Those who live in the past may harm their health

Cognitive inertia occurs when a person feels trapped between the past and the present.
Klaus Weidfeldt / Getty Images

This so-called cognitive stagnation can occur after moving home, losing a loved one, or experiencing trauma.

Experts say that feeling stuck between “life before” and “life now” can lead to emotional distress and confusion.

A job, a solid community, health, and thinking can help you develop a sense of belonging.

Have you ever felt like your body and mind are in two different places? You might keep turning in the wrong direction on your way to the supermarket because you had to turn left instead of right where you lived. Or maybe you can’t stop thinking about your ex when you’re dating her and compare her to your new partners.

If this sounds familiar, you may have experienced some form of cognitive inertia. Ezenwa Olumba, a PhD student at University College London, coined the term in 2022. He used it to describe his experience of emigration, which made him feel trapped internally between the United Kingdom and his native Nigeria.

There are actually a number of films and songs like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” that have dealt with this contradiction. However, Olumba is one of the first to scientifically study this topic and its impact on mental health.

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What role can cognitive inertia play in your daily life

Olumba describes cognitive inertia as a kind of “mental vagrancy.” This means that you may not feel completely at home in certain places. However, he maintains that this relates to different life experiences, not just migration.

Cognitive inertia can be caused by the following situations, for example:

  • Ending a difficult relationship
  • Caring for a loved one with dementia or a terminal illness
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Tackling a traumatic experience like forced migration
  • Other big changes in life

Whatever the cause, according to Olumba, it usually follows the following three stages.

1. Awareness

In this first stage, you begin to realize that your life has changed, perhaps forever. This stage can be very stressful. For example, imagine that you just graduated from university and are now starting your first desk job. Already in the first week you will notice that the corporate world has nothing to do with school: there are no degrees, no curricula, no open hours.

You may feel a sense of homesickness or longing for your school days. However, it is these feelings that are most often stimulated. On the other hand, cognitive inertia can be thought of as an annoying voice in your head that pulls you out of the present with a constant reminder of “how things used to be.”

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2. Reviving the past

In this second stage, you may be consciously taking steps to recover the past. Maybe you’re looking for college souvenirs or flipping old school photos.

A trip to the past can help in acute moments of longing, but it should not be permanent. If you’ve been thinking about the past for a long time, you may have less mental energy to devote to living in the present.

It can also affect overall time management and daily productivity. For example, you might see every task, project, and job as temporary, a state that is just a short pause on the way back in time.

3. Stability

This last stage is all about finding a solution as your identity becomes increasingly precarious. You may have changed and weren’t the same person you were two, five or ten years ago. However, you still carry a portion of what you were before. All the values, knowledge, and skills you have acquired in the past help you deal with current situations.

At work, for example, you can start following colleagues’ advice and get a better sense of the company’s rhythms. This will help you realize that the organizational and research skills you used in school are still useful – you just have to use them differently.

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Why does perceptual inertia occur?

The theory of cognitive inertia was developed in response to the theory of cognitive migration. The latter explores the mental “journey” you might take before moving to a new place.

In cognitive migration, similar to cognitive inertia, you register two locations in your brain to compare and contrast. This process plays an important role in deciding if you want to move.

During the cognitive migration process, you can, among other things:

  • Planning a trip or moving
  • Imagine the life that could await you
  • Worrying about how to keep in touch with loved ones back home

However, if this step and your life afterward does not go as predicted by your cognitive drain, this dissonance can contribute to cognitive inertia.

People tend to imagine a more positive future than is likely to be expected. “The conflict between what we expect and reality can be distressing,” says Sara Koikalainen, a senior researcher at the University of Eastern Finland and one of the original developers of cognitive migration theory.

So, cognitive inertia describes how your brain processes conflicting emotions. On the other hand, you may miss a previous relationship and grieve over the lost love. Memories often provide a sense of familiarity and comfort in such situations, allowing you to “relive the good times.”

On the other hand, there may have been a good reason to end the relationship. Despite your attraction to the past, you may have an equally strong desire to stay in the present and leave the past behind.

This is the time when your imagination tries to allow you to be in two places at once by reconstructing a version of your old life. Of course, this can often be a romantic notion of the past, which is usually very unrealistic.

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What is the effect of cognitive inertia?

Cognitive inertia can be stressful and harmful to your mental health:

  • Cognitive immobility can contribute to anxiety, depression, and insomnia. All of these issues can make it difficult to commit to new relationships.
  • Difficulties in social isolation and coping can also lead to depression.
  • If cognitive inertia is caused by traumatic conditions, you may also develop more severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Until the cognitive inertia is resolved, you may feel uncomfortable and out of place in your new life.

How do you deal with it

Oftentimes, you must be actively working to build a sense of “home” or belonging in the present.

“Cognitive inertia can be mitigated by having and maintaining the following four essential components: a job, a community or family, time for reflection, and good health,” Olomba says.

The first element: the job

Your occupation is one of the most important factors that influence how you interact with the world around you. It can add value to your new life. This means that a job does not necessarily mean that you have to have a full-time paid job. It could also be parenting or volunteer work.

The second element: the community

A community is a group of people with common values ​​who support each other. This could be from family, friends or neighbours, for example. Building community is an essential part of adjusting to a new life.

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The third element: reflection

Meditation and journaling are ideal for meditation. Just remember that what you write or reflect on matters, says Olumba.

Olumba says that writing down your thoughts and emotions after a stressful event can be very helpful. However, if you focus exclusively on your emotions in your diary, this can sometimes have a negative effect on your condition.

The fourth element: health

Your physical and mental health are closely related. When you feel overwhelmed, hungry, or in pain, your mind can distance itself from these uncomfortable feelings, making it easier for you to distance yourself from reality.

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This text has been translated from English by Anika Faber. You can find the original here.

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