Selected Podcast

Tackling Homesickness

Nearly half of all college freshman feel lonely or homesick at some point during their freshman year.

But homesickness doesn’t just happen to first-year students. Anyone in a new environment can experience the strong desire to return to familiar people and routines.

Today we are speaking with Zan Barry, senior program director from Community Wellness at MIT Medical to discuss how you can recognize the signs of feeling homesick.

We will also discuss tips for how to deal with those feelings.
Tackling Homesickness
Featured Speaker:
Susanna (Zan) Barry, M.A.
Zan Barry develops programs to support the wellbeing of groups and individuals – including stress management, healthy sleep, mindfulness, and eating and body image concerns. Her classes, groups and workshops are offered at MIT Medical and across the Cambridge campus. Her training is in education and developmental psychology, integrative health, and health coaching.

Melanie Cole (Host): Nearly half of all college freshmen feel lonely or homesick at some point during their freshman year, but homesickness doesn’t just happen to first-year students. Anyone in a new environment can experience the strong desire to return to familiar people and routines. My guest is Zan Barry. She develops programs to support the wellbeing of groups and individuals including stress management, healthy sleep, mindfulness, eating, and body image concerns. Welcome to the show Zan. What are the signs of homesickness that college students might exhibit?

Zan Barry (Guest): Well, you know everyone might have a different sign that’s prompting them to know that they are homesick, so for some people it will be quite obvious, they will be having lots of emotional signs, crying, and feeling lonely and sad, but for other people it might be more mental where they feel unfocused and unproductive and for some people it can be body based more, you know, aches and pains and unexplained headaches and stomach aches, that kind of thing.

Melanie: So, when you start to notice these and would you notice them in yourself as a student or is it, you know, kind of your roommate would notice these things.

Zan: I think it can go either way and I think it’s good to, for us to teach homesickness literacy really to all students, so that they are looking out for each other.

Melanie: So, what are some tips to deal with these signs?

Zan: Well, of course if there are physical symptoms going on, you want to get those detected first and just make sure that it’s not something more serious and more, you know, in depth and if it persists for long-long period of time, so the emotional, you know, sadness and loneliness persists for a long time, you want to get that checked as well, but there are many self-care things that people can do from finding cultural affinity groups on campus, you know, to be with people who have familiar interests and familiar backgrounds to help you feel more acclimated to your new environment. Certainly, it’s a good idea not to avoid social events like coffee hours, half study breaks, and outings with the rest of your dorm, it is all very good to do those things and kind of keep ourselves in the mix with the community even when we are not feeling our absolute best, but there are other things about limiting trips to home. If it’s possible to go home, you don’t want to do that every weekend and if you start to get really upset by talking on the phone or using Skype with your family then maybe stick to e-mail or texting or something that may be less evocative of the sadness and loneliness and keep yourself moving forward. It’s great to have a few transitional objects from home, something that reminds you of home and I heard that students find it very comforting to have a calendar like a physical paper, wall calendar that shows them the time is actually passing and the break will come soon and they will be able to see their family, you know, within a reasonable period of time.

Melanie: How much is too much Zan and in this age of helicopter parenting, parents want to be involved more than they used to in how are you doing with your grades, how are you getting along with your teachers and your roommates, how much is too much communication with your parents?

Zan: Right, well the main, I think, guidepost for that is do I feel like I’m developing my own identity. Do I feel like I am still developing my own friendships, my own way of thinking, am I able to differentiate my new world and my new identity from my old identity that I had growing up. If people feel like they are starting to have some healthy separation and that communication with the parents is not keeping them, you know, overly tied to one particular identity that they have always had, but they feel that they are moving forward and developing some new skills and new identity then the communication with parents is probably fine. If people do feel like it’s keeping them from making friends, from interacting with peers, from joining groups because they are so overly concerned or orbiting around their family connection so much, then that is something to take a look at.

Melanie: Okay, so what are the best specific activities? You said to get involved with the activities that are on campus, but are there some other things like exercise, things like that that can kind of give you that jump away, so that you don’t think about it so much.

Zan: Right, so taking your mind off of things, we are cultivating the ability to really be in the moment with something else besides your thoughts about missing home is really important and there are certain things that will definitely cultivate your ability to be in the moment, exercise is one of those things. If you’re breathing hard and you’re sweating and you have some positive biochemicals flowing through you like endorphins that are mood booster, you know all those things are good ways to take your mind off of things and also give yourself a biochemical boost, but certainly getting off campus and being with peers in a new setting, you know, these wonderful outings that dorms take and living groups take together that can be really just a refresher for your brain and help you focus on something else for a while. Sleep is of primary help and importance and that’s really hard for college students to get, but even if they can make up their sleep deficit somehow with some napping or some extra hours that they get on Friday nights after a long week, here at MIT, Thursday nights are notoriously rough night for students turning their problems PSETs and so I encourage people to try to go to bed earlier on Friday night, so they wake up more rested and refreshed and ready to take on the weekend and try to make up their sleep deficit wherever they can.

Melanie: So, are there some positives about homesickness, things that it can teach a student about, you know, if they can master it, how they can increase their range of comfortable experiences that are outside their comfortable bubble they are used to.

Zan: That’s a great question because opening that window of being able to tolerate new experiences and even thrive in new settings is a wonderful silver lining of homesickness. The feeling of mastery and the feeling of growth, you know, sort of post-homesickness growth is very real and very empowering for students. We often see them come back in their sophomore year, ready to take on the world.

Melanie: So, do you have some kind of, things that they can say to themselves in the morning when they wake up instead of saying, I don’t fit in here, I want to transfer, I want to go home, I can’t adjust. Do you have some positive affirmations that they can say to themselves that will help them overcome this homesickness?

Zan: Yeah, well positive affirmations are an interesting thing because they really work for some people and they really don’t work for other people, so if you’re trying to convince yourself of something that your brain doesn’t really-really believe that can actually add to your stress, but I do think that it’s always true to say, this too shall pass. This is something that I’m going through now. I’m going to ride the wave. I’m going to, you know, accept that I am along for the ride of this homesickness for as much as I can accept it, you know, to have to bring some self-compassion and acceptance to our moment to moment experiences, but it’s great to get support, so we have an amazing network of support here. We have everything from student support services which is a wonderful service to students who feel that their academics are being affected by some of the things that are distressing them to our mental health and counseling service which, students will seek help at some point during their career at MIT. We see about half of students go to Student Support Services and I want to say it’s about a third of students go to, so getting extra support is really crucial to feeling that you’re not alone with your own concerns, that you’re not alone in your own head, but that there is someone who is just a sounding board and an ally for you to work through those issues that doesn’t mean that that person is going to do the hard work for you, you still have the achievement of getting through your own homesickness, but to have a neutral ally to help you get through it is a wonderful idea and of course remember that half of all college freshmen just about are experiencing similar feelings, so you can find solidarity in all the people around you.

Melanie: That is great advice. Thank you so much Zan Barry. You are listening to conversations with MIT Medical. For more information, you can go to This is Melanie Cole. Thanks for listening.