“I Can’t Stop Thinking About the Past” – The Dangers of Dwelling

Dwelling on the Past

Everyone has experienced the moments of melancholy that hit us when we think too much about the past. Sometimes they are triggered by a conversation with friends, sometimes by a song or a smell or clearing out the boxes from underneath the bed. Thinking about the past is a natural and often perfectly healthy thing to do when we let the moment drift past and return wholeheartedly to our lives in the present. Unfortunately, that isn’t always easy to do, especially when events in the past feel like a dark cloud hovering over our current lives or if our present feels like a pale shadow of the life we used to lead. Sometimes, thinking about the past take over our present completely.

Dwelling on the Negative

Psychologists refer to dwelling on negative things, in the past or present, as ‘ruminating’. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema at Yale University conducted numerous studies on ruminating and discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that people who persistently focus on negative things are far more likely to become and remain depressed. It sounds obvious when laid out that way; how can dwelling on the negative not lead to depression and misery?

Unfortunately, over the years, the media has popularised the idea that the only way to deal with events in the past that have had a negative impact on our lives is to talk about them. Talk therapy and psychotherapies are predicated on the idea that digging into our past can explain our present problems and emotions, which can certainly be true if you have an unexplained issue or emotional problem. This does not, however, mean that talking about the past can resolve those issues or emotional problems; there is a world of difference between identifying a trigger from the past and dwelling on the events that caused the trigger.

Dwelling on the negative things that happened to us only serves to prevent us from moving forward into the future. They become excuses and ‘reasons’ not to make steps in the present to correct issues in our lives and, more importantly, reliving distressing or traumatic events in the past over and over again in our heads reopens the wound time and time again, making it impossible to start to heal.

Rose Tinted Nostalgia

Conversely, for many adults the past was a simpler and happier time. As we get older, often our friendships become more difficult to maintain and making new friendships seems to border on the impossible. For those that did not find a partner early in life or who do not have a family around them, memories of the past can be extremely enticing. Reminding ourselves of a time when we felt carefree and had an abundance of friends before people paired up and settled down, or thinking of a time we used to be successful in our careers before becoming sick or entering a period of unemployment can remind us that we are capable of living a life that held happiness or meaning.

It is difficult to accept that life changes – especially when those changes leave us feeling lonely or unfulfilled. Nostalgic memories of happier times are one thing, but when this turns to self recrimination for ‘allowing’ our lives to get off track or bitterness and anger about whatever it is that we feel derailed things, thinking about past happiness becomes just as dangerous as thinking about past trauma.

Leaving the Past in the Past

Many people do not realise that it is possible to stop thinking about the past. They will insist that they cannot stop the thoughts that pop into their head and are unable to prevent the periods of rumination that bring them down and stop them from moving toward a happier and healthier future.

It is very difficult to stop thoughts from popping into your head. It is, however, entirely possible to prevent yourself from dwelling on those thoughts or giving them space in your head. Acknowledging that you get to choose what you spend your time focussing on is the first step, after understanding how dwelling on the past is damaging you, to healing in the present.

When thoughts of the past pop into your head, consider the following:

Have I thought about this before? Did thinking about it then resolve anything in my present? If the answer is no, then thinking about the past could well be damaging and engaging in something to distract yourself from your thoughts instead. Make a list of activities you can do that do not involve thinking about the past and have this on hand.

Is there a current problem that needs to be resolved? If there is a current issue or problem, instead of dwelling on the things in the past that led to the difficulties you are experiencing, get into problem solving mode instead. Make positive plans to deal with the problem or seek help from professionals offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapies to help with adjusting your mind-set and finding solutions to current issues. CBT is proven to be extremely effective for helping people reclaim their present from problems and issues caused by past events, without spending excessive time discussing them.

