By Esther Dark
One thing in life is certain; change. It is found in every aspect of our worlds, from leaving home, to scientific progression. It can be unsettling and often bring conflict to our lives, as our natural instincts long for routine and permanency. We yearn for stability, and change is a force that threatens just that, jeopardising our well-being and safe set rhythms. Especially when that change requires a new set of skills to meet life’s demands, such as coming into a new stage of life like transitioning from college to university. Nostalgia is bittersweet. Sweet, in that it transitionally allows us to reach for positive memories, which are more crystallised than the negative or neutral ones. Bitter, in that we know that the moment’s past, and we can never go back. We’re often reminded by that cliche phrase that, “you can’t move forward, if you’re always looking back”; looking back trips us up; it interferes with our attempt to cope with the present. Nostalgia allows us to escape, albeit momentarily, into an idealised world. Is it just a romanticised illusion of the past; a trick of the mind?
Hindsight can yield many benefits; nostalgia can be a positive calming force in uncertainty. It can strengthen our sense of personal continuity, reminding us that we possess a catalog of powerful memories that make up our unique identity. My frail Grandma who once used to run around the farm with bundles of energy in her youth, and look after three unruly girls, is still that same person today. Age adversely changes our bodily function and can attack our minds but as long as our memories are preserved we remain the same person we always have been. My Grandma’s memories are part of her DNA, and the person she is today.
Looking back on periods of difficulties, where we have overcome trials and stressful periods can also build resilience. It will remind us of what we have achieved and have survived. Studies show that more reflective individuals are able to seek emotional support, advice and practical help from others than those who live in the present[i]. Thinking back on tough times in our lives, which we have battled and survived, is likely to build new pathways in our minds, giving us new strategies of coping in the future if the same or similar circumstances arise. Worried about settling into halls, or how you will cope with academic learning? Don’t fret, remember the effort and the exams you passed to get into university in the first place, and the close friends you have accumulated through the years.
Looking back can also help us focus on our relationships, which can comfort and reassure us in demanding periods. Although I’m grown up, and a little more mature, I take comfort from the memories that remind me of being my mum’s little shadow and the reassurance it brings that I will always be doted on as the youngest of four.
Reminiscing also improves our mood. It’s well into autumn now, and those long summer days are well and truly over. What started off as a miserable rainy Monday this week, turned into quite the opposite, when a group of my friends from university shared our holiday snaps over the summer from our Facebook profiles. Smiles, stories and laughter quickly filled the room, amongst shrieks of embarrassment when some dubious photos cropped up. Soon, everyone was in a brighter mood, reminiscing of past summer days, and looking forward to the day ahead.
As an Occupational Therapy student, I am also recognising how nostalgia can be used as a powerful therapeutic tool to help individuals beyond suffering in the aftermath of trauma, or bring stability to those with dementia. Memories can act as a magical time machine that can transport us back to a moment or place that is uniquely special, just through a familiar smell, song or face in the crowd.
Although nostalgia can tread a fine balance of living in the past and the future, and has its dangers. It is a wonderful way of stopping in the hustle and bustle of life, where those little moments of joy are so easily forgotten, and self-doubt and anxiety cripples us from looking forward. Reflecting on the past helps us to withstand the unknowns of change and create courage and hope for our futures.
[i] Positive Psychology in Practice: Promoting Human Flourishing in Work, Health, Education, and Everyday Life, Second Edition