The pandemic has made life weird, and lockdowns and restrictions are just some of the recent events to have a tremendous effect on the human psyche.
A few months ago, tons of people started experiencing wild and vivid coronavirus-themed dreams. As the days passed, many lost their sense of time and stopped caring about whether it was a Sunday or Tuesday.
Now, people are looking back at their pasts, revisiting decisions they made and relationships they lost. They’re exploring things they could have done differently, regrettable mistakes, and random, buried memories (like this guy who reminisced so much he landed on a years-ago episode of “Bear in the Big Blue House”). Even just scrolling through old photos on Instagram can be tempting right now.
Behavioral health specialists suspect this isn’t a coincidence. Here’s why so many people are revisiting their pasts in quarantine:
We’ve got more time on our hands.
The main reason people are reminiscing so much is that many of us have more time to do so.
Kathryn Crimmins, who is living through the pandemic in New York City, told HuffPost she’s been thinking about past break-ups now more than ever. She did this before the coronavirus crisis, too, but would start feeling anxious and quickly turn away from the memory. But now she is diving deep into long-ago memories, mostly because she can.
“Perhaps because a lot of the daily routine stressors and stimuli of my life are gone, the past has turned into a welcome retreat,” Crimmins said.
Collin Reiff, a psychiatrist at NYU Langone Health, has observed this phenomenon with his patients. Generally, people have more free time right now to think back on their lives. Some have been laid off or furloughed from work, and on top of that, there’s not so much to do since most places are shut down.
“Often what happens in daily life is we take some issues that may be conflictual for us and we make a conscious awareness to suppress them, or it can be unconscious and they can be repressed. If you don’t have the distraction of daily life … it could be easy to get pulled back in [to the past],” Reiff said.
The past can be grounding.
For some, the past can also provide a sense of calm and stability that people aren’t getting from their daily lives right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty and instability ahead, and people may resort to the past to find peace. “The past is very comforting. It’s a known,” Reiff said.
It’s human nature to make negative assumptions when we’re faced with uncertainty, according to Reiff. In this case, people may have doubts about what the future holds. Looking at the past is a way to regain some control in a situation that’s making you feel helpless.
Mayra Mendez, a psychotherapist with Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, added that looking back can help people understand how they once dealt with grief and uncertainty and that they can overcome difficulties yet again. Most people will realize they have a great capacity for resilience, Mendez said.
The past can also be grounding, she added. It validates our existence and gives our life meaning, especially in a time when there’s so much instability.
“When you’re grounded in your own existence, it stabilizes your thinking, your emotions, your ability to problem-solve and cognitively process information,” Mendez said.
People are grieving life as they knew it.
A lot of people are also likely experiencing loss ― their jobs, their loved ones, their milestones, their sense of normalcy ― and are struggling to adjust to the new situation. “We miss life as it was before, and we don’t know if it’s going to come back,” Reiff said.
To Reiff, it appears that many people who are swept up in reminiscing on their past may be stuck in the bargaining phase of grief, during which they explore the “what ifs” and “if onlys” of past decisions, life events and choices. They’re going back and wondering what life would look like had they done certain things differently.
What to do if you’re stuck on or struggling with the past.
Some reflecting can be healthy, especially if it’s bringing you peace and helping you learn about yourself right now.
That said, reminiscing can turn negative if you’ve experienced trauma or are prone to rumination, depression or anxiety. If that’s the case, Mendez recommends speaking with a trained mental health professional who can help you work through some of your memories.
It can also help to talk about your past with friends, since they can provide new perspectives and help you see things in a new light, according Reiff. Doing so can also create a sense of solidarity when you realize other people are in the same boat.
“When you talk to different people, it helps you realize that you’re not alone with it,” Reiff said. People need an outlet— i.e. a phone chat, Zoom call, or email or text conversation — to open up their mind and see things from a different point of view, Mendez noted.
A lot of people are struggling to cope and want things to go back to the way they were before the pandemic.
“I’m sure we all know people who feel really down right now and are making negative predictions about the future and really miss the past,” Reiff said.
Check in on the people you care about. We may not be going “back to normal” anytime soon ― if ever ― but you can adjust with support.
This story is part of HuffPost Life’s series on coping with uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic. Check out our other stories below.
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