Hacking Stress – Harnessing the Power of Positive Distraction

Pull out your tool belt for stress – we need to add another one to your arsenal that comes from the work done to respond to one of the hardest in life – trauma. But here we are – shared trauma and for some overwhelming stress. But don’t stop reading…this can even help those of us that are lucky enough not to feel overwhelmed by it. Think of this as going to the gym for your brain.

Have you thought about those times as a child – those clothes, movies, and music that you used to enjoy!? My son and I pulled out The Godfather and watched it today – no, it does not really test the time – and I was jolted by a transition scene so strongly that I had to run it back for him to show him – pitching pennies.

Do you remember this? We would throw pennies (what are those again?) against a wall and who ever’s Lincoln kissed the wall won the lot of coins! As I had this image, I felt good…even for a moment…

In times of trauma and overwhelming stress, it’s a natural instinct to feel nostalgic and rely on those feelings for comfort and a sense of normalcy, said Valentina Stoycheva, a clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress and the author of “The Unconscious: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications.”

“Anything that can help you calm yourself down, feel more soothed, feel more grounded, is very useful,” Dr. Stoycheva said. “So if you watch a movie and remember who you watched it with as a kid, and maybe connect with that person and you reach out to them instead of just drowning in isolation, that can be really helpful.”

“Trauma takes away our gray areas. It divides our timeline into a before and an after,” Dr. Stoycheva said. “And while it has the danger of creating this longing for the before, when things were maybe safer, and when we were unaware of all of this and protected by our naïveté, there’s also something about nostalgic behaviors that serve as a transitional object.”

Transitional objects, much like a small child’s baby blanket or a toddler’s favorite stuffed animal, can help people transitioning from one stage of life to the next, or help them navigate specific stressors. “It increases your ability to self-soothe during a stressful time,” Dr. Stoycheva said. In this case, nostalgia serves as a kind of emotional pacifier, helping us to become accustomed to a new reality that is jarring, stressful and traumatic.

In a study published this year in the journal Frontiers, researchers found that nostalgia can help to combat feelings of loneliness, and a study published in 2013 in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass, suggested that nostalgia can even double as a resource for psychological health and overall well-being.

According to Florence Saint-Jean, a trauma specialist and the executive director of Global Trauma Research, as a way to cope during times of duress, our brains often take us to places that we subconsciously designate as “safe,” like past memories of a joyful vacation or happy childhood moments that made us feel loved.

“That’s one of the techniques I’ve been using with many of my clients — let’s go to our ‘safe place’ right now,” Dr. Saint-Jean said. “Right now, we may not necessarily feel safe, but we can take our minds to a safe place, which will create a chain reaction in our body.”

To harness that response, Dr. Saint-Jean suggests making a list of safe places when you’re not stressed, anxious or experiencing the mental and physical ramifications of trauma.

“You can literally list a park, that time when you were a child and your dad pushed you on the swings — whatever those places are,” she said. “And when you have that list, you can go there and you can grab from your safety toolbox. And that’s OK, because you’ve already planned ahead of time that these are your safe places, and this is where you go when you’re in trouble.”

Still, Dr. Saint-Jean said, there can be downsides to reaching for nostalgia, especially when the present realities are pushing you to look at your past through rose-colored glasses.

”While people are going to a past place for coping, it may not necessarily be a healthy place,” she said. “For some people, their mind is going to an ex, for example. And they may be calling that ex when normally they probably wouldn’t because the relationship was toxic. But their mind isn’t going to the days of the abuse — their mind is going to the times when that person made them happy.”

Which is why, according to Dr. Stoycheva, self-awareness is key when navigating not only the present moment, but the ways in which nostalgia presents itself as a coping mechanism. She said that nostalgia is neither good nor bad, but that you should think introspectively about what, exactly, you’re truly getting out of it. Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Why am I craving or longing for this thing in particular, and what do I hope to get out of it?

“If it’s keeping us anchored in the past and avoiding the future, that’s a problem,” she said. “Because avoidance is actually one of the main things that maintains a trauma reaction.”

Blog adapted from NYT – Why We Reach for Nostalgia in Times of Crisis

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