During the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdown, when news reports were first filled with scary stats and phrases like ‘unprecedented times’, many of us turned to memories of the past for comfort.
Instagram was awash with ‘On This Day’ throwbacks of people enjoying festivals with friends and time-stamped snaps of sun-soaked beaches. On TikTok, videos with the hashtag #ImJustAKid took over our ‘For You’ pages, with users recreating their baby photos with the help of their family. Many of us plugged in to old-school music rather than pop’s newest offerings, with Post Malone even opting to solely perform Nirvana covers during his fundraising lockdown live-stream.
Nostalgia worked its way into our consciousness like never before. Now, even though lockdown has eased and we’re able to enjoy some of the things from “before”, many of us are still pining for the past.
A recent study tracking the effect of Coronavirus on our entertainment choices found that consumers are relying on familiar content for comfort, with over 50% of participants re-watching episodes of an old favourite TV show. I’m certainly one of these people: since March, I’ve worked my way through Gilmore Girls for perhaps the seventh time, lived vicariously through the glossy teens of West Beverley High School in the 2008 adaption of 90210 and re-visited Buffy The Vampire Slayer – my old after-school favourite.
According to reelgood.com, The Office and Grey’s Anatomy were two of the most-streamed shows on Netflix last week. While this return to past TV is, in part, caused by the lack of newness on our screens as a result of the pandemic, I suspect that there’s another reason we’re opting for our old favourites.
During times of stress, isolation or anxiety, indulging in sentimental longing for the past is a common coping mechanism. Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, explains why: “We turn to nostalgia in order to revisit a time when the world was less complex. It’s a romanticism of a past life that may have felt more safe and carefree.”
Coronavirus completely de-railed our sense of perceived control, so we’re looking for other ways to feel grounded. We’re reminiscing about times when we felt happy and secure, and this feeling of nostalgia is even filtering into our fashion and beauty choices. It’s no coincidence that ‘90s-inspired hair trends are prevailing at the moment, with chunky highlights, tendrils around our faces and even butterfly clips making a comeback – there’s comfort and safety in what we know.
Emma, 23, found herself rereading familiar books during the pandemic. “During lockdown, I decided to re-visit the classics I’d first read at school. I studied The Handmaid’s Tale and The Bell Jar, which admittedly aren’t the most positive books, but I really enjoyed reading them again. It was the perfect time to read the books I had on my shelf already and they definitely brought me a sense of comfort – probably because I knew how the stories ended.”
As well as the obvious tragic consequences of the pandemic, Coronavirus has worsened the mental health of many people. A study in the 2013 journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass found that “negative affective states such as sadness, loneliness and meaninglessness trigger nostalgia.” During lockdown, many of us experienced feelings of demotivation, fearfulness, anxiety and boredom – a cocktail of emotions which act as a catalyst for looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses.
But how useful is nostalgia in helping us cope with stressful situations? The 2013 study suggested that “nostalgia enhances well-being, feelings of social connectedness, and perceptions of meaning in life,” but Dr Touroni cautions against relying on the past to fix present problems.
“Nostalgia provides comfort because revising the past provides a temporary escape from the current situation. But the key word is temporary – because anything that enables us to avoid reality can only ever provide transient comfort. Ultimately, we need to find a way to adjust to the current situation rather than hold onto nostalgia for the past.”
In line with Dr Touroni’s thoughts are the results of a 2012 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology. In an experiment in which participants took part in a nostalgia-based visual imagery task, researchers found that while the task initially produced a positive response, the exercise increased signs of anxiety and depression in ‘habitual worriers.’
“As habitual worriers’ actual chronic state of anxiety contrasts with nostalgic memories of a carefree past, this may instigate further rumination leading to distress,” researchers said. Basically, spending too much time revelling in nostalgia can actually highlight the disparity between our positive memories of the past and our current situation, leading to more distress.
As with most things in life, it seems like balance is key. While there’s no harm in revisiting our favourite box sets, books or hair and beauty trends, it’s important that we don’t spend too much time thinking about the past and comparing it to today. Being appreciative for what we have now and being present in our everyday lives is what will see us through, but equally, there’s nothing wrong with doing that accompanied by a little 90’s sitcom background noise. Let the Gilmore Girls marathon resume.