“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.” Buddha
We have often heard about the virtues of living in the moment and not dwell in the past or worry about the future. What exactly does it mean to live in the present? How can we manage to do this?
Living in the now means stopping to think about bygone issues or dread the future. It means to enjoy what is happening now and experience the present. It means letting go of the past and be happy today.
When you choose to remain in yesterday or tomorrow, you are depriving yourself of the pleasure of living today. This ultimately robs you of living in the real sense.
Why do we think or analyze bygone events? What are the harms of doing so? How can we stop thinking about yesterday?
This article attempts to answer these questions and offers you diverse ways to achieve this.
Why do we remain in the past?
What do we mean by living in the past? Are we talking about science fiction?
Oh no, it is real life we are discussing here. “Living in the past” referred to here is not the science-fiction kind of transporting yourself back in time. This has got nothing to do with that.
That said, what is meant by “living in the past”?
The thoughts occupying our minds differ from person to person based on their awareness, experience, and a myriad of other things. While some of us find ourselves thinking more about what already happened, others are more worried about what is going to happen to them in the coming years.
Very few of us have mastered the art of anchoring our thoughts in the present. This is described as the ideal way of living and what we should strive to achieve.
Some of us find ourselves constantly thinking about bygone happenings, analyzing them ad infinitum, thinking of alternate possibilities and endings, and most often regretting our actions and words. A person is considered to exist in the past when one’s thoughts are often lingering on old experiences.
Our thoughts about prior experiences can be introspections or ruminations. Though both involve old events, there are distinct differences between the two. Ways to deal with them also differ.
Introspection means exploring bygone events for the sake of gaining a better understanding of yourself or others. Introspection is neither distressing nor undesirable. Through introspection, you can gain knowledge and experience that comes in handy for living in the now.
Introspection is found to add color and depth to your today with feelings of sentiment and nostalgia. Our curiosity or inquisitive nature is the driving force behind introspection.
In addition to gaining a better understanding of yourself and others, introspection improves your problem-solving skills and helps you gain equanimity to face problems.
Rumination is the bad apple among our thoughts. Just like in the bad apple metaphor, it spoils the entire bunch if left unattended.
Ruminations are more about the regrets we have about earlier events. We wonder what we might have done otherwise, how we could have responded, or should have acted differently. Besides dissecting our own actions, we don’t hesitate from analyzing that of others as well.
The possibilities are endless for such thoughts. As we all know, such an exercise is pointless as we cannot change what has already happened despite our fervent wish. It is quite like spinning the wheels.
The result of ruminations is the laying waste of today as history cannot be altered. Neither does it provide any enjoyment or perception. In fact, it brings on negative emotions like anxiety, stress, and despair.
No good comes from ruminating. Instead of solving problems, it takes us on a self-critical journey by replaying and reminding us of our failures.
It is easy to confuse rumination for a problem-solving exercise. We often convince ourselves that we are examining the old times to sort things out. On the contrary, we are merely going around in circles, gaining nothing but pain and grief.
Why can’t we stop our thoughts about the past?
We all know that the past is the past and no power can change it. That said, we still think about it – what could have, should have, or might have happened.
The truth is whether we are happy with our history or unhappy, going over our past actions is something ingrained in our brain. We really can’t help it.
It is from history that we gain experience. Our brains process our bygone actions and store them away as useful information for retrieval in the future. This means thinking about the past is a normal and healthy process happening in our brains. Once processed, turned into usable knowledge, and saved as experience, there is no need to revisit the past.
Thoughts about the past gain negative connotation when we continue to go back and ponder on it obsessively. When we overdo it, the exercise can be frustrating, destructive, and obsessive.
As long as it stays within limits and its aftermath not serious or damaging, there is no need to curb the habit. When it goes beyond this stage and turns vicious, something needs to be done. You need to learn to move past your past.
What are the harms of dwelling in the past?
