Why Does Nostalgia Make Me Cry? Emotional Effects Explained

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Published September 27, 2022
Woman looking at old photos at home

Have you ever taken a bite of food and felt like you were transported back to your childhood? Maybe it was a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a bite of pumpkin pie. This feeling is known as nostalgia, a powerful emotion that can cause people to feel happy, sad, and just about every other emotion under the sun. It's a strong reminder that past experiences can have a huge impact on your present.

What Is Nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a term that describes the feeling of longing for aspects of the past that people feel a strong emotional connection to. For example, some people experience childhood nostalgia, where they wish to return to an earlier point in time when they felt the happiest and most carefree.

People can feel nostalgic for many things, such as toys, their childhood home, holidays, or activities they used to do. The feeling can be triggered by old photos, foods, smells, places, or virtually anything that can trigger a memory.

Long ago, the term nostalgia was used to refer to the feeling of homesickness. Over time, the language has changed and now nostalgia is thought of as a separate emotion that means longing for the good old days.

Why Does Nostalgia Make Me Cry?

Nostalgia is a complex emotion that is often described as being bittersweet. If you take a sweet sip of nostalgia, you might feel happy about the memories that come flooding in. However, if you take a bitter sip, your eyes might start to water. Another thing that makes nostalgia so complex is that you never know which sip you are going to take until you're in the middle of it.

Nostalgia balances love and loss, two powerful aspects of life. When you reflect on someone you care about that has passed away, that great amount of love can make you feel sad and long to have that person back again.

Have you ever teared up when you looked at an old photograph of a happy moment in time or of someone you love? That feeling is due to nostalgia. It's a reaction to the rollercoaster of emotions you are going through. You're experiencing happiness and sadness at the same time, which can understandably be overwhelming and result in crying.

What Triggers Nostalgia?

There are a lot of different elements and experiences that can cause a person to feel nostalgia. In fact, anything that triggers a memory can cause a person to reflect on the past. Some things that can cause a person to feel nostalgic are:

Father with drink and daughter with ice cream cone at an outdoor cafe
  • Childhood activities, like camping, going to an amusement park, or spending time with family
  • Food and drinks from your past that you either enjoyed or really didn't like
  • Seasons like summer or fall are usually associated with certain fun activities
  • Holidays, birthdays, and times you hang out with family
  • Looking through old photographs of yearbooks
  • Visiting your old high school or attending a reunion
  • Listening to a certain song or genre of music that you or your parents listened to when you were growing up
  • A certain style of dress or article of clothing that you associate with your childhood
  • Certain scents of candles, perfumes, etc. that remind you of people or times from the past

Are You a Nostalgic Person?

Are you wondering if you are a nostalgic person? You can find out.

Dr. Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne College and a leading researcher in the field of nostalgia, created what is known as the Nostalgia Inventory in 1995. It's a scale that measures how often and how deeply people feel nostalgia based on their responses to survey questions.

This is called personal nostalgia, and it measures a person's proneness to feeling the emotion. It can help you better understand what aspects of your childhood make you feel nostalgic.

Different Types of Nostalgia

In an interview with the American Psychological Association's podcast, Speaking of Psychology, Dr. Batcho notes that there are many types of nostalgia. In fact, she believes that there may even be more types of nostalgia than the ones psychologists have already defined.

These different types of nostalgia affect people in a variety of ways. They can even be triggered by different elements and make people miss different aspects of the past.

Reflective - Typically associated with positive emotions, such as happiness. It allows people to reminisce about their past. It's one of the two main categories of nostalgia, which are used to classify the emotion as a pleasant experience, or an unpleasant one.

Restorative- Typically associated with more negative emotions, such as sadness. It's associated with more of a bittersweet emotion. It allows people to long for aspects of their past, but also focuses heavily on the fact that those days are behind them. Restorative nostalgia is the second main category of nostalgia that is more of an unpleasant experience for many people.

Personal Nostalgia- When a person longs for aspects of their own life that they have lived. It often occurs when a person reflects on their memories of the past. For example, when a person eats their favorite flavor of ice cream and is reminded of what it was like to eat that flavor as a kid during the summer.

Historical Nostalgia- When a person yearns for a time or element of the past that they have not actually experienced themselves. For example, if a person longs to experience the elegant balls of the 19th century.

Anticipatory Nostalgia - When a person starts to miss the present moment before it has actually become the past. For example, when you look at your family around the dinner table and are grateful for the moment, but also aware that it won't last forever.

Why Do People Experience Nostalgia?

According to Dr. Batcho, nostalgia has several functions that make it beneficial for humans.

She notes that nostalgia has a way of unifying people. It can help a person develop a stronger sense of self because it reminds them of who they were in the past, and allows them to compare their past self to who they are today.

