Nostalgia, Anxiety, and Depression

I am rather well-acquainted with these three ideas. I believe nostalgia and anxiety are linked closely together, bound by a central idea, certainty, while depression is both a cause and result of nostalgia and anxiety. Nostalgia is for the past, anxiety is for the future, and depression bridges them. Everything in the past seems better in hindsight. This is because we know what happened. Whether good or bad, these memories will seem much greater than they generally were. I believe this relates to two things. When we feel depressive nostalgia, it is generally accompanied by a feeling that our current life is not as good as the life we used to live. Thus, when we look back on good memories, we realize how much we took those times for granted. I know for myself, there are two times in my life I will always look back on: seventh grade and twelfth grade. These were times of great personal change in my life; seventh grade was when puberty really kicked in and I feel like I was growing up at such a fast rate; twelfth grade, namely the spring of twelfth grade, was a time when I became much more social, and it felt like I was catching up on many social milestones I had missed out on in high school. I think they key part of these experiences for me was that they were, consciously or not, very hopeful. Things were changing and they seemed to be getting better. Depressive nostalgia most often visits in time when we feel trapped in our present lives, feel as if things either aren’t changing or (more so) are changing for the worse. This depressive nostalgia, whether induced by a song, place, or movie, is incredibly strong, often to the point of being debilitating. As regards certainty in this type of nostalgia over happy memories, we wish we could go back and relive a time of great hope for a better future, and also in a more general sense, to appreciate those times more. I look back on many events in my life that I either took completely for granted or actually perceived as negatives at the time and wonder what the hell was I doing?

On the other side of nostalgia, we have nostalgia for times in our lives that were negative. Here the idea of certainty is more obviously pertinent. If we feel this type of nostalgia when in a more positive mood, it is generally because we know that our lives were not completely derailed; that we did recover from whatever trauma afflicted us; that we survived. So we look back and wish, instead of wasting my time being upset, why didn’t I just enjoy my life more. Case in point; I crashed my car at the start of twelfth grade, and didn’t have it for about a month. The bill on the car went from a first estimate of $500 up to a final total of a few thousand dollars. This resulted in my having to get a job from the first time, which I pretty much hated. I was very depressed for a good long while around the months of October and November into December, but now I look back and wonder why didn’t I appreciate all the other things that were nearing an end: final time playing soccer, the reality of high school nearing an end. Instead of hanging out with my friends and appreciating my life as much as possible, I sat around and sulked away a few months of the last year of my childhood. But didn’t I say I wish I could go back to that time? I do in the sense that I know things got better; the depression and isolation didn’t last, soon I was starting to enjoy life more than I had before.

Whatever the case, nostalgia is always linked with certainty. The past is done, we cannot imagine our lives having happened any other way than they did. As such, there is always a sense that life goes on when we view the past that allows us to take some small comfort in it.

In opposition to nostalgia we have anxiety. Where nostalgia is a sense that the past was better than it was and is often accompanied by a desire to relive the good ol’ days, anxiety is the opposite. Anxiety is a fear of the future, which comes with thoughts that generally lead one to believe things will be worse than they actually will. Where nostalgia makes us want to go back and relive moments, anxiety makes us want to avoid things that haven’t happened yet. For instance, as a college student I am anxious about my future: anxious about what job I will get, anxious about grades I have to get, anxious about yet more responsibilities for me to deal with. I often wish that I could either slow time down or else skip ahead to the future when I won’t have this uncertainty anymore. No matter what, we always hold at least of shred of doubt when looking at the future; even if the skies are bright and sunny, it only takes one freak accident for our lives to go very wrong. While we are often filled with hope for the future, there is always the possibility that things will not turn out as we would like; conversely, when looking at the past, we don’t have to worry about what happened because it is done; we have certainty over the past.