Some conflict at work, a skirmish with someone, unpaid bills piling up, or ill-health – any of these have the potential to keep you thinking about it – replaying and analyzing it for better endings. In your mind, you try out different scenarios and find fault with each one of them. This exercise will continue forever, leaving you drained, dejected, and unhappy.
Studies have found that people ruminate mostly to escape reality and to avoid dealing with emotions. You are stuck in yesterday, trying to make sense of what happened, trying to find an answer, or trying to reach an acceptable solution.
No human is perfect with only positive happenings in life. Every one of us is bound to have failures, mistakes, defeats, fights, and similar negative events in the past. Break-up, getting fired, arguments, gaffes – the list goes on.
The ideal way of dealing with negative incidents in life is to reflect on them, learn from them, and let them go. The healthy way is to move beyond them and live in the moment.
It is one thing to take a quick look back, make sense of them and get on with life. But it reaches an altogether different level when we allow them to dominate our thinking. At this stage, these thoughts start controlling and haunting us, thus limiting our potential.
Anxiety is one of the prime fallouts of rumination. When we find ourselves stuck in the vicious cycle of thinking and rethinking about the past, we reach a stage of mental paralysis. Unable to extricate ourselves from the never-ending cycle of negativity, we remain in doubt and fear, afraid to get on with life lest history repeats.
Refusal to face reality and face what is ahead is another byproduct of rumination. Many people find it easier to ruminate as a way to escape from the ups and downs of life. While ruminations can help them avoid the turmoil of life, ultimately, they are losing out on life itself. What is the point of living, if you are not aware of being alive?
Prolonged periods spent on ruminations can lead to severe depression, which may need medical attention.
How to stop ruminating about the past?
Most people ruminate because they think they have no control over it. Some others engage in this because they are not happy with the reality and want to rewrite it. It helps them forget the reality that they feel is so negative.
Some ruminate thinking it will give more clarity or insight into what happened and everything will finally start to make sense. They feel that this is something they need to do to lay matters to rest.
Whatever the reason attributed to rumination, it keeps you in a negative zone, making you feel sad and depressed with low self-worth and confidence.
You may use diverse tactics to stop rumination. You can change it to introspection or employ ways to stop your mind lingering over the past. To stop rumination, we can adopt one of these techniques – ignore the urge to rethink or think happy thoughts or distract/numb the mind with external stimulants like music, hobbies, food, etc.
1. Transform rumination into introspection
One of the first steps to contain the negative effects of rumination is to convert it into introspection. It would still be thinking about old times but in a positive way. To make this happen you need to ask yourself questions like:
- Am I enjoying this?
- Did I learn anything from this?
- What do I hope to gain from this?
- Am I thinking about the same incident over and over again?
- Does it leave any bitterness?
- Has it ever worked for me?
If you are getting answers that are not encouraging, you should try to steer your thoughts to the positive ground every time it strays into negative territory. With conscious effort, some may be able to achieve this.
These techniques may be useful to contain the harmful effects of rumination.
- Set aside specific time for rumination and stick to it. Limiting the time is found to help gain control of your thought process.
- Every time you find yourself ruminating ask yourself, “what is the problem I am trying to resolve?”. Most often, you will find it difficult to get an answer to this question just because it is non-existent. Or the problem is already resolved or the solution is irrelevant as time has passed. This will help you realize the futility of the exercise.
- Ruminations involve unachievable goals. You can divert the focus from them by setting yourself achievable goals. This will help you concentrate on what is happening now and look forward to the future.
- Learn to accept the ups and downs of life and take it as it comes. Life can at times be brutal – unfair, unpleasant, unfortunate, and unclear. Just trying to tell yourself that it is beautiful and most enjoyable at other times. Sweetness and bitterness, positive and negative, happiness and sadness – they coexist in this world.
Try to convince yourself that living in history is not going to resolve problems or make life enjoyable. On the contrary, it can make life miserable. The earlier you learn to adapt to the way of the world, the easier your life is going to be.
