Nostalgia Isn’t Fun For Everyone: When Looking Back Makes You Feel Anxious

“For as long as I can remember nostalgia has made me feel queasy,”

At the moment, nostalgia is a trendy word. It’s used every time Reeling in the Years, or our favourite Nickelodeon cartoon comes on TV. We see it in what we wear, in what we read, everywhere we look.

Ironically, social media has a massive influence in making us feel nostalgic. There are Instagram and Twitter accounts dedicated to things like Paris Hilton’s heyday in 2007 or Queen B back when she was still Beyoncé Knowles and part of Destiny’s Child. We get personal nostalgia from Facebook memories and our ability to look back on old posts.


For many, it evokes a feeling of fondness, a pleasant reminder of something we once loved, or something that was once a big part of our lives. But looking back can also feel lonely, anxious and even depressing.

“For as long as I can remember nostalgia has made me feel queasy,” says Alice, 23. “Old toys, family photographs, even home videos. So much so that
my parents still often recall the time I vomited up Creme Eggs all over the sitting room carpet while watching their wedding video for the first time. I just didn’t like looking at all the changed faces smiling back at me from the television screen, all the faces that are now missing from our family photos.

“I know nostalgia is supposed to be a happy thing, and don’t get me wrong I have the best memories of my childhood but for me it’s just always a reminder that time is marching on and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

If like Alice, nostalgia has you in knots, you’re not alone, and in fact, you’re closer to the original definition of feeling nostalgic. The word is defined as a sentimental longing or wistful a reflection for a period in the past. So the longing, or wishing to be back there when you know you can’t be, is totally understandable.

Colin McDonnell, Clinic Director at Psychotherapy Dublin, says that looking at what the word actually means can help people to understand their negative feelings towards it. “The term comes from the Greek words nostos which means to return home, and algos meaning pain. Here we can see that there is something inseparably painful in returning,” he said.

Back in 1688, nostalgia was defined as a mental illness and was essentially described as a severe case of homesickness. At the time, it could be compared to paranoia and melancholy, except it was a longing for a particular place. Between the 17th and 19th century, it was common among soldiers, immigrants, and women who left home to become domestic servants, all of whom longed to be back home.

So if you’ve always thought that your negative feelings towards the idea are irrational, it’s quite the opposite. Nostalgia now seems to have more of an emphasis on a period in time rather than a place, however, different types can affect different people.

“For me, it’s usually visuals,” Alice, says. “My dad made me an amazing 21-minute-long video montage for my 21st birthday which included lots of our family videos and photos. I spent the entire day watching it in tears.

It was the nicest present I think anyone has ever given me but it just made me realise how much we’ve all changed and how things will never go back to the way they were when we were growing up.”

While the word nostalgia has lost the severe meaning it once had, the feeling remains prominent within many other mental health issues. “The vast majority of psychological treatments aim towards some sort of resolution for nostalgia – a solution for what is missing. There is a great deal of attempts towards finding peace, acceptance, closure, etc.,” Colin explains.

So, while it’s not classed as a mental illness anymore, this doesn’t stop many of us from shuddering at our TimeHop, and not just because of our over-plucked brows and slogan tees.

“I would go as far as to say that nostalgia is something absolutely constitutive to how most of us are formed,” Colin says. Between growing up and moving on, feelings of nostalgia are almost evitable, but some people and it more difficult to cope with. He adds: “The feeling of nostalgia rails against restrictive norms. It provides a sense of limitless and a sense of total enjoyment or freedom that can be resumed. In this never-ending scavenger hunt it is inevitable we feel a sense of sadness for the things we are lacking.”

Krystine Batcho, PhD, a psychologist who specialises in nostalgia, adds that different periods in our lives can affect how we feel about the past.
“Certain circumstances can tilt the balance of nostalgia toward the sad side, she says. “People who are confronted with a particularly difficult change in their lives are likely, at least for a time, to focus on the sadness of yearning for the loss. A death of a loved one, forced relocation, a divorce or separation, or a career change can all result in a period of ruminating about the past. In such situations, a person might find it difficult to adapt to the change and move forward,”

For many people, it’s also the fear of losing something you can’t get back. “I realise that my parents are getting older and some day they won’t be here, neither will my friends or cousins, neither will I,” Alice says.

So if all this feels as familiar to you as a memory from your childhood, the good news is there are benefits to caring so much.

“Research shows that nostalgia can be therapeutic when it is relied upon in a healthy way,” Krystine explains.

“People who tend to be more nostalgic also tend to have healthy ways of coping with stress and the problems life can pose. More nostalgic people value their relationships, and therefore, tend to be more socially connected. During difficult times, they have greater access to a rich social network that provides both emotional and practical support.

This is something that has helped Alice to cope with her anxiety: “A phone call home usually does the trick. I usually just do something else to take my mind of it. You have to get out of your own head.”

Krystine adds that feeling strongly about nostalgia can greatly benefit you.

“Nostalgia offers emotional comfort in the memories of happier times. It also strengthens a person’s resolve to move forward with reminders of challenges overcome in the past,” she explains. “Used in a healthy way, nostalgic memories contain a wealth of resources like problem-solving strategies and advice, for coping with adversity.”

The nostalgia expert explains that remembering things like, how your loved one overcame an illness, financial problems, or other struggles gives both emotional strength and practical ideas for getting beyond a difficult time.

“To avoid over-focusing on the negative, it is helpful to use nostalgia in a social context. Share nostalgic memories with others, whether in person, on
the phone, or over social media. Share old photos and discuss your feelings about the past, your current sadness or sense of loss, and even anxiety about
the future. Being able to express your feelings can be liberating, and learning about how others feel can remind us to extend support to others – the best way to begin healing.”

This article originally appeared in the January issue ’18 of Stellar Magazine.

Have your say

More like this