an active, healthy lifestyle is important: Create new routines, get out of the dorm, eat healthy and exercise.

Most importantly, if you are homesick talk to someone about your feelings.

What should students not do? 
Do not stay in your room, away from any events held on campus. Do not miss class. Even if you don’t feel like it, get out of your room and get involved.

What should parents or roommates do to help? 
If parents or a roommate think a student is homesick, talk to them about getting involved and remind them about what they enjoy at home and how they might create some of these activities at home. Normalize their feelings and support them, but do not encourage them to come home too often. Instead, encourage them to get involved on campus and to build friendships.

When should students or their loved ones become concerned that the feelings are something more than homesickness?
Homesickness can lead to depression. Pay attention if you notice the homesickness is affecting their daily life. If a student remains disconnected, rejects opportunities to meet people and if the above mentioned symptoms persist, reach out to a professional for help.