It is difficult to explain to people who have not experienced it first-hand, how debilitating home-sickness can be. That gut-wrenching, soul-twisting, downward-spiralling, deep pit of darkness you transcend into that disarms you at the weirdest times of the day. During the times when you feel homesick, you get stuck in this loop of past memories that are so overwhelming that you cannot even take in what is happening around you in the present. You don’t notice the elements in your new environment that could be elements of awe, excitement and inspiration, because your despair is so deep and overwhelming that it removes you from the space you’re in and allows you to travel thousands of miles and many oceans in an instant. In your mind’s eye you can see, smell, taste and touch home… And you imagine that the memories of home will always be better than anything that can happen in the present.
Why does homesickness have this effect? It is simple, we are creatures of habit and anything that is familiar seems safe and better than anything that is new or different or unfamiliar. When you move to a new country, you are informed that you are “starting a new life“. You, and everyone else of course, anticipate that your “new life” is going to be better than the one you are living now. But are you starting a new life, or simply continuing your life on a different path?
Martin Seligman* believes a more apt name for our species would be Homo Prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. Anticipating the future, both consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our brains. This way of looking at our psychological make-up, is of course very different to how psychologists and neuroscientists have looked at us up to now. For the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present. But it is becoming clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. Seligman explains that learning does not occur through the storage of static memories, but rather through the continual imagining of future possibilities.
When a hugely upsetting emotional event – like moving to the other side of the world – happens, what sets us into a downward spiral of depression, is not so much the weirdness and unfamiliarity of our present circumstances, but rather the expectation that this uncomfortable situation might not improve and that we could potentially be “stuck” in this unpleasantness indefinitely. As a consequence we also start re-framing our memories of past events and convince ourselves that these were in fact much better than they might actually have been.
Here is why depression and homesickness can make matters worse. Seligman explains that the depression and anxiety inhibit our ability to be optimistic about the future. Studies have shown depressed people have a tendency to imagine fewer positive scenarios while overestimating future risks. I tend to think strategically and anticipate events in advance, but I also tend to worst-case-scenario things. My propensity to fall into a pit of anxiety and depression is thus often stronger than it is for most other people. Any disruption in routine that breaks connections that I have meticulously and carefully built, pushes me into the claws of depression.
I agree with Seligman that memories of past traumas are not what cause anxiety. From my own personal experience I can say that I have emerged stronger from difficult events in my life. I think that the main reason why people who have gone through trauma tend to imagine fewer positive scenarios and overestimate what could go wrong, is because they have not consciously become aware of the meta skills they have acquired that enabled them to survive their past traumas in the first place. We often survive difficult situations without ever really consciously understanding our own psychologies and HOW we did it.
To understand the unconscious mental processes taking place when we are in difficult situations requires the mental and emotional ability to “step back” from the situation and observe what is happening to us mentally and emotionally. What are we thinking and why? What are we feeling and why? This is not an easy task, because it requires quietening the mind and accessing the observer and trusting your instincts about what you are experiencing.
When homesickness becomes debilitating, it is sometimes difficult to remember our own resilience and adaptability. Life presents us with these times of discomfort to stretch us and help us grow. So when it becomes difficult to focus on anything else but home, then make contact with someone at home. Vent and cry and then find something new and different but exciting or fun to do in your new environment to remind yourself why you are on this journey in the first place. Pretty soon, this unfamiliar place becomes a little less strange and a little more familiar. Whether it will ever be home, is another matter altogehter. We shall have to wait and see.
*You can read about Martin Seligman’s latest research here.
Originally published at breytiestakeoncanada.com