This is a disclaimer that this article is for informative purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Please reach out to a mental health professional if you are struggling with trauma or flashbacks.
Have you ever been unable to sleep at night because you were haunted by an embarrassing mistake, fuming over the way someone mistreated you, or weighed down by guilt from something you regret? We all think about the past, but sometimes the same thoughts churn around endlessly and overwhelming emotions come flooding back. How can we let go? Here are five ways to stop ruminating on the past.
1) Describe the memory in third-person
Research by the University of Waterloo shows that describing past events in third-person can break the cycle of rumination and cast the thoughts in a new perspective (Wilson & Ross, 2003). In one study, participants with disturbing experiences from the past had to disclose their memories (Fergusson, 1994). Some were asked to write as if the events had happened to someone else, using “he” or “she” instead of referring to themselves. These participants had a much better outcome than the ones who were asked to write normally. They felt less emotional distress about their memories, felt like they got a better understanding and even became sick less often. The next time you’re stuck in a negative memory, imagine that you’re just an observer and describe all your actions, thoughts and feelings as if they happened to someone else. The memories will feel older, the emotions will become less intense and your past self will feel like a very different person.
2) Distance yourself from the past
Do your negative memories feel like they happened just yesterday? Studies show that the emotional strength of a memory is connected to how recently we think it happened, and this connection goes both ways (Siedlecka & Denson, 2015). In one study, experimenters manipulated the personal timelines of the participants. Some were led to believe that their past failures happened more recently and others were led to believe they happened further back in time. Those who believed their failures were recent had lower ratings of themselves compared to those who believed their failures happened long ago (Wilson & Ross, 2003). You can distance yourself from a memory by exaggerating how much time you feel has passed. Visualize a physical timeline between the memory and now, and fill it with all the major events and milestones that happened, like birthdays, anniversaries, religious events, graduations, new friends, new schools, new jobs or moving house. Even small events like getting a haircut can work, just as long as you keep thinking of other memories to cram into the timeline to make the memory feel like it happened a lifetime ago.
3) Ask yourself what you’re getting out of the thoughts
Sometimes, negative memories actually torment you for a good reason. This is the brain’s way of asking you to find closure or understanding so you can avoid similar events in the future (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008). For example, if you brood over a friend who broke a promise, this might be your intuition telling you to stop trusting that person. However, mentally replaying the memories can continue long after you’ve figured out the situation, and then it becomes unhealthy rumination. Take time to write down the pros and cons for revisiting the memories that are bothering you. Are you actually getting anything out of the thoughts? Or are you just hurting yourself? When something bad happens in your life, that’s like being shot by a poisoned arrow. When you learn a lesson or solve a problem about it, that’s like removing the poisoned arrow. But when you dwell on the memory after that and suffer more, that’s like stabbing yourself with the same poisoned arrow again.
4) Find meaning in the memory
When you recount the past, do you re-experience vivid details like what you saw, heard and felt? Research suggests that it’s better to try “abstract recounting” instead (Clark et al., 1994). This means that you step out of the concrete details and try more analytical thinking. Answer questions like, “what caused the event?”, “how is my life different now?”, and “how does this fit into my life story?” Studies show that this type of processing helps to find meaning in negative memories and blunts their emotional effects.
5) Forgive yourself
Have you ever heard the saying, “embarrassment is the cost of entry”? Mistakes and weaknesses are just the price we pay for living as humans. If you were held to a high standard and constantly scrutinized growing up, you might have adopted the habit of evaluating yourself harshly for the rest of your life. Instead, try a “self-compassionate attitude”. Focus on things to be kind to yourself about, rather than things to criticize. Remind yourself that everyone else also makes mistakes and nobody is living an ideal life, rather than thinking you’re isolated by your own unique shortcomings. Be mindfully aware of your sufferings and flaws without judging them, ignoring them or over-identifying with them (Neff & Germer, 2017). Japanese researchers have found that those with a self-compassionate attitude feel more distant from negative events in their past and feel less strongly about them (Miyagawa & Taniguchi, 2020). They know that negative events and mistakes aren’t deviations from some ideal “normal life”, they’re part of normal life itself, so what’s there to ruminate about?
So there you have it, five ways to stop ruminating on the past. Which of these tips will you try? Will this article help you or others? Let us know in the comments below. Don’t forget to like and share this article , and hit the subscribe button for more videos. The studies and references used are listed in the description below. Thank you for watching and we’ll see you next time.
Clark, L. F., Collins, J. E., & Henry, S. M. (1994). Biasing effects of retrospective reports on current self-assessments. In Autobiographical memory and the validity of retrospective reports (pp. 291-304). Springer, New York, NY.
Fergusson, P. A. (1994). Writing about traumatic events using the third person pronoun: psychological and health effects (Doctoral dissertation, ProQuest Information & Learning).
Miyagawa, Y., & Taniguchi, J. (2020). Self-compassion and time perception of past negative events. Mindfulness, 11(3), 746-755.
Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Well-being. The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, 371.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives on psychological science, 3(5), 400-424.
Siedlecka, E., Capper, M. M., & Denson, T. F. (2015). Negative emotional events that people ruminate about feel closer in time. PloS one, 10(2), e0117105.
Wilson, A., & Ross, M. (2003). The identity function of autobiographical memory: Time is on our side. Memory, 11(2), 137-149.