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Synopsis: What we now call “homesickness” used to be a medical diagnosis called “nostalgia,” and it was considered life-threatening. Today many people consider homesickness to be a childish emotion, but an expert says it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all suffer from it sometime and need to know how to cope.

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  • Dr. Susan Matt, Prof. of History, Weber State Univ.
  • Dr. Chris Willard, Lecturer of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Link for more information:

16-38 Homesickness

Nancy Benson: It’s a lifelong snapshot in your mind and on your taste buds— grandma’s homemade apple pie fresh out of the oven. Thinking about those times may bring up some great childhood memories that make you nostalgic. Today, “nostalgia” has a familiar meaning– longing for the past. But once upon a time, “nostalgia” used to be a medical term, which meant longing for a place–what we now call homesickness.

Dr. Susan Matt: Originally, nostalgia was a word created in 1688 by a Swiss medical student who used it to label people he saw around him who were far from home and seemed physically ill as a result. And a lot of times, these people were 30 miles or 50 miles from home but in the 17th century in Switzerland, that was far away indeed. When he listed how debilitated these people were by their illness and how some were near death and that upon return to their home town, they would magically perk up and be cured.

Benson: That’s Susan Matt, professor of history at Weber State University. Matt says back in the day, the symptoms of nostalgia or homesickness were thought to be life threatening.

Matt: There’s a whole medical literature that starts in the 17th century and continues even into the 20th century on how physically devastating nostalgia can be to soldiers as well as to any kind of person far from home and the symptoms you might have would range from dysentery to heart palpitations, rapid breathing, high fevers, cough. Some people would literally die of nostalgia. The surgeon general in America during the Civil War listed 74 Union soldiers as dead from nostalgia and diagnosed over 5,000 soldiers as acutely ill with it and they took it very seriously in America up until the early 20th century. It was a real disease and the medical wisdom was that it could devastate your physiology.

Benson: Experts don’t consider homesickness as a deadly illness today. They call it an adjustment disorder with symptoms like anxiety, sadness, nervousness, and an obsessive preoccupation with thoughts of home.

Matt: Medical authorities don’t see homesickness as a physically debilitating disease in the way that they once did. It’s not seen as dangerous today and in fact, today when people say they’re homesick, it’s kind of laughed off as this childish emotion that you should get over by the time you’re an adult if you want to be really well-adjusted in our culture. So whereas earlier generations really thought it could be a troubling and possibly fatal condition, contemporary Americans don’t have that vision of the emotion. I think in large part because we expect people to move around with ease, we think it should be easy and painless. That’s kind of the modern expectation about mobility and the reality is it’s still not that easy to leave home and leave your family but people have learned to kind of mask that feeling because they know they’ll be looked down on as immature if they don’t.

Benson: A lot of people may think that way, but Matt says homesickness is nothing to be embarrassed about. Whether you’re moving to a new place for a job or your child is heading off to college, Matt says anyone at any age can become homesick.

Matt: In reality, I think people are struggling with it all the time at all ages, it’s not just a childhood condition, it’s also an adult condition. Given how much our society moves from place to place in search of better jobs or better opportunities, it’s actually a remarkably widespread emotion, yet we are very reluctant to talk about it. I think the harm that comes as a result of that is that people feel odd, they feel marginalized. Sometimes, it increases their sense of sadness because they feel like they’re the only person experiencing this feeling. So I think it actually worsens the condition of homesickness because people feel all the more alone.

Benson: In fact, though we might not want to admit to it, Matt says homesickness is something most people experience. Even if you enjoy new places and experiences, the lack of familiarity can still be intimidating. But if you admit to being homesick, then it becomes a legitimate emotion, which often elicits a little sympathy.

Matt: I think it’s remarkably commonplace. Lots of people, if you scratch their surface, will admit to longing for wherever they came from, whether it’s immigrants in your neighborhood or people who relocated just across the country. It’s visible in so many parts of our culture in terms of the food we choose to eat and the sports teams we root for and the music we listen to, people are often trying to make that connection back to home. I think it’s a very widespread phenomenon in our culture but we don’t feel like we’re allowed to talk about it. So, I wish we could talk about it more because I think people would feel less stigma if they realize lots of people in America have experienced this feeling and in fact, it’s kind of a normal accompaniment to moving but because we brush it under the table, people feel a little embarrassed by it. Going back to colonial America, it’s on records of the pilgrims being homesick, it’s about as American as apple pie.

Benson: Homesickness may be an old emotion, but Dr. Chris Willard, a lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says social networks and new technology may make it worse.

Dr. Chris Willard: I think it makes it a lot more difficult to detach. I think that’s part of what makes homesickness probably even more acute for kids these days or for adults to be kind of “kidsick” while their kids are away. We’re so used to being able to be attached all the time, we’ve got this kind of digital, wireless umbilical cord in a sense that’s keeping us connected, then our kids go off or as kids we go off to camp or somewhere else and it’s not easy to get in touch with people when we’re so used to that, it becomes much more likely to create or make homesickness even worse.

Benson: Willard agrees homesickness is a reasonable response to a big life change. He says a helpful coping strategy is to express your feelings so people can understand.

Willard: Anytime we get through a difficult situation, it just makes us stronger. So, one of the things they suggest that parents do is that when their kids have experienced homesickness, that they really talk about it on that drive home or during the rest of the year because it can become this kind of touchstone of, “Hey, you were homesick and you got through it during that two week time at camp, that means you can get through it if you go to a longer camp, that means you’ll be able to get through it when you go off to college or you’re in another strange situation or our family moves across the state or across the country or something like that.” It does give kids confidence when they can get through something difficult, like the old saying that which does not kill us makes us stronger and homesickness is like that. So, you know any time you’re able to get through adversity, we can really start to see that as a strength and cultivate that as a strength and talk about it with our kids as a strength that they have. So I really think in that sense, it’s overcoming something and that can be really positive.

Benson: So while it may not be life-threatening, homesickness is a legitimate emotion that happens to just about anyone when they’re away from familiar surroundings. It’s the result of our instinctive need for love, protection and security. There’s no reason to feel ashamed of feeling homesick… Because after all home is where the heart is.

Our writer-producer this week is Heather Muno.

Our production director is Sean Waldron.

I’m Nancy Benson.


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