When nostalgia becomes pain

Mood board with pictures on it How much nostalgia is too much nostalgia? (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

I remember afternoons with Amma watching old Malayalam movies of the 60s and the 70s. For me, it was just another way to while away time after school. But for her, it was a portal to the life she left behind as a girl.

Each film and each song would spur her memories from childhood. She’d tell me about the time she tricked her vain younger sister into believing that she looked like the top heroine Jayabharati in a film. Or when her little nephew adorably mispronounced the lyrics of a song.

Wistfully, she would narrate stories of growing up in her father’s palatial house in 60s’ Kerala as a middle child of sorts, neglected by parents but adored by friends.

Our afternoons would melt into evenings, and one anecdote would lead to another. On some days, her past was all that she would talk about. She knew she had an audience in me; she always will.

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But at 35, I realised that nostalgia is a running affliction in the family. I too had inherited the same painful attachment to the past as my mother did.

I often drift away into the past, thinking about the house that I grew up in. Sometimes, when I shut my eyes and focus long enough, I can see the patterns on our old curtains, floral designs on the tiles and even the chipped paint on the walls. I can also perceive the fragrance of our neighbour’s Sunday lunch wafting into our house.

I have recurring dreams of walking down the long corridors of my school and often long to sit once again on those tiny benches.

Once,  I spent weeks googling for Phantom D143 – The Tree House, the one where “the rope people” built a treehouse for the Walker family.

Phantom Treehouse
Phantom’s “Castle in the Air” (Image: Lee Falk)

I owned a copy as a child and was dogged in pursuit to find it again. All because it was a relic from a seemingly simpler and happier time.

As simple and happy those memories seem from my vantage, they were anything but when I was living them out.

In the house that I idealised, I have seen my parents squabble relentlessly, my dad’s 20-year-old business crumble and a gamut of major illnesses — one of the reasons why we relocated — afflict me.

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School was terrible too. I resented my peers and hated my teachers, who I thought were unreasonable and hamfisted in their approach towards children. Unsurprisingly, it was also the ground zero of my lifelong low-self esteem issues.

Despite everything, I longed to go back for reasons that still evade me.

Collage of images
Longing to return (Image: My own)

What is nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a fond recollection of people, places and events of the past. Its roots are in ancient Greek and they are every bit as poignant. “Nostos” means “homecoming” and “algos” means grief. In short, nostalgia is a painful longing for homecoming.

Intriguingly, it melds both the positive and negative. On one hand, it can kindle familiarity and belonging, and on the other, it can breed longing, loss and frustration.

While it’s mixed, it’s predominantly a positive experience. It can also be adaptive, changing according to your emotional needs.

A 2006 study by Wildschut et. al revealed that loneliness was the most reported trigger for nostalgia.

“Nostalgia, therefore, appears to involve an affective sequence whereby negative emotions trigger a nostalgic reverie, which is most often positive, and which ends on a redemptive (albeit often bittersweet) note.”

Cavanaugh et. al.

In 2012, Hepper et al noted that nostalgia increases feelings of social connectedness. Another study in 2008 by Zhou et al. suggested loneliness can boost these feelings by increasing nostalgia.

More hearteningly, nostalgia can help dim the fear of death and enhance a sense of meaning in life, according to Routledge et. al.

Why am I living in the past?

At first, it’s only a song, a photograph, a memory, a smell or a taste. Then it descends like a pall, shrouding everything in a nostalgic haze.

These spells last for hours, days or even weeks. There’s no palpable harm but it robs you of the joy of living in the present or even planning for the future.

Anything that weighs you down isn’t good for you, even something as wholesome as nostalgia. I asked Kasturi Patkar a psychotherapist who is equally mystified by nostalgia as I am.

“From a purely psychological standpoint, Idealisation is considered to be a defence mechanism. These rose-tinted memories help you be optimistic overall about your life and past decisions,” she noted.

Our brain also tends to distort and reconstruct memories and the emotions associated with those memories. So if you are reminiscing about something that happened say 10 years ago, it is very likely that the way you remember the situation is somewhat different from what actually took place at the time.

— Kasturi

The past is also a storehouse of your so-called perfect memories that you may wish to recreate, Kasturi said, adding that an obsession with the past could also signal a lack of closure.

“In other words, you are resorting to it as an escape, kind of like how people resort to drugs to escape reality because it is too much for them to handle,” she added.

 There are some unhealthy thought patterns that on the surface may seem like nostalgia but could be an indicator of an underlying mental health issue.

— Kasturi

My pal and the keeper of my conscience Sneha Iyer, a mental wellness coach, seconded Kasturi’s thoughts.

“The past is a shiny coin that is treasured and re-polished mentally frequently, such that the flaws become invisible. Hence, only the best is seen and remembered,” she stated.

Dealing excessively in the past can take you two places, explains Sneha. “One where the person relives his or her glory days. Challenges or failures they are facing currently may trigger it. And two, where one wishes they could have done things differently and keep reimagining situations of slight, fear or betrayal.”

Anticipatory Nostalgia is a fear that the current situation that you are in and relatively happy may not last or just excessive worry about the future fueled by irrational thoughts.

— Kasturi

As someone who spends most of her time in fruitless introspection, I fit myself in the former category. I noticed that my bouts of nostalgia often followed depressive spells, stemming from a deep discontent with work, life and health in general.

How living in the past affects you

The wise have always urged the world to live in the present. So there’s an obvious downside to being stuck in the past.

“The problems can be varied,” says Sneha, “but they are all detrimental to the person’s growth.”

She adds that these detriments can incapacitate a person, reduce their bias for action, affect energy levels, induce increased levels of anxiety and depression and sometimes even lead to a sense of grandiosity.

But if you’re revisiting the past too frequenly, it is going to disrupt rather than enable.

— Sneha

Nostalgia is a good thing, and in excess, it can be debilitating. Dipping into it once in a while won’t harm, but losing track of the present suggests there’s trouble on the horizon. If nostalgia keeps you from getting things done, get help, says Kasturi.

“Just like all good things in life, indulging in nostalgia moderation would typically cause no harm. But if you find yourself, revisiting the past more than you would like to, find yourself zoning out to the point that you lose track of the present, that would signify a potential mental health problem and you may need professional help,” she states emphatically.

However, the most powerful weapon in your arsenal against toxic nostalgia is self-control, said Sneha. “Try to record why you devote to it and become more conscious of the pattern. If it’s increasing, figure out why.”