Lastly, I would like to discuss the role of anxiety in causing depression and nostalgia. As you may or may not know, I have struggled with depression and anxiety all my life, often to the point of being incapable of any of doing anything other than isolating myself from the world and dwelling on my fears. Now, as previously explored, anxiety is often a cause of nostalgia. When we fear the uncertainties of the future or feel as though the future will be worse than the present we turn back to the past, when these worries did not afflict our minds, when life seemed to be getting better. When anxiety is induced in this manner, it will most likely be depressive, especially if one is prone to anxiety. I can speak from personal experience to say that in moments of great worry or fear for the future, I often want to simply curl and hid away from the world, go back to the past when things didn’t seem so bad. I then become depressed because, not only does my past life seem better by comparison, I am also not doing anything to help myself out of my current situation, adding a feeling of hopelessness to the proceedings. While anxiety itself isn’t necessarily depressive, when it is frequent or overwhelming, as it often can be for myself, it becomes very depressive, and I believe this trait of anxiety is in many ways what truly makes it a debilitating condition rather than one which will immediately inspire someone to go and fix their situation.

I would like to, in closing, leave you with a hypothetical question to consider: If you could go back in time to relive certain periods of your life at the tradeoff of, any time spent in the past would still count towards your allotted time here on Earth, would you do it? In other words, if your body would normally live to the age of seventy and you spend twenty years over time in reliving the past, you would end up only living to fifty. Let’s say for argument that each time you returned to the actual present you would have an increased understanding of the past, whether for better or worse. Would it become addictive to go and relive the “best days” again and again, or we come to realize they weren’t as good as we remember and thus move on? How much of our future would we be willing to give away in order to relive our past? How much of an uncertain but possibly better future would we give up for a certain but possibly less fulfilling past? Questions with no easy answers; I encourage you if nothing else, to consider them some cloudy day.

14 thoughts on “Nostalgia, Anxiety, and Depression

  1. ruhe

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  2. MikeDS

    What a wonderful piece that absolutely hits home for me. I have battled with depression and anxiety for much of my life and I have also always had a tendency to be very nostalgic. You’ve actually helped me to piece together certain things that I never really thought of as being related. I can totally relate to the idea of nostalgia being grounded in certainty. My biggest problem in life has been a fear of the unknown and this has led me (on many occasions) to miss out on opportunities, filled with the anxiety of what might go wrong. I am learning to change this. It has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But I’m getting there. Thank you again for a wonderfully written and very insightful post!

    Reply
  3. Tiffany

    I just came across this post and found it very helpful. I’m in my early fifties now and recently ran into some old friends that I used to ski with at a funeral for a mutual friend’s dad. It had been about 20 years or so since those skiing days and we’d all aged quite a bit. We reminisced for awhile about all the fun and crazy times, but afterwards I felt myself slipping into a profound sadness and depression. I missed the camaraderie of those ski trips and the carefree feeling of being twenty or thirty something with no real worries. I felt more engaged in life at that time. I also miss all the male attention I would get in those younger, cuter years. Now life seems plagued with worries and sadness. I’ve attended too many funerals in the last 10 years. Seeing my relatives passing away and my parents aging is the most heart-breaking experience of my life. And of course, the loss of youth and beauty can be so devastating for a woman who was once an attractive girl. Reading this article though made me realize that those days in general and the ski weekends in particular were never really that carefree. I had always felt less than my more ambitious and successful friends who had better, more lucrative jobs than me. I was also in a terrible relationship that I found impossible to extricate myself from. And I was alway plagued with not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. So, really, the author is quite right, sometimes things are not as rosy as we make them out to be in hindsight. We cull the best parts and ruminate on them (at least I do), and forget about the not so great parts. In those days there were certainly obstacles to overcome…And the funny thing is, when I was in my 30s I still felt really, really old. I used to compare myself to the twenties somethings, even back then…..

    Reply
    1. Kenric Horton

      I know exactly how you feel about the friends, I have one left from all the people I have encountered in my life. And often think about where are they now, what are they doing, do I cross there mind, like they do mine. The good times are gone, after a certain age , you can’t or don’t want to do the things you used too. So you sit and watch others do it, thinking you used too be able. So sadness sinks in, age sinks in. Not realizing what we were told about life being short, because it is. My nostalgia has sent me into a panic attack, severe anxiety moments where I had to get out of bed and go outside for air to gather myself .

