DECEMBER 20, 2022 – Missing your family and friends at this time of year is natural, but if it overwhelms you, it can be unhealthy. Here are six ways to feel merrier, no matter where you are.
Being away from family for military duty is stressful and can strain relationships. For many service members who are deployed, being away during holidays exacerbates homesickness, loneliness, and feelings of isolation.
Most military members will spend at least some significant time away from home, whether for operations or training. Currently, about 175,000 service members across all branches are deployed worldwide in 140 countries. That’s a lot of people away from loved ones.
For most people, feeling homesick is natural, but if it becomes overwhelming it’s unhealthy. Here are six ways to ease homesickness and feel merrier during the holiday season.
- Send a video message.
The best way to combat homesickness is to communicate. And what better way to start than sending communication to someone you miss? It might seem counterintuitive, but crafting a message and speaking it aloud to your loved one, even when they are not in a real-time conversation with you, will blunt the signals in your brain that cause loneliness.
Sending a video message is like sending a letter. It helps you escape the feelings of isolation because you are sharing thoughts and feelings designed for someone else.
Thinking through what you are going to say helps you put your situation in a healthier perspective. Even if the message is, “I miss you,” you’ll naturally tend to focus on the positives of why you miss your loved one. Also, your optimism will percolate as you look forward to seeing the person again soon and sharing your experiences and hearing theirs in more detail.
With phones and computers, video messages are easier than ever. Just record a short video message and send it! It doesn’t really matter when they get it. And the lasting benefit is that they’ll have a record of these messages, which could become priceless relationship mementos.
- Write a journal.
You don’t always have to communicate to someone else to counteract homesickness.
Experts agree that writing down your thoughts has many benefits. It helps you understand and clarify your feelings. When you understand your feelings you can articulate them, even if only to yourself. That helps you feel empowered to feel well. You connect with others by first connecting with your own thoughts.
Writing your thoughts also helps you see the big picture. Writing imposes structure on your thoughts. That structure can be a framework to examine how your thoughts fit into your world.
Brain scans have shown that those who write about their feelings are able to control their emotions—including loneliness—better than those who don’t.
Writing also gives you something to share with others if you want, though many benefits are there if you don’t.
In sum, writing makes you feel better—and the more consistently you do it, the better you will feel.
- Write a gratitude list.
As long as you’re writing, make a list of things you are grateful for. The health benefits of intentional gratitude are well documented. Studies have shown that feeling thankful can improve sleep, mood, and immunity. Gratitude can decrease depression, anxiety, difficulties with chronic pain, and risk of disease. This is because, as noted above, writing forces you to think. As we think positively, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two hormones that make us feel pleasant, calm, and happy.
Finally, homesickness and loneliness are a consequence of a scarcity mindset. As you document what you are grateful for, you will shift to an abundance mindset, which will offset loneliness.
- Pick up a new hobby.
While deployments can be stressful because they take you away from family and home, they are also opportunities to try new things.
When I was deployed to Afghanistan, I made it a point to take advantage of as many of the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) activities available on base as I could. A few of my favorites were line dancing, Zumba, and yoga.
These activities have two immediate effects: 1) They force you to interact with people; and 2) They encourage you to make a commitment to something other than your own thoughts.
Pick something and try it. If it becomes a routine, then you will have found something that you really enjoy. In the meantime, it will tax you just enough to keep you from dwelling on negative thoughts.
- Make a friend.
While you are doing an activity, go out of your way to meet someone new.
A Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study found that talking to new people and getting to know them activates parts of the brain that are not often in use. This stimulates cognitive function and improves mood.
If you are like most military members, you don’t have trouble talking with others, especially in situations like a deployment, where so much of your immediate situation seems to be familiar and similar. But you can stimulate your mind by making the connection more meaningful. Ask about their family, what motivates them, or why they joined the military.
Getting better acquainted with someone new will likely result in a decrease in loneliness, and you’ll probably make some lifelong friends.
I don’t have to explain to military members about the benefits of exercise.
The key is that exercise is much more than getting physically fit. Mental and emotional wellness almost instantly improves during exercise, and the effects linger for some time. Exercise jolts the body and mind to boost mood, reduce stress, and increase your feeling of calm. Among the biggest benefits is confidence, which is an antidote for loneliness.
Exercise also gives your brain an opportunity to reflect. According to doctors at Johns Hopkins, physical exercise releases endocannabinoids in the bloodstream. These chemicals have a similar effect to cannabis, but are produced naturally in your body. They promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm.
A state of calm gives your mind space to realize that loneliness is temporary, and to develop cognitive resilience.
While homesickness is real and natural, it shouldn’t be debilitating. If it becomes chronic loneliness that prevents you from enjoying your usual activities or functioning, please talk to someone. Mental health advocates, or your chaplain, can direct you to resources so you can be ready for the fight, and for your family.
By Rich Stowell
Rich Stowell is the director of communications for the Cook Center for Human Connection and a non-commissioned officer in the Army National Guard. He has served two combat deployments and done various overseas deployment training. He holds a PhD in communication and specializes in organizational culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or found on LinkedIn here.