Memories are powerful. Looking at an old photo can transport a person to another place, and hearing a certain song can bring on strong emotions from another time. To some degree, this is normal and can be a positive experience. But overindulging in feelings about the past can be dangerous when it comes to addiction recovery. In early recovery, people can often easily remember how painful and harmful their experiences were with drugs or alcohol. However, these bad memories can fade over time, and eventually, people may look back on past drug or alcohol use as a happier time. When a person indulges in these feelings too often, they may end up relapsing.

What Is Nostalgia?

Nostalgia describes an emotion of longing for the past. People who are nostalgic may be sentimental and wish they were back in a certain place or time, or around certain people from their past.

Also, what is nostalgia as it relates to drug or alcohol addiction? Often, people in recovery will get nostalgic for good times they used to experience while drunk or high. Examples of nostalgia that a person in treatment might experience include:

  • Missing old friends they used to drink or use with
  • Reminiscing about a favorite bar they used to hang out at
  • Looking back fondly at some of the fun parties they used to attend.

It’s normal to think of old memories from time to time, but when a person can’t stop thinking about the past, it can make their recovery process more difficult.

Nostalgia vs. Homesickness

Nostalgia is somewhat similar to homesickness, although these two words describe slightly different concepts. Nostalgia usually refers to missing a previous period of time, and homesickness is missing a place. Another key difference between nostalgia vs. homesickness is that while people can usually return home at some point, people can’t return to the past. It’s very normal for people to miss familiar surroundings, housemates and routines while they are in residential rehab or other treatment programs that require living away from home.

Homesickness may not be harmful to recovery, as long as a person realizes that being away from home is temporary, but melancholy nostalgia can keep people stuck in the past and unable to move forward in rehab.

Nostalgia vs. Euphoric Recall

Some medical professionals refer to nostalgia as “euphoric recall.” This term describes the idea that when people think back on certain memories, they usually remember things being more euphoric or happy than they actually were. For example, people may have euphoric recall of a relationship, where they remember all the good times they shared while drunk with a loved one. They are more likely to forget that this person encouraged them to do things they later regretted or enabled their drinking. This person may be tempted to rekindle the relationship because they’re missing something they never really had.

One reason people in recovery remember times of addiction so fondly is because of how drugs and alcohol affect the brain. For example, drugs can activate brain signals that make people feel pleasure from many different things, like hanging out with friends or eating good food. If someone drinks or uses drugs a lot, these signals will start to respond only to the drugs or alcohol and not to anything else. People reach a point where they only feel pleasure from using substances and aren’t happy because of other things. Later on, in recovery, a person may remember these good feelings and want them back.

How Nostalgia Can Impact Drug Addiction Recovery

Nostalgia can slow down someone’s alcohol or drug addiction recovery. Thinking excessively about the past can make the present seem worse in comparison. When someone spends a lot of time in the past, they might be less likely to enjoy the good things they have in their life in the present and may have less motivation to work on goals for the future.

Nostalgia and depression also go hand in hand. Spending too much time thinking about a time or place that one can’t get to may lead to symptoms of mental health disorders like insomnia, heart palpitations and suicidal thoughts.

People often have feelings of nostalgia before they relapse. Allowing oneself to indulge in these emotions can leave people stuck, going back and forth between relapse and recovery. About 40-60% of people relapse, but stopping nostalgia in its tracks can help prevent this.

Can Nostalgia Have Benefits for Recovery?

What is nostalgia good for? These thoughts aren’t always harmful, as long as people don’t overindulge in them. Nostalgia for a previous time is one thing that people often bond over. Reminiscing can help form or strengthen social connections. Additionally, some nostalgia is good for self-reflection. Remembering where a person came from and thinking about the type of person they used to be can help someone better understand who they are and the progress they’ve made.

Coping with Nostalgia for Successful Recovery from Addiction

People may be more likely to reminisce about the past when they’re overwhelmed by the present or scared of the future. Focusing on the present through practicing mindfulness may help people remember what they have going on in their lives now that is positive. Setting goals can also help people think more about where they want to be in the future. Starting with small, short-term goals can help someone remind themselves that they are able to make progress.

Coping with nostalgia may also involve making new memories in old places or with old trusted friends that don’t involve drug or alcohol use. Another thing that may help is adopting an adventurous attitude. Trying something new every day can help a person enjoy the present.

People working towards successful recovery from addiction can also remind themselves of the more negative consequences of substance use. Making a list of physical health symptoms, mental side effects or embarrassing behavior may help someone remember that the time spent drinking or using drugs wasn’t as good as they remember. Someone struggling to remember can ask a trusted loved one for reminders of what they went through.

If you are finding yourself nostalgic for times when you drank or used drugs, seek out recovery support groups or learn about options in your area that can help you stay sober.

  • Sources

    National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drugs and the Brain.” Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction, Updated July 2018. Accessed September 18, 2019.

    National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment and Recovery.” Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Updated July 2018. Accessed September 18, 2019.