How to let go of the past
Reflecting on the past is essential for helping us learn from our experiences, and for coming to terms with what’s happened to us. But when you spend too much time mentally rehashing past events, it becomes rumination – one of the most destructive habits for our mental wellbeing.
‘When we ruminate, we start to make up stories,’ says psychotherapist Rachel Shattock Dawson. ‘Rumination is thinking with a negative filter – it ignores things that have gone well.’
Dr Fiona Kennedy, consultant clinical psychologist and co-author of Get Your Life Back (Robinson, £12.99), agrees. ‘Ruminating about the past can produce flight or fight changes in our bodies,’ she says. ‘Our brains monitor these changes and take them as a sign that we’re in danger.’
Use these expert-approved tips to help you let go of the past…
‘We can spend so much time thinking about the past that we don’t have room to see or feel what is around us now,’ says Dr Kennedy. ‘Grounding encourages our minds to concentrate on and really experience where we are now. It’s about focusing on sensations in the present moment, even when we are bombarded with rumination and worry.’ An easy way to remain in the present is to carry something with you like a stone that you can touch and focus on. ‘Ask yourself, is it smooth, is it cold,’ advises Dr Kennedy. ‘Or some people find it helpful to put a loose-fitting elastic band on their wrist and flick it when they need to come back to the present moment.’
Detach from your thoughts
Using ‘detached mindfulness’ – i.e. seeing your thoughts as just thoughts, rather than a reflection of reality – not only reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression, it also stops them from coming back, according to a new study from Norway. One way to use detached mindfulness is to think, ‘I am having the thought that [whatever you are ruminating about].’ By acknowledging what you are thinking instead of fighting it, you are giving yourself a reality check and reminding yourself that these really are just thoughts rather than facts.
Schedule ‘worry time’
Set aside 30 minutes in the evening where you allow yourself to think exclusively about the past. ‘It’s a way of putting yourself back in control of your rumination, instead of it controlling you,’ says Shattock Dawson. ‘If thoughts about the past come up during the day, tell yourself you’ll think about that at “worry time”. Make a note of them if it helps, and then try to distract yourself by going for a short walk, doing some exercise, reading a book or phoning a friend.’ Then when ‘worry time’ comes, set a timer and only allow yourself to think for 30 minutes. Notice the difference the thinking creates in your mood. When the time is up, get up and distract yourself. ‘As time goes on, you may find that when worry time comes, you don’t want to spend it ruminating,’ says Shattock Dawson.
Fill a ‘worry bucket’
If ruminating is stopping you sleeping, imagine a bucket being lowered from the ceiling, says Shattock Dawson. ‘Visualise putting each of the things that you are ruminating about into the bucket,’ she says, ‘then imagine pulling it up to the ceiling. You can tell yourself that you can have your worries back later, once you’ve had some sleep.’
So many of us think it’s a good thing to be hard on ourselves, and to not ‘let ourselves off the hook’ about past mistakes. But how can you ever feel good about yourself when you have a mental tape of ‘My Top 10 Failures’ running on repeat? It’s easy to be wise in hindsight, but you made the choices you did because of what was going on at the time. And studies show that being more accepting and forgiving of our past mistakes makes us more motivated to make positive changes. Try taking a piece of paper and writing down what comes to mind when you ask yourself this question: ‘How could my life be better if I let go of thinking of myself in this way?’
Use a mantra
Create a positive affirmation that you can repeat when you catch yourself going into rumination mode, such as, ‘I choose to let this go and, in doing so, I set myself free.’