What Going Home for the Holidays Does to Your Brain

Nostalgia and regression are bound to happen, so you have to make the most of it. 

Boston Public Library/Flickr

They say you can never go home again, but they are goddamn liars. You can go home again, but the sensory experience of your return — the smell of your house, the feel of your sheets, the specific way the wind whistles through the trees — may not provide the comfort you’d expect. It’s tempting to believe that this disappointment is a function of realizing the banalities of one’s beginnings — a conclusion that fits nicely with the American bootstrapping narrative — but this isn’t so. This is your brain on nostalgia. When you go home, you naturally regress into childhood roles that no longer fit your thought processes. Everything is as it was, but nothing is as you think it should be.

Age regression is considered a near-universal phenomenon. Categorized as a psychological defense mechanism, regression causes one’s maturity level to revert to an earlier developmental level. You may be a real adult who understands diversifying portfolios; it doesn’t matter, you’ll be rolling your eyes and bothering your siblings in no time.

Psychologists aren’t sure why everyone regresses when they go home. It may have to do with the fact that environments trigger fundamental emotional systems. Sleeping in your childhood bedroom, the relatively basic logic goes, reminds you of how you felt when you were a child. If a person had a good childhood, the feeling sours slightly because of small environmental changes (say, a new rug). If a person had a bad childhood, well, they probably wouldn’t look forward to going home in the first place.

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“If a person’s family life was stressful during childhood in terms of conflict among family members or adverse conditions that affected everyone, going back to the same environment could certainly elicit negative emotions and feelings of stress — especially if those experiences never really got resolved,” Constance Hammen, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells Inverse. “Obviously childhood experiences can leave a lasting imprint.”

Hammen says that holidays can be especially difficult if they are associated with longings that never got fulfilled. Family issues provoke bigger reactions and trigger old pattern behavior more so than say, arguments with friends, simply because we’re designed to react to our family more. Mom makes us panic because she used to be the person keeping us alive.

There’s also the very-high chance that your brain will be swayed by nostalgia when you visit home (even when it’s not the holidays, studies show that people usually feel nostalgic one to three times a week). While a relatively new field of study, researchers believe that people become nostalgic for multiple purposes: to provide a narrative structure to their lives, to make sense of regrets, to remind themselves of a sense of belonging. People are especially prone to feeling nostalgic when they’re lonely or want to feel better about their situation in the world. When you’re not having the best time ever making small talk with extended family, nostalgia will remind you that holidays are lovely and goddammit you’re going to enjoy this.

Boston Public Library/Flickr

When people are engaging in conversations about the past and feeling nostalgic, they’re activating and interweaving two kinds of memory representations, David Gallo from the University of Chicago’s department of psychology tells Inverse. The first type is episodic recollection — that’s when people retrieve specific memories of a time and place. The other type is semantic, the memories that are based on factual information but aren’t tied to a specific event you recall.

Certain sights can automatically trigger memories, which in the realm of nostalgia, are usually positive ones.

“In addition to activating these two kinds of autobiographical memory representations, some instances of nostalgia might not even involve the activation of implicitly learned feelings without activation of autobiographical information at the conscious level,” says Gallo.

“For example, we might drive through our hometown and recognize buildings and faces that trigger positive feelings of nostalgia, without retrieving any specific information — this would be a learned reaction in memory.”

However, your brain may be overhyping past events and creating an overwrought sense of nostalgia disproportional to your actual memories.

“What we have found is that people in general are biased to remember their past more positively than it actually was — emphasizing positive experiences and downplaying negative ones — and this tendency increases even further as we advance into old age,” says Gallo.

A popular theory for why this happens is that we are motivated to maintain a positive self-image and these biases allow us to reconstruct the past we want. While some kinds of personalities may be more prone to memory distortion than others, psychologists say we can’t figure out a universal number of how many memories each of us has distorted. But we do know that we are happier about the past than the future; a 2012 study found that subjects who were told to think about nostalgic experiences were happier about themselves as people versus subjects who were told to imagine a positive future experience.

Tony Alter/Flickr

Nostalgia may bring up all the feels, but it’s important to remember that it can create false expectations as well, trapping you in dissatisfaction. When nostalgia spins a “redemptive narrative for a memory”, it’s likely setting you up to be disappointed when you go to recreate the memory, be it with holiday traditions or whatever, and realize you aren’t happy with the IRL reality. It can make you weepy too — sometimes nostalgic remembrances remind you that the past automatically locks behind you.

And if the thought of going home for the holidays is already stressing you out, start being mindful now of why that is. You don’t want to cope with whatever internal triggers you have at the very same moment you’re trying to explain to your aunt what blogging is.

“If a person is feeling distressed about ‘going home’ that’s a pretty good cue that they should make plans for how to take care of themselves,” says Hammen.

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