Four Ways Looking To The Past Can Support Us During Hard Times

It is instinctive to reminisce and be nostalgic about the past when things get tough.
Why we look to the past
Source from Google Images

When we are experiencing difficult times we often feel as if the rug has been pulled out from underneath us. We are aloft in the wind of uncertainty and find it hard to grasp onto something concrete during that time. We default to holding onto the past in order to help propel us into a more stable future. We use our memories to reminisce and gather feelings of nostalgia as if we are on a quest to find happiness, and they can be techniques we utilize to help us soothe and self-regulate. 

Reminiscing, Nostalgia, and searching the History books are the 3 ways we look into the past.

The first two are personal, the latter is global. Reminiscing and Nostalgia I would argue are instinctive reactions to personal troubles. The latter is a response you may choose when trying to understand a certain political, economic or social problem.

We also look to history or events that are similar to our current situation for answers. How many people do you think googled the Spanish flu once the Coronavirus arrived within their borders? I'm sure it was something many people did to help try and make sense of our current pandemic.  Although I believe history can offer us similar feelings of security during a global crisis, this article focuses on the first two.

The Difference Between Reminiscing and Nostalgia

One could argue reminiscing and nostalgia are tools for when we are looking for ways to feel happy and are techniques we can utilize to help us soothe and self-regulate.

To reminisce is to remember personal events that happened throughout your life. To be nostalgic is to feel what you felt in a different time or place. The difference is when reminiscing we can remember how we felt without being attached to those feelings. Nostalgia is a desire to feel that way again. Both techniques can evoke emotion and give us some stability in times of strife. We can utilize our memories through reminiscing and nostalgia to build-up our levels of happiness

The past can ground us, guide us, support us, and nurture us during stressfull, difficult times.

Here are the 4 ways our past can help us in difficult times:

1. The Past Can Ground Us

When things get tough in our lives we feel tossed about and don't quite know when and where to land. In order to move forward, we must get grounded. To feel grounded is to feel more secure and stable on our feet and in our bodies. When we are grounded we feel safer and we are more equipped to pull through a storm. Think of it as putting your roots into the ground to help hold you steady during a windstorm. Without being rooted or grounded we would just blow over in the strong winds. 

Recalling times when we were happy, and felt secure can help anchor us in the present too.  When there is nothing concrete or stable in our lives we can use the past to help us get rooted again. Often we just need to pull ourselves out of the overthinking we are doing in our heads over our current situations. Memories can take us out of the pain and the suffering of now and give us a place to pick ourselves up from. We can use these memories as tools to help ground us and once we have our footing again we can move forward from a calmer more clear-minded space.

We can also lose our sense of direction during times of strife. By delving back into the past we can recall our motivation or our sense of purpose as well as our goals.  It gets us back to our foundation again so we can build up from those core values and beliefs.

2. The Past Can Guide Us

We often look to the past for answers about the future. We look at events in our lives that are similar to our current situation. We analyze how it was handled in the past and its effectiveness. We use the past to remember our mistakes as well as our successes. By doing this we can see our growth and it can build us up enough to tackle the present and help us to believe we can overcome it. It can bring a sense of hope. We use both our own memories as well as other trusted members in our lives to help guide us. 

We often look to the past to remember who we are and where we come from to gain a better understanding of ourselves and recall our place in the world. We look to our past relationships to guide us in our current relationships. When I became a mother the first thing I did was look back at my own mother and made some pretty clear decisions about the way I wanted to be present as a mother based on the relationship I had with her as a child. When our romantic relationships end we use that experience to guide the next one to be better based on the knowledge we gained from recognizing what we were missing or realizing the mistakes we made.

We have long associated wisdom as becoming stronger with age. We forget the power of talking to a trusted elder for guidance in trying times. We often look to our grandparents and parents during these times for sage advice in order to navigate them. This is another way nostalgia and reminiscing are guiding us, only we are using older generations as the medium in which we access these tools. They have a much larger, more experienced data bank to tap into. There are times in my life where I feel I am in such a rough place but I can often get out of this thought pattern by remembering where my great grandparent and my grandparents were when they were my age and see the progression my family has made. Seeing how far they have come over time gives me a sense of how much I really do have to be grateful for.

3. The Past Can Support Us

We have all had a time in our lives where we felt included, loved for who we really are, and felt a strong sense of belonging. When we are feeling insecure or lonely recalling these times helps us through that.  Reminiscing is one of the most utilized ways we honor our loved ones and move through the grief of losing them. We gather the photos that carry the happy memories, tell the tales of the times we spent and laugh at the mistakes and blunders along the way. It is a way of keeping that connection alive.

When we reminisce and feel nostalgic with other people at the same time it increases our connections with those people strengthening our bonds and our sense of belonging. It was originally believed that nostalgia was a feeling of grief and loss. It wasn't until the late 1970's that the term nostalgia started to encompass more positive feelings referring to phrases such as the "good old days" and "yearn for your childhood".

 "It appears that when we are under stress or feeling lonely, we may be wired to automatically and unconsciously reach for nostalgia. To sum up, our lonely selves reminisce about our connected selves. And, what is more, it is through those longed-for connections that we feel better about ourselves. During times of stress and forced social withdrawal, then, it makes sense that nostalgia may also help combat feelings of helplessness and decreased self-efficacy."

- Psychology Today

In Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides, and Clay Routledge's collaborative study  Nostalgia - From the Cowbells to the Meaning of Life, they argue that nostalgia has four functions. The third one they note is that it strengthens social bonds. They state 'Nostalgia, then, contributes to a sense of safety and secure attachment.'  stressing the importance of connecting memories and people.

"Critically, nostalgia doesn’t simply remind people of a past filled with social connections. It makes them feel connected and motivated to connect." Routlage explains, "Since nostalgia puts people’s minds on meaningful relationships, it also orients them toward social goals."

4. The Past Can Nurture Us

To think that everyone looks at their childhood and youth fondly is not realistic. That being said Nostalgia is fickle. Nostalgia has a transforming nature because we can alter our memories when feeling nostalgic. This can help us alter the meaning of pain - to get fit in our current mood or create a desired feeling. I believe it is not only our intentions when we turn to nostalgic memories by also our reaction to nostalgia that determines whether it is a positive or negative experience.

The first function Wildchut and associates gave to Nostalgia is its positive affectivity. They wrote; "There is a wealth of evidence that positive emotions such as love, pride and Joy are associated with a host of desirable outcomes. To name but a few, positive affectivity facilitates approach behavior, increases subjective well-being, fosters psychological resiliency, and gives rise to thought patterns that are flexible, creative, integrative and efficient."

If we can hone in on memory we can also recall how we felt at that time. The brain won't be able to recognize it as a memory and won't know that it isn't happening to us at that very moment. The chemical reaction will be the same, it will release the hormones the emotion evokes whether you are having it from a memory or an actual experience. 

If we can reminisce about a time in our past that made us feel loved and nurtured we can unconsciously trick our brain into releasing the very remedy we need to help pull us through the stress and heartache. 

“Engagement of cortical regions previously linked to emotion regulatory functions may be significant for enhancing or sustaining pleasant feelings during positive reminiscence, thus dampening the physiological stress response,”

- Delgado and Speer

It is clear that we turn to reminisce and feeling nostalgic when times get hard. It is almost as if its instinctive for us to do so in order to help ourselves recover and heal. Lauren Martin sums it up best;

"More powerful than the future, the past gives us reason to carry on. Rather than facing the unknown, we go back to the past to remember why life is worth living" 

Mother of four. Nature lover, Gardener, crafter, and certified soul coach.

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