      Reply
  4. Adam

    I wanted to thank you for this post, and also to offer something else. Sometimes I just miss things that are gone, that can never be again (in this life, anyway). The joy of reading a book that was new in 1975 that no one cares about now. A conversation with my father, now deceased. The joy of my first date.

    It’s not that those times were so great, or that these times are necessarily so bad. But we miss the certainty of those joys, which we remember sharply. We have to remind ourselves that there are new joys that await us, that the sunshine is bright today or tomorrow, also… that we must continue engaging in life. Sometimes that’s hard. We can experience discouraging times that cause us to withdraw from life, to curl up and nurse our wounds, to ruminate.

    But new memories come from new living. When we withdraw we are not living, just experiencing the death-in-life of depression. The sunshine is out there, but we have to look.

    Reply
  5. George

    Thank you so much for this post. I found it really hit home for me too. The comments on here are also really truthful. I agree that we often see the past through rose-tinted glasses and remember it far better than it was. For me though it’s not just this that I experience with nostalgia.
    I also experience great feelings of regret. When I was younger I was quite shy and had kind of low self-esteem. Now I’m incredibly confident and have far better self-esteem. Part of me just wishes I could go back in time and teach myself to be more confident and take advantage of more opportunities that came my way. I feel that I missed out on a lot of friendships/relationships back then.
    However I still had some great friends and relationships so maybe I didn’t miss out on as much as I think I did.
    I would also of liked to embrace my subculture and how I felt more, rather than being slightly embarrassed by it and trying to hide it.

    Reply
  6. Aido

    Really hits home for me. I’m 19 years old. This time last year I was 18 and I met my first serious girlfriend. I had the best few months of my life with her, and the best summer of my life. My anxiety felt like it was improving a lot and I’ve many fond sunny memories of this new experience having a girlfriend. I have 100s of photographs from this amazing time in my life. Now I feel like life is nowhere near as good and am scared that things will never be as good as last summer. Im also anxious that I will not find another girlfriend for a long time… I broke up with her a few days ago because we were fighting a lot and I got very angry. Now that nostalgia I felt about last year turns into a horrible sick feeling full of anxiety. Don’t know how to cope with all this.

    Reply
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  8. Kenric Horton

    Glad I’m not the only one, not that it’s good. Me and wife had never been in a good place. So after her and my mom got into it things have never been the same, especially for us. No more summer family visits from either my parents to us or my family to them. ( I still visit my parents often however) my wife and mom altercation was really bad. My three kids haven’t seen my mom in over three years . My 6 year old probably doesn’t remember her, and she never seen my 2 younger ones. No more Christmas together, no more dinners out. I think about this quite often late at night as I try too sleep for work in early mornings. I feel helpless. I have no visitors at my home, while my wife mom visits. None of my family that use too get together occasionally does it any more. My kids wouldn’t even know their cousins if they ran into them on the street . I just don’t know what went wrong in life. I know it hurts really bad

    Reply
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  10. Aaron

    For a couple of days now, I have been dealing with the anxiety of a beautiful past. I had the happiest of childhoods. I have the best of friends. So many good things. Yes, like anyone, I had my share of heartbreak and the such, but, oh, in retrospect it was no match for my youth and the wide-open future before me.

    And now, upon thinking back, I know in my very bones–as we all do–that we can never live those halcyon days again. They probably weren’t quite as good as I make them out to be in my mind, but, boy, they sure seem to be. And it almost break my mind and my soul. Without Jesus, I’d be a goner for sure.

    I have so much to be thankful for NOW…and yet, at present, I am caught in a net that won’t let me escape the beauty that was then. They say that the sonnet “None But the Lonely Heart” is, in the original German, better interpreted as “None by the nostalgic heart” or “None but the yearning heart.” And that is what it is: A desperate longing for…THEN.

    Prayers appreciated.

    Reply

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