Will thinking about this change what happened? The answer is, assuredly, a solid no. Accepting the bad things that happened in the past or the things that changed our lives in negative ways to create our current future is a powerful tool. Practising self compassion and treating ourselves with kindness and respect goes a long way to helping us move forward. If you would not constantly remind someone you care about of traumatic and terrible things that happened to them in the past, or bring up perceived mistakes again and again, you should not do this to yourself either. You are as deserving of care, protection and compassion as anyone else.

The past has only as much power as we choose to give it. It is not easy and it takes effort but the reward is the future you are giving yourself by leaving the past where it belongs. You have the power to choose – choose to reclaim your present and stop letting the past steal your future. If you feel like you need help and support, join our forums and chat rooms and find other people facing the same problems and struggles; we are stronger together.

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20 Comments

  • I have suffered manic depression for 30 years and just happened to stumble upon this article, i couldn’t have expressed my thoughts as well as they have.
    i am a deep thinker and my whole life revolves around thought i relive over and over, i stay awake in the middle of the night writing down in my mind the same thing over and over ,correcting bad grammar and mistakes. i have been stuck in this trap for all these years . its strange, when i am in a supermarket i get this same old feeling that traps in my throat, it sends me wallowing down. i dont know why this is. i am getting on now and my psychical health is really poor and each night i say what i will do tomorrow, but it rarely happens, some thing always goes wrong. i have a little studio where i craft with wood and metal. this 6 weeks i have manged 2 -2 hour sessions and come back utterly shattered, and only fit to go straight to bed, only to wake later, and get on that same mode of transports, writing about bad mistakes of the past. thinking of what i will do tomorrow only to fail again.

  • My son committed suicide after being harassed and bullied by his step mother to leave the family home. I am struggling to forgive myself for not stopping this. Now I’m being told to leave the family home. I dwell on the memory of my gentle son and do not want to think about the future. I found this article very helpful but doubt I can follow the advice.

  • Freya, you write beautifully and succinctly, but while my mental illness allows me to recognise what needs to be done, it does not allow me to do it. I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel compelled to do it, but I keep revisiting the past through odd and unconnected times, places, people and events, maybe as a way of trying to figure out how I wound up where I am now. Thank you.

  • Hi my name is Stuart.
    I feel suicidal because I have let down the one I love and let down my 2 son’s.. family and indeed myself.
    I need help!!

    • Stuart,

      I just now read your post. I have done the same—7 years ago. Been battling depression off and on from then until now. How are you now?

    • hey stuart I’m ronin, I’m 15 but I’m not that naiive. depending on what u did u can always make up for it, it wont be easy and if its so bad you want to die then you know you need to make up for it because killing yourself would only end your suffering but add on to the suffering of your 2 sons and your loved ones. Besides killing yourself is the cowards way out, u don’t sound like a coward. you can and will get through this. then you’ll come out stronger than you’ve ever been and your relationship with your sons and loved ones will be strengthened as well. Make the right choice. Don’t do what you want, do what your kids need.

  • I’ve been battling depression for over 30 years. Next week is the 30 years and to be honest, I don’t think I’m going to want to keep going on. It’s not like my root cause is goig to go away; it’s not like some therapist is going to work magic on me and have me nice and resolute. My condition is solvable by ending the root cause of the problem – me.

  • Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and your heart. I can tell myself over and over again that I logically under stand dwelling on the past does no good. But I still find myself doing so. It revolves around two things: releasing the one person I probably truly loved the most in my life, and my obvious wrong choice in career path. As you said, I’m probably romanticizing the past and looking at it through rose-colored glasses. I’m also looking at it from an adult’s point of view, rather than a naive teenager’s. Still, I seemed to be less mature and realistic than my classmates, but I can’t go into the reasons that may be so — not right now. Of course, because of God d___ Facebook, I’ve seen how successful my classmates have become with careers and family. Yes, I know it didn’t just fall into their lap. It’s come from hard work and continual life struggles. But that’s just it. It’s my laziness and lack of assertiveness over 30 years that has left me at the edge of the rolling brook while others jumped in and have taken the challenge to keep their heads above water. Yes, I do dwell on this. I may use this as an excuse to not have to try hard. Whatever the case, I blew it and still won’t try. That makes myself feel pointless, useless, and just want to end it now before I find myself this way at 60. I know I won’t try in spite of the opportunities living in an advanced country, so what does therapy do? I deserve to be wiped off the face of the earth. It only takes one assertive action. Help…

  • Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and your heart. I can tell myself over and over again that I logically under stand dwelling on the past does no good. But I still find myself doing so. It revolves around two things: releasing the one person I probably truly loved the most in my life, and my obvious wrong choice in career path. As you said, I’m probably romanticizing the past and looking at it through rose-colored glasses. I’m also looking at it from an adult’s point of view, rather than a naive teenager’s. Still, I seemed to be less mature and realistic than my classmates, but I can’t go into the reasons that may be so — not right now. Of course, because of God d___ Facebook, I’ve seen how successful my classmates have become with careers and family. Yes, I know it didn’t just fall into their lap. It’s come from hard work and continual life struggles. But that’s just it. It’s my laziness and lack of assertiveness over 30 years that has left me at the edge of the rolling brook while others jumped in and have taken the challenge to keep their heads above water. Yes, I do dwell on this. I may use this as an excuse to not have to try hard. Whatever the case, I blew it and still won’t try. That makes myself feel pointless, useless, and just want to end it now before I find myself this way at 60. I know I won’t try in spite of the opportunities living in an advanced country, so what does therapy do? I deserve to be wiped off the face of the earth. It only takes one assertive action. Help.

  • Telling people to stop thinking about the past is simple and easy to do. Convincing people that it is worse than useless to ruminate about past failures and injustices is simple. If it were easy to stop doing it I would have stopped 45 years ago. The fact that I am now perusing suicide websites and looking for straws to clutch at – this tells you that I am close to taking my life.
    And all you have to offer is — not even a bandaid – just axioms of stupidity.
    If I don’t kill myself today – or this week or next month or after this next last straw effort to get it together – then I know I will be even older than now and there will be no hope at all.
    That is all that I know for certain.
    Nothing you have said has changed anything in my miserable life situation and you have not even offered any glimmer of hope that it will ever get better in this lifetime.

  • I too go over everything that has happened that took me from a happy life to being hopeless and suicidal. I play things over and pretend it did not happen and have created an illusory life. I do this because it is better than the real thing.

    I think that after a lifetime of struggling it is rational to want to end it all. If one really feels that way then what’s the problem

  • I am 37, female and never been married. I have been addicted to meth for several years now. I cant seem to get and stay clean. I lost my children to their father 8 years ago. The only man I have ever been in love with broke up with me and kicked me out 4 months ago. I have been wanting to die ever since. I feel so alone and sad all the time. I guess a better way to put it is that I just want the pain to stop.

  • I miss home. I miss the sense of home, the familiarity, the familiar people, the sense of family. I wish I could visit. Everything feels foreign to me and I can never seem to start a new home. It feels too cold and isolated. All the good things from the past that seem near impossible to ever have again.

  • This has been really helpful for me as I recently got dumped, and looking back on my relationship is stopping me from moving forward with my life. When bad things happen in my life I tend to give myself all of the blame, from now on I’m going to try to be kinder to myself. Thank you

  • Hi , I’m here today because I want to help myself to help her. I have had depression since the age of 2 and I’m 15 right now. I recently got a girlfriend and she makes me happy but I still feel dead inside. My pain started when my first sister passed away. All three of my sisters have passed away. Why cant I have sisters? My girlfriend says I need to stop dwelling and hurting myself, I want to listen and I want to stop but I’m scared that if I do then all the pain would just build up then explode. I also have a multiple personality disorder that doesn’t help at all. but the voices are there when I need them. I have tried all these alternatives but none of them work as good as ripping my flesh off with my nails. I want to end my suffering

  • I haven’t been battling depression as long as you have but I sympathize with you. Have you considered seeing a doctor and being put on anti-depressants? That’s what my doctor has done for me and it helps. I wish you all the best.

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