How to Avoid Homesickness: An Expat Holiday Briefing

How to avoid homesickness is a challenging question for expats living outside the US. Pictured: two expats at a Christmas market.

Figuring out how to avoid homesickness during the holiday season can be a real challenge, especially for US expats far from their core support system.

Fortunately, there are ways to bring a slice of home to wherever you are. We’re here to share some thoughtful strategies to keep the holiday spirit alive, even across the miles. 

From tips to stay in touch with loved ones to forging new traditions and friendships, in this article, we’re exploring how to cope with homesickness and embrace creating new holiday memories. 

Ready to gently ease those holiday blues and kindle embers of warmth and connection? Let’s get started!

Reflect: What about the holiday season is making your homesickness worse?

Expats understand that living abroad includes periods of lows, which don’t always follow a predictable timeline. That said, the holiday season is a common pressure point for many. And, although the reasons can vary widely, feeling sad and homesickness symptoms tend to occur when we won’t be able to fulfill certain special traditions with certain important people in our lives.

How to avoid homesickness

The reality is that homesickness is a common experience. That said, it’s important to pause and reflect on what specifically about this time of year stirs up loneliness or sadness. Is it missing family traditions, the festive atmosphere back home, or something else? How can you cultivate a reminder of home in a foreign place?

Understanding the root of your holiday blues is the first step in making a plan to effectively cope with homesickness. This introspection is not just about pinpointing the cause, but also about recognizing your feelings as valid: Everyone deserves the joy of spending holidays with family, and it’s a heartfelt wish that often remains unfulfilled for many expats.

Once you’ve acknowledged that you’re feeling down and reflected on what in particular is causing you to feel homesick, you can take steps toward feeling better.

Homesickness symptoms in US expats

When expats are feeling homesick, certain feelings can start to arise that can quickly send one’s mental health into a tailspin. 

It’s common for negative feelings to surface, sometimes making aspects of your host country feel like minor annoyances, or leading you to miss how things are done back home.

Or, that your host country is lacking because you find it challenging or impossible to fulfill a much-cherished ritual from back home, such as visiting your favorite coffee shop when the holiday decorations go up. 

These and so many others are perfectly normal and common in expats, many of whom, for one reason or another, are unable to return home for the holidays.  

Six ways to cope with homesickness while living abroad

Expat does a video call with their family member  over the holidays.

1. Reach out to friends and family back home

For many, the essence of the holiday season lies in spending time with loved ones. If you fall into that camp, pick up the phone and send them a message, or give them a call. Try to talk through what the hardest thing is about not being able to be there, and consider bouncing ideas around regarding how you can stay involved without making your homesickness worse

For some, this might look like deciding on a time to call during a holiday dinner. Family can pass the phone around so you can say hello to everyone, and while it won’t be exactly the same, you can be sure that your family is thinking about you when you’re thinking about them, too. 

Moreover, there’s often a family member who brings joy and laughter with their technological challenges, ensuring a light-hearted atmosphere.

2. Host or attend a Friendsgiving celebration

Friendsgiving, a cherished tradition among US expats, serves as an alternative to Thanksgiving, typically celebrated on the same day or the nearest weekend. By taking a family event and adapting it to a newly extended friend group, the celebration takes on new meaning and is a balm for those homesick pangs. 

Note that there are various ways to participate in a Friendsgiving, depending on your preferences. If you’re a planner and enjoy hosting, now’s your chance to let that side of you shine! 

On the other hand, if you’d rather attend and contribute to a celebration, get the word out! Many long-time expats often host holiday events that welcome both established and new expats. Letting your expat friends and acquaintances know you’re open to attending a Friendsgiving can open doors to such gatherings.

Pro tip:

Still developing new expat friendships but want to attend an American gathering for Thanksgiving nonetheless? Ask around (or do some Google research) to see if there are any American associations or organizations in your area that are organizing a Thanksgiving event. While these events are typically paid, they offer Americans a home-away-from-home feeling and can be a great starting point for meeting new friends.

3. Take the time to decorate your space

“If going home for the holidays isn’t an option, consider bringing a slice of home to your current surroundings. Putting up holiday lights and garlands, lighting cozy-smelling candles, and more serve a couple of purposes when dealing with homesickness. 

Firstly, it brings holiday cheer and brightness into your home, which can help you feel more grounded in your day-to-day life as an expat spending the holidays overseas. 

Secondly, it’s an opportunity for you to create a new holiday routine for yourself, and by extension boost your serotonin levels. Create an environment that fosters your creativity and calm by setting time aside to decorate your space in a way that feels authentic to you. 

For example, some people may want to engage in this activity with a partner such as a spouse or friend, while others may find solace in turning on some holiday jazz and quietly creating the ambiance solo. 

Note: If you’re not sure where to find these types of items, post in a local US expat group on Facebook. (Just be sure to search the previous posts, first.)  Additionally, Facebook groups can be a great resource, and expat communities tend to be very receptive and helpful to those who post open-ended questions around topics such as, “how to avoid homesickness.”

4. Indulge in a holiday movie marathon 

Embrace the cheer and warmth of even the cheesiest holiday movies! Holiday movies are all about the warm and fuzzy feelings left in the wake of improbably happy endings. These movie marathons are also great ways to easily share bonding moments with others, which makes it an easy addition to this list of how to avoid homesickness. 

Pro tip:

The key here is to combat homesickness by enjoying an activity based in shared interests with other expats. While a holiday movie marathon is a natural suggestion, you might also propose a horror movie marathon or a board game night.

5. Discover what you enjoy about how your host country celebrates the holidays

While holidays abroad differ from those at home, this difference can bring unique and enjoyable experiences. If you live in one of the many places around the world that celebrates a special holiday in December, they’re bound to have some interesting local traditions. 

Are you a foodie? Try heading to local bakeries and restaurants to sample some traditional holiday goodies. If you express love by sending gifts to those you care for, explore a local holiday market and/or small business to buy gifts. If you want to attend an event or festival, check out local publications and sites like Eventbrite, Facebook, Meetup, and Instagram.

6. Get intentional about how and when you spend time on social media

Social media offers a valuable connection with friends and family back home, though it’s important to be mindful of its impact on mental health. In addition to establishing a daily limit to how much time you spend on social media during the holiday season, we recommend leaning into sharing the new memories you’re creating abroad.

For example, if you’re meeting new people with similar interests and feeling optimistic about developing friendships, document that! Not only will it give you a boost to realize you’re building your expat support system, but also give you new and exciting updates to share during phone calls home. 

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First and foremost, Bright!Tax CPAs are experts in US expat tax and minimizing expats' US tax liability. Additionally, many are also expats too, meaning they empathize with homesickness firsthand.

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How to Avoid Homesickness: An Expat Holiday Briefing - FAQ

  • What to do when feeling homesick abroad?

    Determine what’s causing the homesickness as much as possible. Are you missing a specific event or tradition? Is there someone in particular you see over the holidays who you won’t this year?
    Reach out to a family member or friend back home. Oftentimes, family and friends think of living abroad as one big, exciting adventure, and the difficulties associated with expat life are rarely apparent to those who have never lived abroad. So, if you need support, you’ll likely need to ask for it first.
    Stay in-tune with your mental health. Often, it can be difficult to continue exploring, adventuring, and ultimately embracing new experiences when we start to acutely ache for the familiar. While feeling homesick is a completely normal sentiment, it’s important not to withdraw from social activities and to maintain a normal level of activities and outings for yourself.