Sobriety and Throwback Thursday
If you’re on social media, you’re probably familiar with Throwback Thursday — a weekly tradition that gives you an excuse to share an embarrassing old photo or a sentimental childhood memory. The nostalgia you feel when thinking about good times from years gone by can lift your spirits right now.
When you’re recovering from an addiction, however, nostalgia can be tricky. Yearning for the old days when you were drinking or using drugs could be a sign that you’re about to relapse.
To work nostalgia in a healthy way, it’s important to choose which memories to dwell on and which ones to let go. Here’s how to use nostalgia to enhance your well-being and support your recovery:
Know your nostalgia. First, it helps to know what you’re dealing with. Nostalgia typically involves a fond memory, often seen through the rosy haze of time. It may be a touch bittersweet, such as when you’re missing someone who is no longer around or wishing you could return to an earlier point in your life. But when you’re truly nostalgic, the warm, fuzzy feelings far outweigh the slight tinge of sadness. Think of nostalgia as comfort food for your mind.
Nostalgia can take you back to a time when life seemed simpler or you felt happier and more carefree. Studies show that a little nostalgia can help you feel connected to others, increase your optimism and find meaning in your life. As a result, it can be a potent antidote to loneliness, anxiety and boredom.
Feel connected to others. Why is it so satisfying to post that blast from the past on Facebook or Instagram? Often, the reason is rooted in your relationships. A photo of your 10-year-old self with your siblings in matching ugly shirts isn’t just good for grins. It may also remind you of a time when you were closer to your siblings than you are today.
Warm memories of past relationships may summon up feelings of being loved and cared for even many years later. When shared with the other people involved, such memories can also revitalize bonds with old friends and far-flung relatives. Plus, they can heighten your sense of belonging to a community or family.
How powerful is the effect? The psychological impact of a heartwarming memory is so strong that it can actually make you feel physically warmer. In one study, volunteers were put in a chilly room and asked to recall an event from their past that was either nostalgic or ordinary. Afterward, the volunteers were asked to guess the temperature of the room. The nostalgia group perceived it as being warmer.
Just keep in mind: Nostalgic memories about relationships are frequently idealized. Chances are your first love wasn’t nearly as perfect as you remember, for example. That isn’t a problem in moderation. But watch out for over-romanticizing the past to the point where current relationships are never able to measure up. If you find yourself doing this, you may need to temporarily set aside the relics and remembrances of yesterday while you focus on building better relationships today.
Increase your optimism. Nostalgic memories of your past may lead to a brighter outlook on your future. In one study, volunteers listened to music that either evoked positive personal memories or didn’t have such associations. The volunteers felt more optimistic when a nostalgic song played. Apparently, it reminded them of the happiness they had once felt — and therefore could reasonably expect to feel again.
If you’re dealing with an alcohol or drug problem, you can use the evocative power of music to your advantage. Make a list of the songs that served as the soundtrack for some of the happiest, alcohol-free and drug-free moments of your life. Then include those songs in a playlist that you listen to regularly. They’ll be a frequent, unobtrusive reminder that you don’t need alcohol and drugs to feel good.
A word to the wise: Be selective about which reminiscences you focus on and which ones you let go. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, for instance, waxing nostalgic about your drinking days can be risky. As time passes, there’s a tendency to romanticize drinking and forget all the trouble it caused you. This sets the stage for a relapse. Make a conscious choice not to engage in this type of reminiscing — and leave the song that was always playing in your favorite bar off your playlist.
Find meaning in your life. When you’re feeling nostalgic, you may notice that your mind returns time and again to certain happy events from your life. According to research by social psychologist Clay Routledge, PhD, a leading expert on the subject, these events often feature significant others. They also tend to stand out as especially momentous or cherished; for example, birthday parties, road trips and holiday gatherings.
Repeatedly revisiting key events helps you make sense of your past — and that, in turn, helps you find meaning and purpose in the present. This may explain nostalgia’s proven ability to relieve boredom.
Research has shown that people often slip into nostalgic reverie when they’re bored by what they are doing. They may not be consciously aware of why they do this. But psychologists have found that nostalgia helps counter disengagement by making people feel as if their actions have meaning. When you’re recovering from an addiction, this may be particularly helpful, because unremitting boredom is a common trigger for relapse.
With a little practice, you can learn to call up nostalgia at will. If you have trouble conjuring up a suitable memory, try posting on social media or writing in a journal about a happy, personally meaningful event from your past. Look through your old photos, tune into an oldies station on the radio, or call up a friend and have a conversation that begins with, “Remember the time when…”
By Linda Wasmer Andrews
Follow Linda on Twitter at @lindawandrews
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