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Nostalgia – is Missing the Past Good or Bad for You?


photo by Andrea Rico

by Andrea M. Darcy

Often think about your past? Or wish you could go back in time and have the life you had? Nostalgia has direct implications on our mental health.

What is nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a longing for our past, albeit a possibly romanticised version.

We can be sentimental for people, experiences, places, and things, or even for a version of ourselves we once were.

Nostalgia is different from homesickness, where we want to be in another existing space than the one we are in.

And it’s not the same as fantasy, where we seek to substitute reality.  With nostalgia, we know we are in the here and now. We are just indulging in a trip down memory lane, while wearing our ‘rose coloured glasses’.

When being nostalgic is a positive

In the last century, researchers focussed on nostalgia as something negative. It was seen as an inability to accept the past or what we’ve lost, and something that stopped us from being in the present.

But a flurry of more recent research now claims nostalgia as a mental health positive. The newer perspective on nostalgia is that it can help us feel:

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  • more connected (we can remember good times with loved ones and feel cared for)
  • inspired to deal with the present (good things happened in the past, so trying to reach our goals means they might happen again)
  • like we have a stronger sense of self (we are a person connected to a past, who belongs).

Researcher Krystine I. Batch, creator of the ’Nostalgia Inventory’, analysed memories of resistance fighters in WWII next to current empirical research on the subject. This highlighted how nostalgic memories counteracted loneliness, supported emotional and cognitive coping, strengthened social bonds and cultural identity, and even helped with accepting a new homeland. 

Nostalgia’s dark side

nostalgiaSo where does nostalgia go wrong? It’s now thought that there is more than one kind of nostalgia, and that not all kinds are helpful.

Personal nostalgia is when we miss what we experienced in the past. It’s the type that leaves us connected and inspired to recreate such happy moments in the present and future.

But we can miss things too soon. This is called ‘anticipatory nostalgia’. We miss and long for something before it’s even over, and it leads to sadness, worry, and anxiety.  An  American study released in 2020 shows that, as well as affecting our reaction, poorly timed nostalgia can also affect our ability to learn from our reminiscing. 

An example would be when we meet someone we really like, and we already feel sadness and a sense of longing when we think about when the relationship ends.

Another 2020 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that nostalgia can also be negative if it’s random and unconscious.

Consciously making an effort to recall the past was found to elevate our moods. But everyday moments of nostalgia were found to be more likely to have a negative effect.

Can’t stop reminiscing?

Are you the type who has daily random nostalgia? Always comparing the present unfavourably to the past? Can’t enjoy it when good things happen because you are so worried about how much you’ll miss things when it’s all over? 

Research and theory aside, you have to look at how nostalgia is making you feel. Constantly being caught up in nostalgia that leaves you feeling low can be a sign of other issues.

When it’s a mental health issue

There are unhealthy thought patterns that can be related to, or seem like, a form of nostalgia, but are actually signs of a mental health issue.  

Rumination sees you unable to stop repetitively focusing on things that distress you, and trying to figure out possible causes and consequences for them.

Depression can mean we go over the past again and again, judging ourselves as unworthy and feeling consumed by guilt and self-hatred.

Love and romance addiction can mean we think non stop about a person we met, or an ex, to the extent it affects our ability to cope. It can see us hiding things from family and friends.

Anxiety means we constantly worry about the future in a way that makes us feel fearful, and becomes increasingly illogic. If anticipatory nostalgia has started to make you tense and panicky, it might have become anxiety.

So lost in the past you can’t accept your current life? We connect you with highly experienced counsellors and psychotherapists in central London. Or use our booking site to find a UK-wide talk therapist as well as online therapists that you can work with from any country. 

Andrea M. DarcyAndrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing writer as well as mentor who often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy


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Blog Topics: Depression, Relationships

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