SAD and Homesick: Your Guide to Defeating a Lonely Winter

By Srionti Maitra

Disclaimer: This article was written by a student of literature, not a licensed medical professional. Please seek medical help before taking any medication or accessing treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression – suicidal thoughts in particular – please do not hesitate to ask for help. Reach out to the Durham University counsellors, or to the Samaritans at 116 123.

If you’re a first-time international student, or a returning one, chances are you’ve grappled with the gut-wrenching feeling of homesickness more than once. This new foreign city is alright, but you miss the bustle and scenery of your hometown; the familiar street food, the drinking culture, the sports matches, the winter fruit, and a seemingly endless list of birthdays.  If you’re from a tropical country – cue the stock image of parrots flying across a sunny sky – then there’s also the possibility that the lack of sun in our lovely home, Durham, has you feeling a bit suffocated, or possibly even depressed. The latter sensation, if sustained periodically and severely over time, manifests in a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or, ironically, SAD. It is a recurrent depressive disorder that follows a seasonal pattern, with the majority of sufferers experiencing bouts during wintertime, though spring/summer bouts are not unheard of.

The twin monsters of homesickness and SAD share many of their symptoms. Though homesickness is usually more specific to memories of people, places, items, or experiences no longer accessible, both phenomena see people suffering depression, disturbed sleep, disturbed eating patterns (usually overeating with a craving for carbs in SAD), anxiety, agitation, mood swings, low libido, tearfulness, tiredness, disinterest in socialising and activities, and feelings of worthlessness or low self-esteem. It is not necessary that one suffers all of these symptoms to be ‘properly’ homesick, or to be diagnosed with SAD, for which the criteria is consistent and major episodes of seasonal depression over at least two years, with instances of remission and no more severe depressive episodes in between the afflicting seasons.

Having introduced the nastiness of SAD and reminded you of how much you miss home, here are some reliable methods to lift your spirits during this dreary time of year, and to lessen or prevent possible symptoms of homesickness and SAD:

Light Therapy and Professional Help. Light therapy is a common treatment for SAD, among others like medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, and melatonin supplements. A bright light or dawn simulating light kept in your room and turned on for an hour or two could mimic natural light enough to lessen sensations of lethargy, depression, anxiety, agitation, and fatigue. I personally recommend golden or yellow light, as it feels the most like sunlight, but each person reacts differently. Our desk lamps in college, conveniently, are bright and warm-toned. If you feel that lights, socialising, exercise, or conscious effort on your and your friends’ parts are not achieving the relief you need, please contact the college welfare team, self-refer yourself to the University counselling services, which include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or book an appointment with your local NHS health centre.

          Spot the cheeky author in the back

Bring your loved ones into the equation. If there is a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, or significant other that you miss like a limb, set particular times each week when you can phone or video call each other. This adds structure to a relationship being newly handled across distance or time zones, and gives you something definite and accessible about home to look forward to. Sending postcards from your new city or posting pictures of Durham online is a charming way of letting them into your new life.

Go out for walks, or to the gym. Not only will this acclimatise you to the hilly landscape in Durham if you’re not used to walking, but it’ll help you get plenty of exercise and (in the former case) some much-needed sunlight, no matter how cloudy it may seem. A half hour walk to the Mound or around the lovely Botanical Gardens will boost ‘happy hormone’ levels in your body, speed up your metabolism over time, and give you the Vitamin D you may be lacking from staying indoors with Netflix and takeout. Speaking of which –

Cook food from your home country. Besides making you loads of friends if you share the meals (I speak from experience), and recreating some of your strongest memories from home, this will help manage irregular meal habits resulting from homesickness and SAD. For international ingredients unavailable at Tesco, try Mother Earth in the indoor market (for spices, nuts and grains); Aroma Rise and Golden Pearl near the main bus station in town (for Pan-Asian basics and some Chinese and Thai specialties); and Robinsons on North Road for odd and wonderful produce from all over the world. Play chef and conjure up a taste of home. It’ll make you feel miles better about what you miss.

Join a society or international organisation. Students here are spoiled for choice when it comes to extracurricular societies to join. Anything from Model UN to debating, salsa, hockey, and champagne societies exist at Durham. Students from many countries start or participate in nation-specific organisations (for example the Indonesian Society), religious groups (like Chinese Christian Union), and cooking societies. Take your pick, and keep an eye out for socials, where you can mingle casually over drinks, or for events and excursions by organisations like the ISA, Eventbrite, and Amigos. Developing or cultivating a hobby is a great way of meeting new people with shared interests while giving direction to what might be long, solitary evenings in college. Durham also has a thriving student theatre and improvised comedy scene that fill an empty night beautifully. Look up plays at the Assembly Rooms theatre and Shellshocked Comedy Nights. 

Photo credit: Zakhary Crowson

Don’t leave your room bare. Few things are starker than an uninhabited student dorm. Rectify this by hanging up artwork from home, posters from the regular poster sales at the Student’s Union, and of course, plenty of pictures from home. This will make your room feel like a personal space rather than a temporary one, and help you claim what might otherwise seem a bit alien. If packages from home aren’t a possibility, try ordering online. You may want to invest in a second duvet, fluffy bedsocks, and a new set of sheets; the difference between a warm, well-made, comfortable bed and a poorly sheeted, dirty, not-quite-warm one is staggering – particularly if your sleeping patterns have been disturbed by jetlag, changing hours and light, or the symptoms of SAD. Fluffy bedsocks are because you’ve had a tough term. You deserve fluff. 

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a highly accomplished adult who is fully capable of soldering new friendships, broadening your horizons, and taking every opportunity or obstacle that comes your way by the horns. That being said, don’t take homesickness as a concept lightly simply because you’re older and wiser than the children who appear to suffer it most often. There’s no need to let pride get in the way of your wellbeing. Focussing on one’s mental health is of paramount importance when familiar support structures aren’t in one’s immediate environment. Make sure you have keepsakes from home visible in your room to remind you who’s in your corner and just a phone call away. You are allowed to not be okay. You are allowed to need help. You’re in a city you will almost certainly come to love. Keep your old partners in crime and your new colleagues and comrades in touch with what you’re feeling so they can bolster you on your way to academic excellence.

Remember: not all of us carry our homes on our backs, and that’s what makes an international college community an exciting place to be: your nostalgia could be a social or political education for someone from a different country, or a window into a new culture of language, food, or music. Don’t be hard on yourself for going through something commonplace, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Don’t castigate yourself for a perceived difference from your peers, or for not settling in as quickly.

Assimilating isn’t as important as exploring. Embrace the oddities of Durham. Get lost in your new city. Try one of the many hole in the wall cafés or the quaint little art shops. Read poetry from your country by the side of the River Wear. Watch the leaves turn again. And when you feel the comfort creep in, make yourself a new home to miss.


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