It’s perfectly normal to think about the past.
However, sometimes we can find ourselves thinking about the past so much that it begins to have a negative effect on our life in the present.
It’s easy for our minds to get ‘stuck’ in the past – and sometimes it’s difficult to bring ourselves back to the present moment.
We asked a selected group of experts to give us their best advice on how to stop thinking about the past.
Here’s what they said.
We’re Hardwired To Think About The Past
Elisebeth VanderWeil, Principal Consultant at Hand in the Dark Consulting
One reason we think about the past so much is that we are wired to do so.
Lots of our basic wiring is still in place from when we were prey more often than not. Our default settings are designed to keep us safe and thinking about the past is one way we do this.
Frustratingly, we focus primarily on ‘bad’ things in the past; again, this is designed to help us avoid ‘bad’ things happening again.
This is why gratitude journals are so important for people who want to shift away from this. We literally won’t remember the good stuff unless we work at it.
Also, holding a ‘memorial service’ for a past event, aspect of self, or relationship is a very good way to move forward in gratitude for how the past has contributed to the person you are now.
Another helpful thing to understand about memories is that they degrade with each touch, like an oil painting.
Every time we bring a memory to consciousness, we change it.
If an aspect of the past seems to be haunting you, knowing that this is a ‘ghost’ that bears very little resemblance (after so many touches) to actual events or people can help exorcise it.
Use Your Body To Help You Move On From The Past
Vanessa Broers, Life and Performance Coach
One of the biggest missed opportunities when moving away from thinking so much about the past is paying more attention to the body.
We spend so much time trying to control and influence our thinking, but these past-based emotions come from the unconscious mind and the body is the unconscious mind.
What I mean by that is that the body has stored emotional memory. The central nervous system is always scanning your inner and outer environment looking for threats that it has experienced before so as not to repeat them.
What we miss, however, is that even when we are training our minds to be focused on the future by setting new goals or changing our outer circumstances, the body responds by sending old familiar emotional signals like fear, doubt and overwhelm to pull you back to what is comfortable and familiar, ie: the past.
The point being, even if you set your mind to something, you have to get, and keep your body on board if you want to really change and stop thinking about the past.
So the key to stopping thinking about the past in your mind, is actually the body. We have to train our bodies to experience the present.
The present always feels calm, neutral, peaceful, abundant and limitless. If we’re not in this state, we’re likely in a projection of past difficult emotional experiences, loaded up through the body and the mind responds by thinking about it.
Emotions and thoughts are two sides of the same coin. You can train your body through both breathwork and meditation to gradually release these old stored emotional memories in the body and actually condition it into a more peaceful state.
As you do this over time, you gradually live in the present for longer and longer periods of time. You also find that when you encounter new challenges, they don’t knock you off your center for as long as they used to.
Try this: Set a timer for five minutes. In that time, take deep, long slow breaths imagining holding the energy at the top of your head. Hold the breath, then release and relax. Repeat this for five minutes.
Then sit for 15 to 45 minutes after and feel yourself enter a much calmer, more neutral space.
Allow whatever thoughts and feelings to just come up and disappear. The breath helps calm the mind so that the body can relax.
The more you do this, the more the body learns that the emotionally stored memories are of the past and no longer try so hard to influence the mind to ruminate on them, leaving space to meet and enjoy the present.
Reframing The Event Or Memory Can Help You To Let It Go
Eli Bliliuos, Certified Hypnotist at NYC Hypnosis Center
Everyone is shaped or impacted by past events. Even people who don’t think about them are still impacted by them.
Regardless of what my clients want to work on, I find that the unconscious mind is holding onto an event from the past that is causing the challenge.
Our past experiences shape the way we see the world. As an example, someone who has been cheated on may have a difficult time trusting others or may become obsessed with their partner because of the infidelity.
A child who only wants love from a parent may feel unworthy or unimportant because of a verbally abusive parent.
Ask yourself what you would say to your child if they were impacted by a memory they could not stop thinking about. Then say that out loud to yourself in the mirror.
By tapping into the unconscious mind in hypnosis, we can reframe the event or memory and help you to let it go.
Give Yourself The Closure Your Mind Is Seeking
Heather Z. Lyons, Licensed Psychologist and Owner of The Baltimore Therapy Group
When we find it’s difficult to let go of the past it’s usually because we haven’t gotten closure.
When we have what psychologists call ‘unfinished business’ or ‘incomplete gestalts’, we’re more apt to perseverate on that experience in an attempt to bring the experience to completion.
Think about looking at a photograph, what holds the most attention for you? One where all of the details of someone’s face are in view or one where part of the face is obstructed or maybe where someone is turned away.
The mystery holds our attention as we try to complete the image in our minds. The same is true of the relationships and events in our lives.
For this reason, the best advice is to create ways to close the gestalt.
