Author: Jessica Murdoch
When the stay at home orders were announced, mixed amongst my general concern was a sense of excitement that isolation would provide an excellent opportunity to catch up on reading, and allow me to (finally!) get to all those TV shows people keep recommending.
However, two months in (or however long it’s been. What even is time anymore?) that hasn’t really eventuated. One of the things I noticed early on in this crisis was my disinterest in watching new shows, or picking up anything unread on my TBR pile. Whenever I tried to settle into something, I felt restless. Choosing something new felt stressful, so I found myself falling back into old favourites I’ve seen or read a hundred times.
The thing is, this it isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this phenomenon. Around exam time or during a busy work period, when I’m feeling anxious, I often find myself falling back into these familiar patterns.
I’ve noticed others acting similarly, too. Is there a reason we reach for something comfortable and familiar when we’re feeling anxious or stressed? If people aren’t seeking out their old favourite books or shows, they’re sharing their holiday throwbacks on social media, or even simple pictures of past ‘regular’ hangouts with friends, reminiscing about the good times with desperate pleas to ‘take me back’. This type of nostalgia seems to be a behaviour many of us are employing as a counter to the current situation we are all enduring.
In his book Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource, Clay Routledge discusses the way our understandings about nostalgia have changed over the years. Routledge explains that nostalgia was first studied in relation to soldiers fighting away from home, and was believed to be a medical illness. The Swiss medical student who coined the phrase actually defined it as “the pain caused by the desire to return to one’s native land”.
Since that time, researchers have developed a greater awareness that there is a lot more going on for soldiers than homesickness. With continued developments in the field of psychology, scholars started to look at the concept differently, and nostalgia began to be seen more as a general longing for aspects of the past. Not just places, but also people or objects. Rather than being an illness causing these symptoms, nostalgia began to be thought of as more of a behavioural response to distress or stressful situations. Over time, researchers began to consider that nostalgia might be a coping mechanism used to counter a negative state.
By the 90s, psychologists started to embrace a more positive and functional view of nostalgia. While current research still explores whether it is ‘good’ for you, it does recognise nostalgia as an experience that can generate positive affect – that is a greater propensity to happiness and positive emotions.
As far as the question of causation, Routledge points out that nostalgia is far more likely to be experienced when people are distressed than when they are happy or content, and that loneliness may be a particularly potent nostalgia instigator. With that in mind, I think it’s safe to assume that in a global pandemic, even if our immediate safety needs are being met, there may be plenty of reasons to be reaching for nostalgia to help us cope.
For me, it seems like the reading, cooking and listening I’ve been doing could easily fit into this idea of a coping mechanism. So, I’ve decided to outline some of the nostalgic ‘comfort-doing’ I’ve been participating in recently, and explore the kind of thoughts this practice has raised for me, in the hope that it might help you gain some clarity on your own nostalgic behaviours.
Now, I’m probably older than many of you reading – I’m an actual millennial, as opposed to the constantly lazy short-hand way that it’s misused as a synonym for ‘young person I have a preconceived prejudice against’. So, some of my nostalgic throwbacks are probably going to seem ancient to some. Or maybe you’re cool and you like my throwbacks too! Either way, feel free to sub in whatever books/movies/music you were enjoying through your teens or childhood, and consider whether you’ve been using them in the same way.
Sweet Valley High and Anne of Green Gables are both series I read as a teenager. They’ve been providing me with the same level of comfort, only in different ways. Not only are they taking me back to a time when I had far less responsibilities, but they’re allowing me to press pause and escape from my ‘real life’ – just as they did back then.
The Sweet Valley High books have been pure escapism – and pure trash (in the best possible way). Now, anything that young teen girls love is often dismissed as being valueless. And if I’m honest, the feminist in me could rip them apart – particularly the early ones. The first one has unrealistic body expectations and body shaming… and that is literally just on the first page. I mean, they were published in the 80s.
But having the opportunity to figure out some of these things for ourselves is important – I mean, how can you learn what ‘good’ literature is, unless you read all types? That’s not to say these books do no harm to teen readers, but leaving that discussion aside for now, they served a useful purpose. That is: being dramatic, ridiculous, yes problematic, but ultimately soap-opera fantasy fun. Reading doesn’t always have to be serious.
On the other hand, the Anne books have a completely different, much more wholesome feel. There’s always the risk that when you go back to a childhood fave, you’ll discover just how problematic they were, which your naïve kid-self failed to notice (not like SVH above, I think they were blatant enough even for teenage me to see)…now, Anne is not perfect, but I have to say overall that they do surprisingly well for writing published in the early 1900s.
There isn’t glaring overt racism (aside from the overwhelming whiteness – yikes the bar is low). There’s plenty of heteronormative expectations being celebrated and some icky ideas about beauty norms but overall, Anne as a character is so interesting and complex and sweet, and there’s plenty we can still find relatable in her stories today. The vocabulary in this book is not oversimplified for children – and for a kid who loved learning (and mispronouncing, because she’d only ever seen them in print) new ‘big’ words, as Anne herself did, relishing this was a joy in itself.
