Why Does Nostalgia Make You Sad Sometimes?

Photographed by Rochelle Brock.
It's hard to describe the feeling of nostalgia, but you can't miss it when you have it. Maybe your Facebook memories reminded you of the day you moved into your freshman dorm, and suddenly you can feel the anxious butterflies you had meeting your roommates for the first time. Or perhaps you hear Usher's "Love In The Club" and are transported to 2008, when you were prepping for prom. And just catching a waft of Victoria's Secret Love Spell perfume can bring you right back to your middle school gym locker room. Nostalgia is powerful and sometimes difficult to avoid.
Psychologists and experts have studied nostalgia and believe that, overall, the emotion has a strong positive effect on your mental health. But sometimes nostalgic thoughts can feel more like dread than comfort. In fact, nostalgia was once considered an actual psychiatric disorder that could cause anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Why can nostalgia be so comforting and so terrible? The answer is complicated, but so is nostalgia.
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It's helpful to first understand how nostalgia can be good for you. A 2008 study found that nostalgia increases people's perception of social support, which can counteract feelings of loneliness. The researchers found that when you're nostalgic or thinking about your past, you're usually thinking about your close relationships, or a place that's important to you, which makes you feel like you're supported and bolstered by those who care about you.
People who are nostalgic also tend to be optimistic about their future, according to a 2013 study. Nostalgia allows people to "maintain current feelings of self-worth," Tim Wildschut, PhD, the study author, said in a press release. Nostalgia can also provide a link between your past self and your future self, which can make you feel like there's more continuity and meaning to your life, Dr. Wildschut said in a press release.
Nostalgia is inherently bittersweet, because it reminds you of change, and how rich your life has been, Krystine Batcho, PhD, a nostalgia expert told the American Psychological Association (APA). "During difficult times, attention to our past can strengthen us by reminding us of how we survived challenges, loss, injury, failure, or misfortune in the past," Dr. Batcho told the APA. "When we are sad or discouraged, it can be uplifting to remember that we are still the person who had been happy, strong, and productive." But some people might not be comforted by thinking about their past, so nostalgia can make them feel depressed.
There are two types of nostalgia, restorative and reflective, according to Svetlana Boym, author of The Future of Nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia inspires you to go back and change or recreate your past, while reflective nostalgia allows you to accept your memories for what they are. People can experience both types of nostalgia, but restorative nostalgia is more likely to make you feel sad, Boym writes. For example, maybe fall always makes you think about going to football games with your terrible ex. Or perhaps visiting your college reminds you of all the stupid antics you got into when you were drunk. Basically, if you remember how you felt or acted during a difficult time in your life, you might not have the most positive memories, even if they are technically considered "nostalgic."
If you're someone who does tend to get bummed out when recalling memories, there might be a simple way to switch your point of view: Think about the people who you were close to at the time. "What distinguishes a memory as nostalgic is typically the important role played by another — such as the presence and support of family or friends during a crisis," Dr. Batcho told the APA. Nostalgic people tend to remember memories that involve other people, even when the memories are sad or stressful. For example, you might fondly remember how your family members comforted you when you lost a grandparent, rather than the sadness that you felt by the loss.
In truth, nostalgia is not always going to bring you the warm and fuzzies, so it's normal to feel sad or bummed out when you think back on certain memories. The most important thing to remember when you're triggered is that, while it's impossible to go back in time and change your past, it is possible to change the way that you think about it.
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