If you’re having trouble getting over a relationship, write a letter to the person you’re thinking of and say what you need to, unedited. You don’t need to send the letter for this to be helpful.
You might also consider sitting two chairs across from each other. Sit in one and imagine that person is sitting across from you and talk to them.
When what you’re trying to get over is related to an event, consider visiting the location and staying there for a while to allow yourself to imagine the event.
The Past Is An Old Melody That Can Be Reharmonized
Michael Alcee, Clinical Psychologist
Sigmund Freud felt that we repeated and replayed the past so often because we had an obsessive desire to make it better and have it redeemed in the present. He called it the repetition compulsion.
So, here’s the key. It’s not possible or even healthy to stop thinking about the past.
Like the characters in the movie ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, though we yearn for a magic cure for our torments, it would also erase our greatest joys.
Instead of stopping the past, try to find ways in which the past is alive in the present, and provide some insight and space for some new creative act to help your story unfold with greater possibility.
As Emily Dickinson said, ‘I dwell in possibility. A fairer house than prose.’
Without the proper mindset and approach, the past can lead to a prosaic rather than poetic approach to life.
In other words, try to catch the past’s attempts at replaying the old script and notice why it has felt so inevitable, what it has been trying to protect, and what it is trying to open the way for.
Viewed musically, the past is an old theme that we can make into a new variation. Or put another way, it is an old melody that can be reharmonized.
This isn’t always easy to do on our own, which is why therapy can be so useful. Therapy is one of the best technologies we have for helping us to make something creative out of the past, moving from what is just familiar and repetitive to that which feels strangely – and refreshingly – new.
The Present Moment Is The Only Time Period In Which We Actually Live
Anne-Marie Emanuelli, Creative Director and Founder of Mindful Frontiers
Amongst meditation experts, the understanding of ‘why we think about the past so much’ is that the past is an experience of our life to which we attach meaning because we lived the details of the event personally.
Our ego also clings strongly to the past because it is where a sense of our identity lies.
The reason past thoughts are problematic is that we mix them up with actual reality, thereby creating a faulty story of suffering.
The present moment is the only time period in which we actually live – the direct or actual reality that unfolds in the here and now.
In the Buddhist teaching of the Five Skandhas (Five Conditions) we interact with our environment to “create what we ordinarily perceive as conventional human reality as opposed to actual reality.” (from ‘The Five Conditions’, an article by Sensei Sean Murphy).
Through meditation and mindfulness, the Five Conditions help us understand our perceptions, past conditioning, and personal history that causes suffering.
It is presented as a chain that begins with Sensation/Perception (first encounter with a thought), followed by Feeling (like or dislike), proceeds with Reaction (emotions related to the thought) and then with Interpretation (where the thought enters consciousness) and if left unchecked will end up in the Story (the place where meaning is created around the thought; usually faulty and irrational) that causes suffering.
When a person meditates using open awareness, a type of meditation practice during which all thoughts and awareness are allowed and acknowledged, they are accepting whatever comes to mind at that moment.
During an open awareness practice, thoughts come and go with equanimity (non-judgement or attachment).
With practice, this kind of mindful meditation allows us to be focused on the present moment, and not get distracted by past thoughts.
We don’t ruminate about them, or let them take over our consciousness with stories of pain and suffering.
That would be called “gasping”, “clinging”, and “aversion” which is explained in the second of the four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
By accepting thoughts with equanimity and allowing them to dissipate, we understand that there is a way out of suffering (The Third Noble Truth).
Through meditation, mindfulness, non-attachment, and self-compassion (The Fourth Noble Truth), we can reach enlightenment, which is basically just a calm state of present-moment awareness that all is well, here and now.
The more a person practices mindful meditation skills, the better and more proficient the person will become in not allowing their mind to ruminate about the past.
As explained in ‘Altered Traits’ by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, when a group of highly experienced meditators were studied, “Other signs of the yogis’ expertise include stopping and starting meditative states in seconds, and effortlessness in meditation (particularly among the most seasoned).”
This suggests that a proficient meditator may be able to come in and out of present-moment awareness and relaxation, thereby not getting caught up in ruminating the past.
It Takes Practice
Rachel Austen, Chartered Occupational Psychologist and Founder of Austen Advisory
From an evolutionary perspective, our minds are build to zoom into negative information and hold onto it as a protection mechanism.
In some ways, this is helpful – you don’t want to forget there is a predator around or in modern day, step in front of a bus.
Whilst being attuned to negative events certainly help us identify and fix problems, many people can get stuck in the past, fixating and ruminating on it, which is unhelpful.
It’s difficult to see the upside and it takes work. We have to put effort into looking at the bright side. But, we can counteract this negativity bias with practice.
For example, try spending a few minutes each day thinking about what you’re grateful for, or asking yourself ‘what have I learned from this?’