Lockdown 2.0 means many aspects of our lives are currently on hold. No nights out, no dreamy holidays and no weekend get-togethers with friends.
We’re not able to make very many new memories right now, so we can’t help but let our thoughts turn to ones we’ve already made.
Scrolling through old photos and binge-watching episodes of Friends, may not at first seem like the healthiest of behaviours, but taking a trip down memory lane can actually be good for us during trying times.
In fact nostalgia is playing a key role in helping people to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic according to a recent study by independent media agency the7Stars and YouGov.
The survey, of 2,000 Brits, found that nostalgia is being used to generate feelings of happiness (44%), comfort (41%), gratitude (32%) and relaxation (31%).
Why are people feeling so nostalgic right now, and how exactly is it helping?
While some of us can find dwelling on the past to be painful, others find it therapeutic.
“We tend to feel nostalgic when we are longing to be reinserted into past moments where we have felt happy or content,” says Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of mental health and self-development platform, Remente.
“You might have experienced feelings of nostalgia when you’ve been looking at old pictures with a loved one or reminiscing about a past holiday with friends, or perhaps when you’ve played a song or watched a film and have found yourself transported back to that period in time.
“An international study by the University of Southampton in 2017, explored the effects of nostalgia on mental health, finding that once people enter into a state of nostalgia, their moods are elevated, their self-esteem is boosted and they feel more content.”
Now that we’re in lockdown, the differences between our past life and present life are more stark, and some of us are seeking solace in happier times.
“With new lockdown restrictions taking hold, many of us are finding that we are not in the same situations where we might previously have made lasting memories, since we are currently unable to get together, travel, host parties or celebrate in person with those we love,” says Eék.
“Instead, we remain in contact with each other by meeting for a walk outdoors, or via digital means, like Zoom, phone calls or social media. As a result, those ‘memory making’ times are replaced by long talks about past, happier and perhaps more exciting times. As we are unable to make new memories, we look back to our existing ones for comfort.”
Turning to the past can also help us to cope with the present, according to psychologist and emotional scientist Dr Tracy Thomas.
“The world is in one of the most stressful transitional times in human history due to the COVID pandemic, and at a time like this many people turn to nostalgia as an emotional coping mechanism,” she explains.
“At a time of extreme, chronic, extensive and forced transition from one way of existing to another, people are clinging to the past in order to relive what it is that they feel is no longer available to them in their daily lives.”
Dr Thomas adds that wanting to relive the past (even if it wasn’t all that great of an experience the first time around), rather than think about the future, is one of the most typical reactions to stress.
Nostalgia can also be incredibly calming, says Eék.
“Feelings of anxiety can be reduced by something as simple as the smell of your mother’s perfume, by putting on an old song that reminds us of a certain person or point in our lives, or even by rewatching favourite films that hold a special significance,” explains Eék.
“In that moment, we can be fully transported from the present, into the past, where we feel safe and secure.”
Channelling nostalgia can also help us fulfil our current need for escapism, by providing relief from the onslaught of negative news.
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When everything around us is so different right now, nostalgia can serve as a comforting reminder that we are still the same person.
The person who danced on the table at her best friend’s wedding and who screamed with joy when Take That took to the stage is still there.
But turning to nostalgia for comfort is not a new phenomenon.
“It is often in our lowest moments that we will turn to happier, nostalgic memories to lift our spirits,” explains Eék.
“During the dark, wet winter we will often talk about hot sunny holidays; when we have a cold we might think about the nights when we went out dancing with friends; and in times of pandemic and lockdown, we talk about the moments when we would all get together for a weekly pub quiz, the annual Christmas gathering of friends and family, or even something as simple as the weekly exercise class that you might be missing.”
Whatever the memory, Eék says talking about these shared moments is one of the threads that binds friendships and families together, so it helps to make everyone feel more stable, and more grateful for the memories they’ve already made.
But is trying to remind ourselves of our past lives, when we can’t realistically enjoy the same freedoms going to do us more harm than good?
The key is to use these feelings of nostalgia to give you the confidence to plan for the future.
“While there can be comfort in nostalgia and it can be a beneficial temporary coping mechanism, it is important to recognise that just because the future feels uncertain doesn’t mean we should go backwards as a response,” explains Dr Thomas.
Dr Thomas says people sometimes go towards the past because they feel they have no power in the future.
“But in reality, it’s the realisation of your capacity to create your future that makes it what you really want it to be,” she adds.
“Now more than ever, our attention needs to shift from coping to creating, and when people do this they will find a lot of inspiration and momentum for creating their next level life, right in the middle of a lockdown situation.”
She suggests trying to embrace the shifts that are happening in our lives right now in order to shape our future.
“While this is a time of exceptional transition this is also a time of great transformation, and this time can be as empowering as anyone is willing to make it,” she concludes.