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Nostalgia Was Once Considered A Debilitating Disease

It doesn’t matter how old we are, we often look back on our younger years with plenty of nostalgia. We even do so more frequently as we get older. We often look at those younger years as being carefree, innocent, and the best years of our lives. It is a very powerful emotional feeling that can either put a smile on our face or sometimes, make us a little heartsick for days gone by.

If you are somebody who has those sentimental feelings for the past, you certainly are not alone. It seems as if all of us have those feelings to a certain degree and researchers are even discovering that there are some benefits to those feelings. What might surprise you, however, is the fact that nostalgia was not always looked at so favorably. In fact, it was even considered to be a psychological disorder for centuries. Those who had those longings for days gone by were considered to be in need of medical attention!

The Greek word ‘nostos’ is the root of the term, nostalgia. It means having a longing to return home. This feeling was recognized many centuries ago, even being depicted by Homer in The Odyssey. “In The Odyssey, Homer depicts Odysseus as using nostalgia as a resource, as a vitamin to cope with the vicissitudes of every day,” says nostalgia researcher Constantine Sedikides, a professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Southampton.

In 1688, however, a Swiss Doctor named Johannes Hofer was busy changing public opinion, having people feel as if nostalgia was a type of psychological disorder. He even referred to it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” At the time, Swiss soldiers would become overwhelmed by nostalgia when they heard the traditional milking song from their homeland. During the 30 Years War, the Spanish army had to discharge at least six men for suffering from el mal de corazón.

Some of the mild symptoms experienced by the soldiers included melancholy, loss of appetite, and fever. On the other end of the spectrum of symptoms were suicidal thoughts, cardiac arrests, and brain inflammation. It was unclear what caused those feelings of nostalgia, although some suspects included masturbation and unfulfilled ambition. Scottish physician William Cullen would echo the uncertainty of the condition by labeling it the ‘uncertain disease’.

“The idea of an unclear, or ambiguous disease is there right from the start,” says Thomas Dodman, a historian at Columbia University and author of What Nostalgia Was. “Hofer himself hesitates on what exactly to call this disease, whether it should be a form of madness or a milder neurosis akin to melancholia, what exactly causes it, and whether soldiers are particularly prone.”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the debate over nostalgia continued. Experts were unsure if it was a psychological or a physiological issue or if it was a coping mechanism or an indication of mental frailty. Multiple dissertations were written on the subject and studied throughout Europe.

As far as the treatments for nostalgia were concerned, they were quite varied. In 1733, a Russian general would bury those who suffered from nostalgia alive to warn others not to suffer the same fate. During the Civil War in the United States, over 5000 cases were reported in the Union Army. Many of those men were bullied or shamed. Nostalgia doesn’t appear to be the only issue that was lumped together under the same umbrella. Some of the other conditions that those Union soldiers may have been suffering from included PTSD, exhaustion and depression.

The thought of nostalgia being a psychological disorder among soldiers eventually began to fall out of favor. Over time, it even became an emotion that was looked on by the general public with favor. There has even been evidence accumulated for the potential psychological benefits of nostalgia.

At the Southhampton’s Nostalgic Group, Sedikides and his colleagues have looked carefully into the subject of nostalgia for many years. According to their research, it’s more of a neurological defense mechanism that can be useful for individuals who are depressed or are going through other types of hardship. When an individual is feeling nostalgic, they are more likely to form stronger bonds with loved ones, to reach out to those in need and to care for those who are strangers.

Nostalgia tends to bring us closer to those around us as well as to our past. No longer is it looked on as a psychological disorder, it is closer to the vitamin that Odysseus experienced. One thing is certain, we may live in the present but the thoughts of the past will always be a part of us.

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