Researcher Explains Psychology of Coronavirus Fears and the Power of Nostalgia in Coping

By Tom McLaughlin

As the novel coronavirus spreads, people throughout the world are increasingly struggling with not only the physical, but the mental, toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abeyta argues that the coronavirus threatens many of the things that make people’s lives meaningful and/or give them purpose, which may be stoking fears of the pandemic.

However, whether it be overwhelming feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, and helplessness, or the fear of death, these are all natural, deep-seated fears that go to the heart of what it means to be human, explains one Rutgers University–Camden researcher.

Andrew Abeyta, an assistant professor of psychology, affirms that people have a fundamental need to maintain a sense of meaning in life, defined as an individual’s sense that their lives are purposeful, significant, and coherent. The coronavirus threatens many of the things that make people’s lives meaningful and/or give them purpose, he says, which may be stoking people’s fears of the pandemic.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher says that people can tap into the power of nostalgia during periods of confusion or uncertainty.

“I argue in my research that there are a number of ways people maintain a healthy sense of meaning in life, such as relationships, careers, life goals/aspirations, cultural beliefs/identities, and religiosity, to name a few,” says Abeyta. “A world event of this scale threatens meaning in life in a broad way by creating confusion and uncertainty, and worry about death – the ultimate threat to meaning in life.”

The pandemic, he continues, also threatens people’s very specific sources of meaning in their lives.

“People are worried about the well-being of family and friends, they are worried about their jobs, and they are worried about how the virus will impact their goals going forward,” he says.

One way that people can deal with these fears, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, is to tap into the power of nostalgia – a sentimental or wistful longing for the past – which can have profound psychological benefits during periods of confusion or uncertainty. Nostalgia, he argues, can go a long way in helping to restore a sense of meaning in life.

Abeyta says that reflecting nostalgically on meaningful experiences with family and friends can help ease loneliness when people are unable to directly interact with others.

“People naturally turn to nostalgia during such difficult times, and for good reason,” says Abeyta. “Nostalgia is a potent reminder of what makes our lives meaningful. For example, when people engage in nostalgic reverie, we are usually thinking about our most meaningful relationships – the people who love us, make us feel important, and give us confidence.”

People may also reflect on special accomplishments or personal successes, he notes.

“Either way, these memories can be reassuring in the face of uncertain times and make us feel optimistic about finding meaning in the face of tragedy,” says Abeyta.

Moreover, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, nostalgia can also help people to satisfy their basic social needs, without actually having to connect with others.

“Reflecting nostalgically on meaningful experiences with family and friends can help ease loneliness when people are unable to directly interact with others,” says Abeyta. “That can be even more important during the current pandemic, if people are forced to isolate or keep distance from friends, family, neighbors, and others in order to stop the spread of the virus.”

Posted in: Research Highlights

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