Our ability to remember the past is important. We don’t want to lose it. Without it we’d lose our capacity to learn and we’d find ourselves constantly making the same mistakes.
The past can bring up intense emotions like guilt and regret. These emotions can act like a compass, telling us when we’ve veered too far from our values.
However, when we begin to overthink the past, our thinking becomes circular and counterproductive. We get stuck and our emotions stop being a compass and act more like a weapon that we use against ourselves. It can become extremely intense and toxic.
In this article I’ll explore overthinking the past and what we can do about it.
Our thoughts: what we don’t have control over
It’s easy to believe that the thoughts we have define who we are: “Well it entered into my brain. It is my brain. So, I must be responsible for the creation of the thought. It’s who I am”
This isn’t true. Our thoughts don’t always reflect who we are. Or our values. Our thoughts don’t have to define us. Clients I work with are often relieved to hear this. because it’s easy for us to identify with our thoughts.
We have zero control over the thoughts that enter our brains. And you are not responsible for the creation of the sick, bizarre, illegal, crazy junk that pops into your mind. You did not create it.
And all that junk that pops up, it’s completely normal. We all do it. We just don’t go around talking about it. If we did, we wouldn’t have any friends.
That’s why we go to therapy.
Thought suppression doesn’t work
The study found that when people attempt to get rid of certain thoughts about the future or past, the thoughts came back more often.
“Just stop thinking about it” or “Just think about something positive” doesn’t work. In fact, it makes things worse.
The researchers hypothesized that by attempting to control thoughts, we actually reinforce them. We make them stronger and more frequent.
So, the first step to not overthinking the past, is to stop trying to stop the thoughts. Very counterintuitive.
Rumination: what we do have control over
So, we don’t have control over the thoughts that pop up. And we shouldn’t try to stop the thoughts. That makes things worse. So, what do we do? What about after the thoughts have entered our brains?
Let’s first start with a common response when an unwanted thought shows up: rumination.
What is rumination? There are a number of different definitions out there, even amongst psychology experts. I prefer Dr. Michael Greenberg’s definition:
Rumination is making a choice to engage in mental problem solving, which includes analyzing, mental reviewing, mental checking, visualizing, monitoring, and directing your focus toward the problem.
There’s a key difference between rumination and productive problem solving though. Productive problem solving is directing your attention toward something and finding a resolution to the problem. It’s over and done with.
Rumination is engaging with the thoughts over and over again without any resolution.
It’s not that you’re not smart enough or that you haven’t thought about the problem long enough. It’s that the problem isn’t able to be solved.
Here are some examples of rumination:
Replaying an argument over and over, and imagining how you could have responded in different ways.
Why did I say that hurtful thing?
I wasted my weekend. Why do I always do that?
Taking some time to think about a disagreement and deciding to call the person tomorrow to talk.
I’m going to apologize to her tomorrow.
What can I do next weekend that will make me proud?
Why even stop?
It seems like an obvious question, but why do we even want to stop overthinking the past anyway?
Because it’s painful.
But, why is it painful?
Is it the fact the thought popped into our mind that makes it painful or is it what we did with it after?
From my experience, it’s usually what we do with the thought after it hits our brains that determines if it causes us problems or not.
Two different people can have the same thought about the past and have completely different reactions and internal responses to it.
One person might notice the thought, say to themselves, “Oh, that’s weird I just thought of that now.” And the thought passes. That’s it.
Another person, however, might attach meaning to it and ruminate about it: “Why did that pop up now? It must be important. I need to figure this out.” Then they might ruminate about the rumination “Here I go again, thinking about the past. Why do I always do this? How can I stop?”
This is what makes it painful. And it becomes a reinforcing cycle:
We focus on the initial thought and how to stop it. And then by focusing on it, it comes back even stronger and more frequent, which then reinforces our belief that it’s the mental time traveling that is the problem.
It’s not the mental time traveling that’s the problem. The problem is when you make a choice to engage with it.
Until we make a conscious choice to not engage in rumination, we’re going to continue to suffer.
How Does Thinking of the Past Impact Us
There’s a common understanding that anxiety is about the future, while depression is about the past. In general, from my experience working with clients, I find this to be true.
However, it’s not uncommon to experience anxiety that stems from past situations, and depression that is focused on the future. For example:
Anxious thoughts stemming from past situations:
- I probably wrote something inappropriate on my job application.