In case you find it difficult to manage this on your own, you may consider counseling and therapy to change your thought patterns.
2. Learn to deal with your emotions
To move past the past, you need to bring out your feelings associated with it in some way or the other. Only then you will find closure, can let it go, and move forward. This is true for both sad/disturbing and happy incidents from the bygone days.
You may use any of these methods to get your emotions out in the open.
- Talk to a friend, family member, or counselor about it.
- Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal.
- Talk it out with the other person/s involved in your mind.
- Write a letter to the person/s expressing your feelings but don’t send it.
Even when your thoughts are happy ones, you may find it difficult to extricate yourself out of the past. It is comforting to think about the good times and exist in a fantasy world, especially if the present is not so rosy. Romanticizing the old times and longing for the good old days can lead to you losing touch with now.
3. Interrupt your ruminations
Every time you find your mind straying into the dark depths of the past and refusing to come back to the present, interrupt your thoughts forcibly with activities and thoughts. This is something that can be perfected with practice.
Think about the happiest time in your life. Or, sing aloud your favorite song. Or, turn your attention to solving a maths problem. The idea is to overload your brain with enough work that it is forced to stop the negative thoughts.
4. Forgive, forget
One of the best ways to stop yourself from thinking about the past but not so easy to follow. When someone has caused hurt to you physically, verbally, or emotionally, you need to move beyond it.
It is natural to blame the other person for hurting you but focussing on it for long can bring serious consequences to your mental health. The easiest and quickest way to put a full stop to these unhealthy thoughts is to forgive the person/s.
When you first come across this option, you may dismiss it without much consideration. You may look upon forgiveness as a weakness of character and as adding insult to injury. Maybe the famous Shakespearian quote will help you here – To err is human, to forgive divine. Not everyone can forgive and advance in life. In fact, it displays your strength of character.
It may help you to remember that lingering on the hurtful incident is in no way affecting the perpetrator. It is you who is suffering from the consequences of ruminations. Isn’t that a double injury to you?
Such traumatic incidents need closure and this will happen only if you face it head-on. You can talk it out with the person concerned if that is an option. Or else at least have the conversation in your mind. Another approach is to write a letter to the person describing your feelings. You may not even send the letter. Writing about the trauma is known to act as a purge.
5. Think happy thoughts
Even if you recognize the importance of this exercise, you may find yourself helpless. To remove the impediments in achieving this, you may use real-life triggers. Like your favorite corner, music, fragrance, food, or book. When your mind is calm and happy, you are more likely to think about happy occasions.
Even if your mind strays into the past or the future, as long as you are in a happy space now, your thoughts will be about the good times you had in the past or the good fortune awaiting you in the future.
Remember the Julie Andrews song from the movie “The Sound of Music”? It lists out all her favorite things. When she is sad, all she needs to do is remember her favorite things and “then I don’t feel so bad”. Isn’t that a simple way to make your past problems vanish into thin air?
6. Ignore undesirable past
If none of the above-mentioned methods to deal with ruminations are useful, you may consider this step. You can either learn to ignore the sad memories or block them or push them further back in your mind so that they won’t easily come back and haunt you.
Visualization is an effective tool for this. You can imagine yourself placing barriers so that the negative thoughts cannot reach you or pushing them inside a room and banging the door shut. It may sound childish or absurd but is found immensely useful by those struggling with bad memories.
Blocking sad memories is considered a learnable skill. It may take lots of practice to perfect it but something that can be perfected with patience, perseverance, and dedication.
Every time sad memories pop up in your mind, move them back into the depths of the mind resolutely.
7. View the past from another angle
When you are having trouble with a past event, try rewriting the story. Instead of looking at it as a bad incident, take a more balanced approach. Rework it to view it in both positive and negative lights. Such as, you can add a positive shade to rejection by accounting for your shortcomings and promising yourself to overcome them next time.
