Content Note: discussion of homesickness
I count myself very lucky that I experienced intense homesickness at 13. I wouldn’t take any of it back. I gained lifelong strength and independence, as well as a new level of empathy for others suffering in the same way.
For me, homesickness was a fog, a blackness, a hazy daydream of misery. Mornings were always the worst: waking up, momentarily oblivious, then that familiar jolt of sickening realisation. The window was in the wrong place, the walls were the wrong colour. The blissful refuge of sleep was over. I had to face the day. I was trapped, isolated in my own mind. I felt totally alone.
But it gets better.
I taught myself how to survive, and eventually, how to thrive.
When I arrived at Cambridge I could put all those tools and techniques into practice, and hit the ground running.
Here are my top tips for combatting homesickness and loneliness, at any stage of student life:
1) Make your sanctuary
Make your room your kingdom, not your prison. Make it your creative project. Express your personality and style. Decoration is magical – cover the place with photos, posters, rugs, cushions. This will help you maintain your sense of self, forge your uni identity, and stay connected to home and loved ones in a positive way. Your room should be uplifting, joyful and comfortable. Somewhere you and others love spending time. Somewhere to rest, think, meditate, dance, breathe. Somewhere to host coffee breaks, cinema nights, drinks and deep conversations.
2) Small connections
As technology advances and life accelerates, micro-interactions and brief encounters are vanishing. With the intensity of Cambridge life, our time swallowed by study and packed schedules, these micro-connections are precious, and essential to combatting loneliness.
Slow down, reach out and regain your sense of community. Start a conversation. Greet the porters, get to know your bedder, chat to your neighbours in lectures and say hey to anyone you pass. Join a sports team. Go to the till. If you’re feeling low, tired or a bit overwhelmed, it’s so easy to take refuge in your phone screen and let the world slip by as you scroll. Put your phone away. Look up.
I’m always amazed by the rush of happiness I feel when someone smiles at me in the street. It can totally transform my mood. A smile is an act of contagious kindness. Pass it on. Be the brightness in someone’s day.
3) Nourish your friendships
This is true of both freshly-minted friendships at Cambridge, and older relationships from school or home. These friends will sustain you throughout the tough times, the essay crises, emotional dips, homesick tears. Treat all your friendships, new or old, like plants. They need attention, nourishment and sunlight. Write a note, ask how their day’s going, suggest a lunch date or coffee after lectures.
Involve people in your life as much as possible, and they’ll reciprocate.
Never be ‘too busy’ to spend time with friends. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your workload or commitments, talk to them, don’t shut them out. Involve people in your life as much as possible, and they’ll reciprocate. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. The sharing of feelings and anxieties is the basis of some of my closest friendships.
It’s painfully easy to lose touch with old mates who aren’t sharing the experiences of the Cambridge bubble. Maybe organise a weekly FaceTime or send a postcard. Remember birthdays. Remind them that you love them and are thinking of them.
4) Connection with home
All we want to do when we’re feeling homesick, overwhelmed or alone is call home. We feel that the best medicine for our misery is the comfort of a parent’s voice, family updates or stories about our dogs. But give yourself a chance to settle in. It might be a difficult struggle, but stop yourself from constantly calling home at low times. Be connected to home, not dependent on it.
Focus all your efforts and energy on immersing yourself in Cambridge life. Concentrate on getting some fun stories to tell family about. Make them catch-ups, not counselling sessions. If phoning or FaceTime trigger the tears, stick with texts or voice notes. Before you know it, the eight weeks are gone and you’ll be back home again!
5) Five seconds of bravery
Sometimes all it takes is one surge of courage. Introduce yourself, strike up a conversation, fill in that application form, sign up for an exercise class. Look at Cambridge, not as a sea of anonymous faces, but as an ocean of potential friends. Back in Freshers Week 2k16, I was standing in a queue for a JCR talk and spotted a blonde girl in front who looked friendly. So I just dived in headfirst and asked her name. She’s now one of my closest friends and my room mate throughout second year.
As Nelson Mandela said: ‘Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it’. Every time you feel that fear, but resolve and act to overcome it, you diminish its power. Make a To Do list. What have you achieved in the past through bravery? What do you want to achieve now? Take a chance. We always regret the things we didn’t do far more than the things we did.
6) Take each day at a time
At school I was consumed by the numbers game. I constantly watched the clock. I counted down the days until the next weekend home. I wasn’t really living, as I was so fixated on the future, and totally disconnected from the present.
Break up the term into single days. Treat each one as an individual unit. Challenge yourself to maximise the potential of each day and devote a portion specifically to confront loneliness and make connections. This can be in a large crowd (ex. a Zumba class), in a smaller group (ex. cooking dinner together), or with one other person (ex. a walk around the Botanical Gardens).
7) Be kind to yourself
This is the golden rule. Self-compassion is vital. It can take all sorts of forms. Make a list of acts of self-kindness and try to incorporate one into your daily schedule. Distract yourself, but don’t bury your emotions. Assign a time each day to release your feelings and address them. Try writing them down, or talking them through with someone you trust. Get outside. Breathe the fresh air and go exploring. Let yourself sleep. Have a bath (if you can find one!). Forgive yourself constantly.
8) When in doubt, go out
Get out of your room, get out of your head and surround yourself with conversation, laughter and people.
This is a brilliant mental model. After a solitary library session or a long day of lectures or labs, it’s all too easy to turn off your phone, ignore invitations and shut your door against the world. Break out of that lonely zone. Whether it’s a club night, a pub night, a cheeky burrito or a quick drink in the College bar, just say yes. It might be against every instinct. But do it anyway. Get out of your room, get out of your head and surround yourself with conversation, laughter and people. It’s the best pick-me-up there is. You won’t regret taking that risk.
Ultimately, loneliness is really tough and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. But hopefully some of these tips will give you some ideas to gradually build up a support network around you and make your time at Cambridge a bit more enjoyable.
If you are looking for mental health support in Cambridge, be sure to check out Find Support Cam