- Did I send that email to the wrong person?
- I think I may have ate expired meat. I forgot to check the date before eating it.
These are past situations, with possible future oriented negative consequences.
Depressive thoughts about future situations:
- My future feels hopeless after my partner ended our relationship.
- I’ll never be successful.
- I’ll always be depressed.
In short, thoughts about our past can bring us any type of emotion: high energy emotions like anxiety, which urge us to take action or low energy emotions like depression, which urge us not to take action.
Understanding this is important if we want to counteract our unhelpful urges.
When we’re anxious, the urge is to move quickly, but it’s probably best we try to slow down; and when we’re depressed the urge is to not take action, but it’s probably best to get up and take action.
How Does Thinking of the Past Harm Us
Just like most things in life, balance is important. Though we don’t want to get rid of thinking of the past entirely, when we do it too much, it can be harmful.
When we find ourselves stuck in the past, rehashing scenarios over and over again, and when our thoughts seem circular, going nowhere, this is a clear sign that our thoughts have crossed the line from being helpful to being harmful.
It’s also a sign that our thoughts are reinforcing themselves.
Our brains are constructed of what are called neural pathways. You can think of neural pathways as trails our brains travel down. The more we travel down these trails, (like the trail of thinking about past negative events) the more defined the trails get.
And the more these trails are defined, the easier and more comfortable they become for our brains to travel down, even though they may bring us negative emotions or outcomes.
This is exactly how constantly thinking about our past can harm us. The more we think a certain way, the more habitual and automatic the thoughts become, and the more likely we are to do it in the future. .
Signs we’re thinking of the past too much:
- Experiencing frequent and intense feelings of anxiety, sadness, shame, or guilt
- Preoccupation leading to
- Difficulty listening in conversation
- Making mistakes on projects
- Difficulty staying focused
- Getting lost in thoughts for extended periods of time
- Disconnecting/isolating from friends and family
- Not enjoying usual leisure activities
- Less self-care activities
- Engaging in unhelpful coping strategies
- Working too much
- Binge eating
- Blaming others
- Reckless behavior
- Mindlessly using electronics and social media
When these types of symptoms occur alongside thoughts about the past, it’s a clear sign we need to take action.
Acceptance is a more realistic goal than eliminating our thoughts. This is not to be confused with complacency, however.
Complacency is not trying anything. We have thoughts of the past, we get sucked into them, they negatively impact us, and we don’t try anything to reduce the negative impact.
Acceptance on the other hand is noticing the thoughts, giving up on trying to get rid of them, and giving up on the judgement we place on ourselves for having the thoughts.
Acceptance is understanding the reality of our thoughts: they are going to pass like weather systems. Sometimes it’s sunny all day. Other times it’s intense thunderstorms.
Some weather systems are predictable; others come out of nowhere.
Even though there may be a level of uncertainty around how intense and when our thoughts of the past come, we do know one thing for certain: the weather systems will come and it will pass. And after it passes, it will come again. And after it comes again, it will pass.
This is what I mean by acceptance.
Though it’s essential to intervene when we’re already down the rabbit hole of the past, prevention is even better.
And one of the best ways to engage in prevention is to recognize patterns and triggers.
Here are some questions that can help with identifying triggers of past memories:
- When do you notice past memories coming up more often?
- What physical sensations (e.g., headache, stomachache, etc.) do you notice when you begin thinking of the past?
- What behaviors do you typically engage in when thoughts of the past begin to creep up?
To help some more, here are some triggers that I often hear of:
- Social media
- Phone conversations
- Certain places (e.g., hometown, a certain store)
When we recognize triggers, some times we can avoid the triggers all together. And in situations where we can’t avoid the trigger, we at least eliminate the element of surprise when we anticipate it.
And when we know our triggers, we can better plan for dealing with them.
Making a Plan & Self-Care
Here’s a list of things to do in the moment and long-term strategies to reduce the frequency and intensity of thoughts of the past.
Create new neural pathways by challenging your thoughts
Why do you constantly think of the past? Probably because you’re brain has traveled so many times down that trail. So, it’s time to slowly create a new trail.
In order to create a new trail, you first need to be aware of your thoughts. After you become aware, you need to challenge them, and replace them with more realistic thoughts.
How realistic is this thought? Is this helping me in this moment or helping my future, or are my thoughts just beating me up? What’s a more realistic thought?