As an adult, I found myself feeling much more emotional about her horrible start in life, but it also makes her growth, and the growth and growing love of those around her, that much more effecting. The thing about this series, is that it really does feel like it was written to be read as a serial – each chapter often feels very complete – which is perfect for a child to read with a parent. And I’ve been spacing them out to read just a chapter a day – reminiscent of the way I had to read when I wasn’t in charge of my own bedtime.
I have a pre-adulting playlist already set up on Spotify, which I usually listen to when I have to do the shittier kind of adulting like cleaning the bathroom or vacuuming – but until now, I have never listened so regularly to so many of my high school faves. Spotify has started curating 90s and early 00s focused playlists for me, and it’s been fun rediscovering some oldies that I haven’t heard in a while. Vanessa Amorosi’s Have a Look came on at one point and I was instantly transported back to my high school bedroom, where I sang all those desperate break-up tunes so passionately, having never even been kissed.
It’s not surprising that we are so often attached to our high school hits, even in more typical times. The music that we love in our puberty years – when all of our emotions are often experienced in extremes – will always have a powerful place for so many of us.
Writing for Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern says, “between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones. These hormones tell our brains that everything is incredibly important—especially the songs that form the soundtrack to our teenage dreams (and embarrassments).”
Don’t worry, this subheading is not about making bread (although more power to you if you find that comforting). In fact, a little content warning for this paragraph: like so many of us living in a society where diet culture is constantly being thrown at us, I haven’t always had the healthiest relationship with food. And at times when my mental health has been at its lowest, the effort of making food is often the first to go. Luckily, I’m in a place of my recovery where I’ve learned to notice early warning signs.
For me to make healthy (and by that, I mean, not disordered) food choices, it’s important to remove as many barriers to cooking as possible. That might mean buying precut vegies for example, or ready-made sauces. While I’ve been working to be more mindful of environmental impact and reduce my meat/animal product consumption for the last five or so years, for my own mental health, I can never place completely rigid rules around my food consumption. With the added stressors popping up currently, I’ve had to loosen those restriction even more and simply give myself permission to accept that I’m doing the best I can.
Usually, I still make the vegetarian option, but the easy, familiar meals of my childhood – often a stir-fry with vegies and some kind of meat – are the best way I can take care of myself right now. The constant jokes and memes about people’s fear of weight gain is damaging enough, putting restrictions on the way I keep my body alive in a global pandemic is something I can’t afford to do.
Those are a few of the ways that nostalgia is helping me at the moment. The truth is, I don’t think I’m feeling terribly lonely right now. I’m an introvert. I’m independent. I enjoy my alone time. But I am anxious, and more than a little stressed about the general state of the world.
Besides, there’s a difference between choosing to stay at home and having to stay at home to keep everyone safe from a global pandemic.
For me, the truth is, having an excuse to stay home is not always the best thing. I may like being shut away at home (insert introvert meme here) but having the perfect built-in excuse to isolate from people is not always the best thing for my health. It’s human nature to do the comfortable thing and with the way ‘self-care’ is often packaged to us these days, it’s easy to convince ourselves that leaning into comfort is the best thing to do. It’s like I have society’s permission to shut myself away and that’s not always the healthiest thing for my brain. I like being on my own but that’s not always the best thing to keep my brain healthy.
So, although I’m enjoying relaxing into some of these nostalgic comforts, I’m also trying to stay aware, so I can catch myself if I start to spiral a little too deeply into my comfortable past.
I mentioned earlier that researchers weren’t completely convinced that nostalgia is ‘good’ for us. While it can be a soothing behaviour, that doesn’t automatically equal good for us, and research has shown that in some cases it can lead to feelings of frustration and discontent.
Dr. Krystine I. Batcho, a licensed psychologist who researches the psychology of nostalgia, says that “the main risk for unhealthy nostalgia lies in trying to do it all ‘solo’”.
Speaking to Mary Grace Garis for Well and Good, she says, “if we find ourselves becoming trapped in sadness, we need to reach out to others. Not only is it great to receive support, but it’s incredibly beneficial to extend support to others. Extending a digital hug to another feels good and can encourage us to look forward to better times. Just as there were good times before, there will be good times ahead.”
Overall, aside from the inconvenience of trying to self-motivate when it comes to studying online, I’ve not found my isolation to be the worst experience. I know how incredibly lucky I am to be in a more secure position than many – the increase in Austudy has meant I’ve actually had enough money to pay rent and manage other living expenses – which is a whole other piece of writing.
I have a safe place to live, enough money to buy food and pay my bills, and friends and family to check in with. So, taking comfort and joy in familiar things while also making sure I’m staying in contact with friends and family, and looking after myself physically and mentally has mostly been manageable.
The truth is, it is important to be gentle with ourselves right now. I’m not going to say that we’re living in unprecedented times, because holy shit am I sick of hearing that from companies still trying to sell us their products. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t the experience we thought we would be having in 2020.
So, if you’re feeling a little stressed about your current circumstances, or more than a little anxious about the future, remember that you can take a little comfort in some familiar experiences, solo or with others, and you’ll be in good company.
About Jessica Murdoch
Jessica is a writer, teacher and experienced list maker who is currently doing a media and comms degree.