It was a weekday, so a mid-morning phone call from my parents surprised me. By the time the call ended, my heart had turned heavy for I had lost an elderly relative to natural causes. The fact that we could neither visit to pay our last respects nor physically comfort the immediate family made us feel dejected, as sometimes a phone or video call does not cut it.
I was sad, but the most overwhelming emotion I felt was intense nostalgia. I spent some time over the next few days thinking about my interactions with the deceased and relived some fond memories.
I was not overly surprised at my reaction though, for lately, I seem to be dwelling on the past a lot. In fact, we all seem to be ruminating about days gone by and looking towards the past rather than the future, during this unusual lockdown phase.
How many times have we caught ourselves rummaging through old pictures and even posting some on social media sites? Most of us like listening to old songs, from our teenage days, which have joyful connotations of a carefree life spent with loved ones. Others have been spending time cooking or baking delicacies. I have had regular catch-ups with school and college friends, or anyone with whom I share good memories, over the last few months, with most of the conversation dwelling on the past.
Under normal circumstances, we all feel a mild version of nostalgia at certain moments — like stress, loss or anxiety. An example could be seeing people waiting in hospital corridors lost in happy memories spent with the patient, which at other times they would have barely remembered.
We may pin it down to having a bit more time now which, although true, is only part of the reason. Now, the feeling is much more intense and is being experienced by almost everyone. The question to consider is, why do we feel like that and does it have any adverse effect on our mental health?
The word was originally coined in the 17th century by a medical student Johannes Hofer, to describe the intense feeling of melancholy — considered a negative feeling then — he observed in Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. By the late 20th century, research had changed it into being considered a positive emotion, with its main function being to maintain a coherent narrative or a link between the past and the present when there are rapid changes in life, planned or unplanned.
Nostalgia is a perfectly normal physiological reaction to the stress we are currently experiencing. Previously, the travel time to and from office used to be our way of getting mentally ready for work and switching off later. Now as we work from home, with both a laptop and a pile of dirty dishes or laundry visible, we can’t mentally break away from either home or office and it creates stress. So we may feel nostalgic about the demarcation, our travel time, as we crave that clean break.
It could be our way of handling the unpredictability surrounding us by countering it with the known and the definite, that cannot be changed. The social-distancing measures have made us lonely by confining us to our homes. We feel powerless over our present and our future, as we can plan for neither.
Compounding the issue are the lost memories, the ones we cannot build. Millions will miss out on creating the memories of graduating from school or college, saying goodbye or having farewell parties, previously taken for granted by everyone. Nostalgia helps our brain recreate the sense of control we once had, in the absence of any new ones being made in the present.
These negative emotions are causing an increasing amount of depression among people. A feeling of melancholy comes from the seemingly perpetual negativity in the media and fear of losing things close to us, like our loved ones, career, financial security or even just our way of life.
Nostalgia filled with happy memories is our minds’ coping mechanism to help us stay balanced, keep us company and ward away the negativity. It ultimately helps us get a sense of optimism for the future.
Nostalgia is a very social emotion and generally involves loved ones and cherished relationships. It’s a way of comforting us by remembering the fun time spent with our loved ones, so bringing us physiologically closer to them, even though physically distanced now.
It helps us get reassurance from our past and gives us a sense of self-worth. It reminds us of the events that shaped us, reminds us of who we really are and that we have not changed under these trying circumstances.
So next time you feel like listening to an old song and traveling down memory lane, be self-indulgent. Let your mind wander back to happier times and get a shot of much-needed positivity.
Just make sure to steer clear of any bad ones and it might just be the magic potion recommended to help fight the despair around and keep you sane.