- “I’ve hurt so many people”
- “It was so good back then, I wish I could go back in time, I wish things could be like that again”
- “I probably said something inappropriate during that presentation”
More realistic thoughts
- “Life is flexible and relationships can be repaired”
- “I’ve made some good memories. I want to make even more memories”
- “If I did say something inappropriate, well we all do sometimes. I’ve also given many solid presentations”
You can learn more about our thought distortions in this article: Anxiety and Cognitive Distortions.
I like to think of meditation as two types: guided and just sitting.
Guided meditation is when you have a particular agenda. You either guide yourself or have someone else guide you (therapist, YouTube, Podcast, etc.).
An example of guided meditation would be sitting down with your eyes closed and imagining being in your most comfortable environment. For me, it’s a beach with nobody near. I imagine hearing the water, feeling the breeze, noticing the temperature. Maybe I notice the feeling of the water against my feet, tasting and smelling the salt in the air.
Just sitting meditation is just that. You sit with really no goal other than to pay attention to what happens in your head and body.
When we just sit, it’s normal to be sitting, noticing your thoughts, then getting caught up in your thoughts. For example, we’ve all had the experience of driving down the road and not remember the past 5 minutes. We were still driving, but our daydreaming took over our awareness.
During just sitting meditation, our minds go back and forth from awareness. We’ll be aware of our thoughts, then we’ll get caught up in our thoughts, and be unaware of them. Then we’ll kind of wake up and realize it, then get back to being aware of our thoughts again.
What’s the point?
Most of the day we are simply caught up in our thoughts unaware of it. Just sitting meditation is training our brains to recognize this ebb and flow. The more we sit the better we become at recognizing when we get caught up in the chaos of our thoughts.
In addition, the more often we sit, the more familiar we get with the chaos. And the chaos becomes less powerful because we believe the chaos less: “Oh I’ve seen you before, you’re just a thought. You’re harmless, you’re not helpful, and you’ll pass.”
What advice would you give someone else?
It’s so much easier to give someone else advice than it is ourselves. We see others more objectively, unclouded by emotions. It’s impossible to look at ourselves objectively. There’s a lot of junk, including emotions, clouding our view.
A helpful technique is to imagine a friend or family member coming to you struggling with the same issue of constantly thinking about the past and asking for advice.
What advice would you give them? What would help?
This self-help technique is especially helpful when we experience strong feelings of guilt.
When we think of past mistakes, guilt is a helpful emotion to assist in us learning from our mistakes. If we never felt guilt, life would be more comfortable, but we’d be huge jerks.
Guilt is not helpful when it crosses the line into beating ourselves up though.
If this is true for you, imagine someone else coming to you with the same guilt regarding the past. Would you be as harsh on them as you are on yourself?
Most likely not.
You’d probably tell them that everyone makes mistakes. You’d probably tell them they’re a good person.
As you make a list of things you’d say to this person and advice you’d give, turn it around on yourself. It will likely help you. And more importantly, you deserve it.
What would your role model do? What would your role model say to you?
Along the same lines is imagining someone you respect and lookup to. Someone who is calm, logical, and thoughtful during difficult times.
Ideally, this is a real person: a parent, a friend, a mentor.
Once you choose your person, ask yourself, what would this person say to me? How would this person handle these thoughts about the past?
What’s the intention with this exercise?
Often times thoughts try to convince us that we’re not capable of handling certain situations on our own. Even though it’s a lie, we often believe it leaving us feeling powerless, helpless, and not taking action.
This technique fools our brains. We harness the energy from this role model who our brain IS capable. And by doing that, our brain says to ourselves, “Well that role model isn’t physically here. You just thought of the role model. So, we handle this situation on our own.”
The result is a lasting, experiential lightbulb moment for our brains.
Counseling & Psychotherapy
One of the best ways to take better care of ourselves is to find a trusted psychotherapist to help you manage all these thoughts of the past.
If you’re feeling anxious, find a counselor who understands anxiety well.
And always remember, be easy on yourself!
Del Palacio-Gonzalez, A., & Berntsen, D. (2018). The tendency for experiencing involuntary future and past mental time travel is robustly related to thought suppression: An exploratory study. Psychological Research, 83(4), 788-804. doi:10.1007/s00426-018-1132-2
Greenberg, M. (2020, October 20). Defining rumination. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from https://drmichaeljgreenberg.com/defining-rumination/