Why We Lean into the Comfort of Nostalgia During Times of Crisis

These days, many of us have been finding ways to get creative with our time spent in quarantine. Some of us have been trying new things like channeling our top chef skills with new recipes while others have been decluttering like they are the next Marie Kondo. Then there are some of us who have been leaning hard into nostalgia.

nostalgia during crisis

I for one have been enjoying every Harry Potter marathon available on television (don’t judge me). Some of my friends have been diving into their favorite childhood Disney movies, while others have been baking banana bread and sourdough loaves like they are about to open a food truck. Turns out, there is a reason why we lean into the nostalgia of certain activities, comforts and foods, especially during times of crisis and stress.

Nostalgia during times of crisis

In life, change is the default, not the exception. Nevertheless, people long for stability. Change is often viewed as something that is scary because change is accompanied by the unknown, which can be perceived as stressful, especially when a new set of skills is required to meet new demands. (Hello WFH with your significant other).

When facing stress or uncertainty, our minds will naturally gravitate towards positive memories of the past. This concept is known as personal nostalgia and is a normal human tendency that is quite common.

Dr. Giuseppe Aragona, General Practitioner & Medical Advisor at Prescription Doctor explains that our brains make connections to emotions and things, which can bring us comfort because we associate them with good times. Think of things like the smell of your grandmother’s stew or an old TV program from childhood.

“For many of us, childhood was a simpler time, so seeing something from then gives us a good feeling,” Dr. Aragona explains. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that is most often conjured by sensory stimuli like sight, smell, sound, taste and touch, but it can also be sparked by conversations. 

Why nostalgia feels so good

During times of nostalgic activities, the reward centers of the brain are activated. Nicole Arzt, MS, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health content expert further explains.

“Nostalgia can act as a form of self-care. It feels good to listen to old music or watch our favorite movies or flip through old photo albums. Any time we find things that feel good, they can later help us when we feel anxious, depressed, or stressed,” she reveals.

Ever hear a song from junior high and before you know it you’re smiling and feel light hearted? Maybe you even break out into spontaneous dance. That’s nostalgia! Even if the song wasn’t your favorite at the time, the reward centers of the brain still light up, which can spark pleasant emotions and subsequently a case of the warm and fuzzies.

Whether it’s baking up a batch of your favorite cookies, revisiting hobbies you haven’t seen since middle school or watching favorite films from childhood, these activities, foods and memories can boost mood, help maintain physiological comfort and reduce anxiety and stress. If you are feeling lonely as you quarantine solo, nostalgia can even increase feelings of social interconnectedness despite being isolating. How cool is that?

How to get nostalgic

Not sure how to add a little helpful nostalgia to your life? Here are a few ideas:

  • Bake up a batch or two of your favorite childhood treats, like chocolate chip cookies
  • Call a family member or friend and reminisce about some of your favorite memories together
  • Gather old photos from a happy time in your life like a past family vacation
  • Listen to a familiar piece of music (I recently found myself rocking out to A*Teens and B*Witched – You’re welcome)
  • Recall personal milestones or past achievements
  • Watch classic movies that warm your heart or give you a good giggle

Although nostalgia can be viewed as another form of self-care, Dr. Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada provides a word of caution when employing nostalgia.

“Nostalgia should be used in small doses, as nostalgia can easily become addictive and make the present seem more difficult than it truly is compared to how the past truly felt in the moment.” Just as a person can become addicted to any activity that activates the rewards centers of the brain, it’s important to not excessively use nostalgia as a crutch to evoke positive feelings in an attempt to avoid living in the present. If you notice yourself relying more and more on nostalgia for happiness or positivity, reach out to a licensed professional.

Nostalgia can be viewed as a coping tool to help us through the tough times and help us fuel the courage to confront our fears and tackle challenges. Ultimately, focusing on some of our fondest life experiences from the past can help us endure change and challenges all while creating hope for the future.

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About Ashley Martens

Ashley Martens is a Wellness Writer based in Chicago, Illinois. With a background in a digital marketing coupled with her knowledge of general nutrition and a lifelong passion for all things health, wellness, fitness and nutrition, Ashley offers a healthy alternative to traditional writing. You can learn more Ashley and her writing over at her blog, Three to Five a Day.

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