Modern life seems to propel us forward toward the next goal or urgent matter requiring our attention. As a result, we can immerse ourselves in a state of “doing” and staying active, are troubled by questions concerned with “where this is going,” and look to the future for a sense of direction and purpose.
Nostalgia offers a different approach, one that seemingly makes more room for reflection and a state of “being.” The emphasis it puts on former experiences can offer a different view of one’s present, but is that necessarily preferable to a more goal-oriented perspective? Is there such a thing as too much reminiscence, and what is nostalgic depression? Taken one step further, could nostalgia be a mental illness? Read on to find out more on this subject.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), nostalgia is a longing to return to an earlier period or moment in one’s life. This past experience is colored by positive emotion, and is therefore remembered as better, in some way, than the present moment.
A second definition for nostalgia, sometimes called “homesickness,” describes it as a desire to return not to a previous time in one’s life, but to a physical place that is linked to a pleasant, past experience. Such a place can be the house one grew up in, their old neighborhood, their alma mater, and additional sites that are linked to enjoyable memories.
Today, nostalgia is not seen as a mental illness, and it is not listed among the mental health disorders recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). This, however, has not always been the case, as nostalgia was previously considered a mental illness requiring attention and care.
Nostalgia was originally cited as a mental health disorder during the 17th Century. At the time, it was linked to:
Treatment for nostalgia as a mental health condition was offered up until the 19th Century. During the 20th Century, the idea of missing one’s home or their past was no longer seen as a disorder in and of itself.
That said, the symptoms and central characteristics associated with nostalgia are still recognized, though under different disorders.
Aching for a long-lost experience has become the basis of two other recognized mental health concerns: mourning and depression. The two are considered the closest emotional experience to one another: while depression can include sadness, the emptiness and lack of hope or enjoyment that define it have been found to be more similar to the process of mourning.
However, while mourning is considered a normal part of being alive, the pervasive and persistent nature of depression makes it, and not mourning, a mental health disorder.
Additionally, while mourning is defined as emotional pain over something that one recognizes has been lost to them, depression involves not being aware of what has been lost, thereby leaving a similar sense of hollowness. And so, in a way, wishing for a bygone time in life to the point where one’s present is overcast with sorrow, can be considered a nostalgic depression.
The original 17th Century mental health definition for nostalgia was based on the trauma of war, and specifically soldiers who found themselves yearning for the more naive period of childhood, when faced with the horrors of battle. At the time, soldiers diagnosed with this condition presented the following symptoms:
Present-day discussions on nostalgia and mental health focus on the other side of war–the realities faced by displaced populations. Immigrants and refugees often face a myriad of mental health disorders, chief among them:
Yet in addition to the above disorders, displaced individuals might experience a longing for the more positive aspects of their homeland and childhood. Remembering traditions, familial gatherings, old friendships, and the ease with which they were able to navigate the familial surroundings can trigger nostalgia, especially when they are barred from revisiting their homeland.
A more recent link between mental health and nostalgia has been formed by the coronavirus outbreak. Locked in their homes and isolated from others, all while faced with serious physical health and economic uncertainty, led to spiking cases of the following mental health disorders:
At the peak of the pandemic, the destabilizing effects COVID were also felt through a sharp increase in nostalgia, for a time when the world population did not have to worry about physical touch and contact. This throwback to the pre-COVID era continues to influence life today, with many individuals wishing not only to return to life as they knew it, but to erase the experience of COVID from their memories. Films and TV shows at the time seemed to reflect this desire to escape into fantasy by reminiscing, as most programs and movies sidestepped the pandemic, offering an alternative reality where COVID never happened.
Making room for the positive aspects of one’s past, and even grieving their absence from the present, is a natural part of existing. Greek philosopher Heraclitus said no one can step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and they are not the same person. But in order to hopefully make peace with life’s changes, it is imperative to make space for them within our emotional landscape, to hold them before us, see those experiences in their complexities, and then place them back within our memories, as we look to the life we have today.