Missing family and friends overseas is quite normal but there are ways to manage the pain, writes Juliette Sivertsen
Feeling homesick or lonely is a normal part of the human experience - but it can become serious and have significant health effects.
Homesickness is a form of distress that can range in severity and duration. It might be a feeling of loneliness while exploring somewhere new, missing an old life in a former place of residence, or pain from being separated from loved ones.
For some people, homesickness is a short-term experience. But for others, the effects can linger over weeks, months or even years, particularly among migrants. Long-term, it can feel crippling and become a significant public health challenge.
Ally Fagan left her homeland of Ireland 10 years ago and has lived in New Zealand for nine of those years. She says while travel has been an incredible opportunity, early on her homesickness was almost debilitating.
"I felt lost and depressed and quite scared. I couldn't put into words how I felt or explain why I was so sad when I had such an amazing opportunity in front of me. It's a big world and I was the furthest - 18,167km to be exact - I could have been from my family, friends and all I knew," she says.
Triggers could include the smell of a perfume as well as significant events such as Christmas, birthdays, a family birth or death, or even seeing family or friends enjoying time together when she could not.
"It would just always be there in the back of my mind. But even though it's still there and I have my moments even after all this time, it's not as loud for me and I have an amazing Kiwi whānau here to support me."
Fagan has experienced mental distress and also lives with epilepsy. She now works as the operations manager of Changing Minds, an organisation dedicated to nurturing Tāngata Mātau ā-wheako – people with personal experiences of mental distress and/or addiction.
Fagan says some of the strategies she has used to navigate mental health hurdles have also been helpful in assisting with homesickness.
"I get my body and mind moving. Even if it's something simple like going for a walk.
"I experience something new or something I really like and remind myself of the life I am creating for myself.
"I have an amazing Kiwi whānau, and I spend time with them on a regular basis to fill my cup. I know without them, it would make it a lot harder. There are other things I do like weekly video calls with my family and friends back home to feel that connection. I also talk about it with my family when I'm feeling homesick and allow myself to have a cry if I need to."
A recent report from the Helen Clark Foundation looked at the rising rates of loneliness experienced by recent migrants in Aotearoa, based on Stats NZ's quarterly Wellbeing Statistics.
It found recent migrants were more susceptible to loneliness as they were less likely to have formed local social and support networks than longer-term migrants.
The ongoing border closures as a result of the Covid pandemic have resulted in family separation, as well as a greater sense of isolation and long-term uncertainty.
The report said humans evolved to rely on each other for survival.
"Perceiving ourselves to be 'separated from the group' can trigger an automatic threat response that puts the body into a state of hyperarousal. While this response can help us manage immediate danger, it is not intended to be maintained for long periods due to the stress it places on our bodies.
"Spending weeks, months, or years in this state of 'hypervigilance for social threat' can create hormonal imbalances, disrupt sleep, elevate feelings of panic and anxiety, weaken our immune system, heighten the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, depression and dementia."
Fagan says there's no age or length of time that ever makes homesickness go away - and it's important for people to realise it's okay to feel those emotions.
She says these days, technology is so advanced that it's easy to set up video calls with loved ones.
"Get a good data plan," she advises. "Don't be afraid to tell people that you are homesick. It doesn't mean you need to go home, it's just that you miss them or you miss the places and things that are familiar to you."
Reminding yourself why you are travelling can be helpful and, if there are days that are too hard to get up and moving, then it's okay to opt for something quieter to sit with the discomfort.
Fagan also has advice for friends and family who might be supporting a loved one who is far away.
"Ask them how they are and listen, encourage them to enjoy the experience and cultures around them. It can come in waves, so knowing that there will be good days but also bad days that may involve those late-night calls due to time zones."
Questions on keeping good mental health when travelling? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter at @j_sivertsen