Why we reach for nostalgia in times of crisis or a global pandemic
In times of trauma and overwhelming stress, it’s a natural instinct to feel nostalgic and rely on those feelings for comfort and a sense of normalcy, says clinical psychologist Valentina Stoycheva.
Ever since the coronavirus lockdown began, I’ve been longing for my past.
For some reason, I pine for the days when I would call a friend on her landline and get a busy signal, or inexplicably hid behind my precarious swivel chair the moment my crush logged on to AIM, the AOL messaging service.
Even things in recent history that I thought were awful only a few months ago – failing to avoid Avengers: Endgame spoilers, or the White Claw seltzer shortage – now pale in comparison to the ongoing trauma of… all of this.
Things just seemed easier in the Before Times, when we weren’t sheltering in place, losing our jobs or potentially exposing ourselves to a virus that has killed over 140,000 Americans.
But in times of trauma and overwhelming stress, it’s a natural instinct to feel nostalgic and rely on those feelings for comfort and a sense of normalcy, said Valentina Stoycheva, a clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress and the author of The Unconscious: Theory, Research, And Clinical Implications.
“Trauma takes away our grey areas. It divides our timeline into a before and an after,” Dr Stoycheva said.
“And while it has the danger of creating this longing for the before, when things were maybe safer, and when we were unaware of all of this and protected by our naivete, there’s also something about nostalgic behaviours – fashion, clothes, movies, music – that serve as a transitional object.”
Transitional objects, much like a small child’s baby blanket or a toddler’s favourite stuffed animal, can help people transitioning from one stage of life to the next, or help them navigate specific stressors.
“It increases your ability to self-soothe during a stressful time,” Dr Stoycheva said. In this case, nostalgia serves as a kind of emotional pacifier, helping us to become accustomed to a new reality that is jarring, stressful and traumatic.
“Anything that can help you calm yourself down, feel more soothed, feel more grounded, is very useful,” Dr Stoycheva said.
“So if you watch a movie and remember who you watched it with as a kid, and maybe connect with that person and you reach out to them instead of just drowning in isolation, that can be really helpful.”
In a study published this year in the journal Frontiers, researchers found that nostalgia can help to combat feelings of loneliness, and a study published in 2013 in the journal Social And Personality Psychology Compass, suggested that nostalgia can even double as a resource for psychological health and overall well-being.
“I’ve definitely felt a pull to get in touch with old friends,” said De Elizabeth, 34, an editor and writer living in Boston who said she has been feeling deep nostalgia for the 1990s since the pandemic hit.
“I have reached out to a few friends from high school in recent weeks, some of whom I haven’t talked to in years, and we’ve been in close contact lately.”
Elizabeth even started a 1990s and 2000s nostalgia-inspired newsletter called Cash Register Alert.
“I started it because I just find myself thinking about 90s culture so often,” she said, “And I wanted to collect some of my thoughts and create a little corner of the internet where other like-minded, nostalgic folks could reminisce together.”
According to Florence Saint-Jean, a trauma specialist and the executive director of Global Trauma Research, as a way to cope during times of duress, our brains often take us to places that we subconsciously designate as “safe”, like past memories of a joyful vacation or happy childhood moments that made us feel loved.
“That’s one of the techniques I’ve been using with many of my clients – let’s go to our ‘safe place’ right now,” Dr Saint-Jean said.
“Right now, we may not necessarily feel safe, but we can take our minds to a safe place, which will create a chain reaction in our body.”
To harness that response, Dr Saint-Jean suggests making a list of safe places when you’re not stressed, anxious or experiencing the mental and physical ramifications of trauma.
“You can literally list a park, that time when you were a child and your dad pushed you on the swings – whatever those places are,” she said. “And when you have that list, you can go there and you can grab from your safety toolbox.
And that’s okay, because you’ve already planned ahead of time that these are your safe places, and this is where you go when you’re in trouble.”
Melinda Drake, 34, a hairdresser, has been out of work since lockdown began in order to care for her two children until they can safely return to school.
Her nostalgia safety toolbox has helped her slow down, simplify her days and find a way to appreciate time spent sheltering in place with her family.
“It causes me to reflect on the quiet moments from my childhood, and what my children might enjoy and benefit from as well,” Drake said.
She and her husband, she added, “have been enjoying movie nights of old eighties movies, having even more time than before to play board games, and talk about our past and share some of our memories with our children – memories they can learn from and laugh from.”
Elizabeth has been listening to the music she was infatuated with in high school (Dashboard Confessional, Third Eye Blind, Motion City Soundtrack, Saves the Day), writing song lyrics in her journal (much like the long-lost art of passive-aggressive Instant Messenger statuses) and making friendship bracelets. These have all helped her cope.
“I’ve definitely been dressing more like my teenage self,” she said, “partly because I’ve been opting for comfier clothes anyway, but also because it feels good to lean into ’90s fashion and invoke the feeling of simpler times”.
Still, Dr Saint-Jean said, there can be downsides to reaching for nostalgia, especially when the present realities are pushing you to look at your past through rose-colored glasses.
“While people are going to a past place for coping, it may not necessarily be a healthy place,” she said. “For some people, their mind is going to an ex, for example. And they may be calling that ex when normally they probably wouldn’t because the relationship was toxic.
But their mind isn’t going to the days of the abuse – their mind is going to the times when that person made them happy.”
Which is why, according to Dr Stoycheva, self-awareness is key when navigating not only the present moment, but the ways in which nostalgia presents itself as a coping mechanism.
She said that nostalgia is neither good nor bad, but that you should think introspectively about what, exactly, you’re truly getting out of it.
Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Why am I craving or longing for this thing in particular, and what do I hope to get out of it?
“If it’s keeping us anchored in the past and avoiding the future, that’s a problem,” she said. “Because avoidance is actually one of the main things that maintains a trauma reaction.”
By Danielle Campoamor © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.