If you are sitting at the bottom of a wet and cold valley, it may become hard for you to imagine the beautiful and warm beach on the other side of the hill. Sometimes, when we feel sad, we also feel hopeless and like things will never change. Conversely, when we feel happy, we become optimistic that things will always continue to be this way. Well, we are not always sad nor are we always happy. Often, it is the case that when we feel sad, we also tend to feel longing for “simpler,” or “happier” times. I recently learned that nostalgia—crudely defined as ‘a feeling of longing and wistful affection for the past’—was once considered to be a disease.
In 1688, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer created the term “nostalgia” from the Greek “nostros” meaning “homecoming,” and “algos” meaning “pain.” Sufferers of this psychological disorder would feel intense longing for the past as well as severe melancholy. Unfulfilled ambitions, heartbreak, and homesickness are some triggers that could evoke nostalgia within patients. Treatments to this disease were gruesome… and could be both physically and psychologically harmful (more on that here). Nostalgia used to be a serious “diagnosis,” yet today it is considered nothing more than a feeling or a state of mind.
A trip down memory lane can be nice. If we remember the good times and they bring a smile to our faces than the nostalgia is ultimately helpful. However, if we remember the good times and feel a bit of anxiety and sadness, then the nostalgia is ultimately harmful. Getting stuck on “memory lane” is more likely to happen when we are feeling bad, sad, or hopeless about our present situation. The nostalgia in this way can make us feel even worse if we continue to ruminate on “better” days.
Why do our brains get stuck in this melancholic state? I opened this entry with a metaphor. Consider we are sitting at the bottom of a valley. All around us is brown landscape, dark clouds, and wet earth. When we are put in such a sad and hopeless place, it is natural for us to dream and recall better days. However, in this metaphor, there is a beautiful, warm beach just beyond the hill. The problem is, instead of moving forward and searching for that warm beach, we are sitting in our cold, wet valley thinking about the warm beach from our past. When we have recurring, unhelpful thoughts, we are ruminating. Rumination means that we are focusing our attention on the source of our distress and allowing these thoughts to consume us. In this way, our rumination has made us blind to the possibility of future happiness, or in the metaphor—future beaches.
Delving into our past does not have to consume us and, if we are mindful, can ultimately help us out of our valleys. Introspection is when we think deeply about our thoughts and feelings in a self-reflective way. It is the process of asking ourselves, why do we feel the way that we feel? and what does this mean? This can be a long and deeply personal process, but if our past haunts us, then it is most necessary. The past is in the past and that is okay. If things are bad now, that does not mean that they will be bad tomorrow, next week, or the next year. We must learn from the past, if we can get passed the past, then we should. Of course, we can feel free to take a trip down memory lane every once and a while if the memories bring us pleasure. However, if the past becomes a continual source of sadness and anxiety, then we must find it within ourselves to close that chapter and start writing a new history for ourselves.
Sometimes we find ourselves in valleys. Sometimes the hills are so high that we become disoriented. Sometimes the past will tempt us and make us feel weak, stuck, and unsure of our next steps. However, we are strong people, Dear Reader. Forward is the only way to free us from the wet valley. There is so much goodness in the world; I hope from the bottom of my heart that we all get to see it from the top of the hill.