8. List out things you can do
When you feel that your world is falling apart and you cannot even handle the simplest of things, it is comforting to know that you are still good at many things. Make a list of things you love to do, or you are good at or that make you feel better. You may even try your hand at something new that you always wanted.
This may sound like a silly exercise but very effective as a morale booster. And, when you are feeling down in the dumps, this will uplift and provide a healing touch. The list may include even your long-forgotten hobbies such as needlework, reading, sketching, and singing.
The idea is to elevate your mood as well as take the focus away from bad memories.
9. Engage in activities that make you feel good
Get your body moving with some light exercises that you enjoy doing like walking, swimming, dancing, trekking, or playing a sport. The idea here is not to be intense or competitive but to have a good time.
Engaging in fun activities with kids or pets can help you feel relaxed and joyful. Singing or humming your favorite tunes can elevate your mood in no time.
Do not underestimate the impact of dressing up. If you have cut yourself off from your friends and family and are living a lonely and secluded life, you may not be paying much attention to what you are wearing. That can have a demoralizing effect on you. Even if you are not planning to go out or meet anyone, dress up as if you are. This is an instant mood elevator.
10. Dealing with trauma
It is one thing to have bad and troubling memories but if you are suffering from mental trauma, you need to seek professional help right away. A traumatic event in the past can give rise to symptoms like severe anxiety and depression, disturbing thoughts, nightmares, phobias, and a sense of distrust in others.
Recovering from a traumatic experience is a time-consuming process and you may need counseling and/or therapy further for getting rid of those memories.
As the recovery is a slow process, it is easy to feel frustrated and give up. Remember that with continuous treatment, you will get better eventually.
11. Unburden your problems
When you feel that your traumatic incident in the past is too much for you to deal with on your own, you should confide in someone you trust. It can be a friend or a sibling with emphasis on “trust”. The person you choose to confide in should be a good listener with oodles of compassion and patience – someone who will take you seriously.
If you are getting responses like “That is to be expected”, “Forget and forgive”, or “You too are to blame”, do not continue your “talk” with the person. It will only end up aggravating the issue.
Depending on the seriousness and severity of the trauma, you may need to revisit it multiple times before you can “get it off the chest”. The chosen someone should have patience and understanding of your requirement.
Unloading your emotional baggage may trigger second-hand trauma in your listener. You need to be understanding about their refusal to listen to you every time. If you are having a hard time finding someone to unburden your problems, you may take the help of a trauma counselor.
12. Get professional help
If self-help is not working for you and you feel more depressed and anxious than ever before, you should approach a professional without waiting any longer. Your doctor may be able to help you find the right kind of mental health professional. Or else, you can ask your friends and family circle for referrals.
Mental health professionals come with diverse skill sets – counselors, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Each one of them is trained to recognize mental problems and suggest ways to cope with them.
Do not hesitate or feel embarrassed to approach a professional for help. And, you should be willing to open up to help them diagnose your ailment and help them help you overcome your troubles.
When choosing a professional and deciding on a treatment plan, you should remember these points.
You should be in control. As you are suffering from mental health issues, the treatment involves taking back control of your mental health. The doctor should act as a guide and you should have the power to decide the course of your treatment at all times.
Sharing helps heal. Trauma can force you into isolation and loneliness. Your treatment plan should involve meeting people with similar experiences and sharing your fears, worries, and thoughts.
For more on this topic, see our article a practical guide on how to stop ruminating on the past with effective techniques & skills.
Improving mindfulness is another way to achieve the same end. Mindfulness or awareness is the mental state achieved by living in the moment, even while peacefully acknowledging and accepting past emotions and events.
Mindfulness techniques include slowing down your life, making subtle changes in your lifestyle, paying attention to your surroundings, focusing on what you are doing, and diverse forms of meditation.
There is no best method to help you stop ruminating about the past. What is suitable for you depends on your attributes, circumstances, and thoughts. One thing is for sure. The obsessive thoughts about the past need to be stopped for a happy, peaceful, and healthy life.
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