Nostalgia not only connects you to yourself, but it can connect you to other people. Dr. Batcho describes it as a healthy social emotion. It can help people form bonds with their family and friends at a young age. And, as time goes on, more people get added to the memories and your connection to them increases as well.

How Does Nostalgia Affect People?

Depending on what type of nostalgia you are experiencing, you can feel different emotions. The two main categories of nostalgia are reflective and restorative. One makes people experience happy emotions, and one makes people experience more somber ones.

Effects of Restorative Nostalgia

If you feel like you need to cry when you get nostalgic, you're not alone. You were probably experiencing restorative nostalgia, the type of nostalgia that can make people sad.

Dr. Batcho describes this type of nostalgia as bittersweet because people remember how happy they were at some point in the past. But then they are struck by a feeling of sadness when they realize that they will never be able to re-live those experiences.

It can be a saddening and harsh realization for people when they realize that the past is in the past. And, many people believe that they will never be as happy, connected, or carefree again in their lives as they were as children. This can make people feel like they are losing something important and cause them to mourn their loss.

Effects of Reflective Nostalgia

Sometimes when you experience nostalgia, you might notice that you feel happy. Maybe you look at a photo of you and a loved one from when you were a child and get a warm feeling in your chest. Or, you read a book to your child that a caregiver used to read to you when you were a kid and feel excited to share the experience.

In these instances, you were most likely feeling reflective nostalgia. It's the type of nostalgia that can make people feel happy and grateful for their past experiences. It can also give people something to strive for in the future, since it creates a sense of hope that a person can create and experience amazing memories again.

Elderly woman hugging her two daughters

Reflective nostalgia can even give people a sense of comfort that can make them feel more grounded or stabilized during difficult times. Especially when people are experiencing a change in their lives.

How to Navigate Feelings of Nostalgia

Depending on how often you experience nostalgia and how it impacts you, you might be wondering what you can do when feelings of nostalgia arise. It's natural to want to have a plan about what steps to take next, especially if you often experience bitter nostalgia.

It's important to remember that nostalgia is a normal human emotion. Whether you experience nostalgia often or only on rare occasions, or whether you experience sweet nostalgia or more of the somber kind, it's completely normal.

You might be a more nostalgic person, experience more triggers, or a variety of other aspects that can influence your emotions. You are allowed to feel however you are feeling without guilt or worry. There are some things you can think about when feelings of nostalgia arise that can help you navigate your emotions.

Appreciate the Past

Reminders of the past occur constantly in life. For example, memories can be found in the clothing you wear, the pictures on your walls, and even in the seasons of the year. You can't run from these reminders or control when a memory is going to pop up.

When a memory arises or a feeling of nostalgia occurs, it's okay to sit with it for a second. Take a moment to appreciate the past for the happy moments and great people you came in contact with. You can silently thank them for the joy they brought you, and maybe even think about a few reasons why you are grateful for them.

You don't have to stay in the memory forever. Give yourself a bit of time just to be with it before moving on.

Live in the Present

It can be helpful to reflect on the past, but it's equally important to live in the present. Life is happening all around you, and it is never going to let up. Birthdays will occur, holidays will pass, and old socks will be thrown out.

Life will push forward, and there are new memories to be made. These new memories can bring you joy in the now, and might even be something that you feel nostalgic for later on in life. You have a life to live, and it can only occur in the present.

Turn to Loved Ones

Whether you're feeling happy nostalgia or the sad kind, you can always turn to loved ones for support. Especially if you want a little extra compassion in dealing with whatever emotions arise. Call family members or friends that you have shared memories with. Odds are, they feel nostalgic about the same things you do from time to time.

Share the memory with them or let them know how you're feeling. It can feel validating to know that someone else is experiencing the same complex emotions as you.

Take a moment to appreciate the past together. Then, maybe make a plan to reconnect in the present and make a new memory that you both can enjoy in the moment and reflect on together later in life.

Reach Out to a Mental Health Professional

It's perfectly normal to experience bitter nostalgia. However, if you feel like you experience this emotion often or feel as though it has a profound effect on you, you may want to reach out to a mental health professional. Find a therapist that suits your needs, and share your experiences. Together, you can work to better understand your nostalgia, triggers, and how to move forward when unwanted feelings arise.

The Roller Coaster of Nostalgia

People can experience many kinds of nostalgia throughout their lifetime. Some might even experience more than one type of nostalgia at a time. This can create a roller coaster of emotions for people to navigate throughout their life.

Nostalgia can make you cry, feel joy, and even help you strive to make happier memories for yourself and your family. However nostalgia makes you feel is perfectly normal. You might just be able to use your understanding of nostalgia to better understand yourself and your past.

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Why Does Nostalgia Make Me Cry? Emotional Effects Explained