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Health Fusion: When we all checked out of the inn, positive memories carried us home

After a weekend away with old and new friends, Viv Williams explores the power of positive memories. Reminiscing can enhance your mental health. But not if you overdo it. Get the details in this "Health Fusion" column.

Henry the rescue dog standing at at table during a dinner party
Henry the rescue dog is a fond memory from a weekend spent with friends.
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ROCHESTER — Recently, I spent the weekend with a wonderful group of people who came together from various places to celebrate a mutual friend's birthday. Some of the revelers I knew very well and others I had never met before. But all of us had one thing in common: We loved the birthday girl. Our individual relationships with her meant that even the strangers among us were connected by overlapping experiences and shared memories.

Memories are funny things. They can prompt feelings of great joy. And they can trigger stress, anxiety or sadness. Most of the people who gathered for the weekend birthday festivities seemed to be bursting with positive emotions as they laughed and reminisced about "back when." They were absolutely glowing and it was totally contagious.

That got me wondering about what a trip down memory lane might do for your health. A quick Google search of scholarly articles about the positive power of reminiscing reveals a slew of studies that show happy memories are definitely good for your mental health and sense of well being. The experiences can make you happier in the short term and over time. Research published in the Journal Nature Human Behavior notes that positive memories may do more than just boost your mood. They may be protective and restorative when you're stressed out. Study results show that pleasurable emotions brought forth from good memories helped to reduce morning cortisol levels. Cortisol is the fight-or-flight hormone that's key to helping your body respond to and handle stress. So it is an essential and good thing.

But too much of it can be a bad thing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website lists stomach pain, headaches, rashes, overeating, worsening of underlying conditions and anger as some of the long term consequences of chronic stress. So if thinking about a pleasurable past event helps to reduce negative stress, reminiscing may be a great self treatment option to try on those days when your stress levels are on the rise.

Another study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology explored how close or connected people feel when they share different types of information. The researchers found that sharing memories drew people closer together the most.

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I can vouch for that. At the weekend party, people who opened up to each other and shared memories seemed to be having the most fun. But like anything in life, too much nostalgia might not be all that great. Research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that nostalgia is healthy until you overdo it. Thinking about the good old days gives meaning to life, but dwelling and living in the past may drain the positivity out of the present — especially if your current situation is not ideal.

Many people have gone to reunions or parties where someone gets a little too nostalgic — possibly after one too many beers or glasses of chardonnay — and ends up shedding tears on an old friend's shoulder (never a pretty thing, in my opinion). It's totally understandable to think that things back then were somehow better than they are now. But that type of comparison, when perpetuated over time, can be dangerous and erode current contentment and happiness. We all have regrets and sometimes succumb to "what ifs." But instead of getting stuck in backward rumination, be grateful for the wonderful memories that helped shape your life. Let the positive emotions that arise when you share good memories with old friends carry you forward.

When our few days of birthday revelry came to an end, we all checked out of the inn and tossed our bags into our cars with smiles on our faces. The memories and experiences we shared created a bond among all of us. And when I take those memories back out and think about that weekend, I know I will begin to burst with the same warmth and joy we experienced during our time together, thanks to the birthday girl. And for those life-enhancing moments, I am very grateful.

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Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

MORE HEALTH FUSION:
A dog's sense of smell has helped to find missing people, detect drugs at airports and find the tiniest morsel of food dropped from a toddler's highchair. A new study shows that dogs may also be able to sniff out when you're stressed out.

Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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