Whether it be chestnuts roasting on an open fire, “Home Alone” on television or the ‘NSYNC Christmas album on repeat in the car, the holidays typically evoke some level of nostalgia for individuals during this season. Though this can be bittersweet, there is a strong connection between holiday nostalgia and good mental health.
Nostalgia is characterized by sentimental thoughts or feelings toward past memories and the things associated with those memories. Once thought to be a mental illness due to short-term sadness that is sometimes caused by reminiscing about the past, nostalgia is now associated with positive thinking and brain wellness. This is different from homesickness, though the two can co-occur when an individual is away from friends and family, particularly during the holidays.
From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, people typically have certain foods they associate with the holidays, making food a significant source of nostalgia. Families and friends often have long-standing traditions of holiday meals or baked goods, or did at one time. Marc David, founder of Psychology of Eating, explains, “When you do something repeatedly over the years, it builds up a kind of power. It creates its own momentum. To make the same dish year after year, decade after decade, there’s something in that that connects us to the past.”
Sense of smell has long been attributed to memories and can trigger nostalgic feelings. A 2004 study conducted by authors from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging in the U.K. confirmed that sensory features of the original stimuli are preserved in the part of the brain that processes smell, saying, “We suggest that reactivation of memory traces distributed across modality-specific brain areas underpins the sensory qualities of episodic memories.” This is why the scent of cinnamon in the air around the holidays might trigger nostalgia for Grandma’s apple pie.
Constantine Sedikides, Ph.D., of the University of Southampton, has studied nostalgia for over a decade since experiencing his own nostalgic feelings for the U.S. after moving to the U.K. His years of research and development of the Southampton Nostalgia Scale have determined that these feelings can combat loneliness and anxiety while increasing tolerance of others. On his own nostalgia, Dr. Sedikides explains, “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”
Though the holidays can be a happy time filled with memories and feelings of nostalgia, mental health issues can often creep up during this season. If you or a loved one is struggling with a mental health disorder or substance abuse issues, call the Sovereign Health Group on our 24/7 helpline to speak with a professional today.
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Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health writer