Many of us revisit our past to gain new insights or try to heal from traumatic experiences. However, doing this often can backfire and cause us to relive painful experiences instead of moving on from them. We should look at our past as a learning tool, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes; however, many people become stuck in a cycle of rumination. The past simply harbors stories we tell ourselves, but that doesn’t mean they have to define us.

We get to choose how those experiences shaped us. For example, if you grew up in a turbulent environment, perhaps you can choose to see the silver lining and look at how that shaped your character. You probably had to be resourceful, resilient, and durable at a young age. Maybe this helped you remain calm in your adulthood when bad situations came your way. 

“To get over the past, you first have to accept that the past is over. No matter how many times you revisit it, analyze it, regret it, or sweat it…it’s over. It can hurt you no more.” ? Mandy Hale

We can always put a spin on past situations and look at them with rose-colored glasses. This doesn’t mean the past didn’t hurt us, but by choosing not to let the past define your present, you can successfully move on and feel inner peace. 

A dangerous cycle

Replaying old scenarios only serves to take away your power in the now. If you live in the moment and choose thoughts that empower you, then the past can no longer dictate your life. However, by rehashing painful memories of the past constantly, those thoughts will always control you and bring your energy down. Living in negativity can harm your health, as studies have shown. 

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., science director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, said that negative emotions such as anger and fear could become a problem when they become someone’s disposition rather than just temporary feelings. This negative outlook on life can have an impact on your physical health as well.

In fact, a 2014 study published in the journal Neurology found a link between high levels of cynicism later in life and a heightened risk of dementia compared to more trusting people. This held true even after accounting for other risk factors like age, sex, lifestyle habits such as smoking, and heart health. This way of thinking may also hurt your heart.

A 2009 study published in the journal Circulation analyzed data from nearly 100,000 women and found that the most cynical participants were more likely to have heart disease than less cynical people. The more pessimistic women also carried a higher risk of dying during the study period than those who had a more positive outlook about the world. However, thoughts and beliefs are not set in stone. You’re welcome to change them whenever you want. 

Something called neuroplasticity allows us to create new neural pathways in our brains when exposed to new stimuli. Exercises such as cognitive training, physical activity, getting adequate sleep, and eating healthy foods all promote brain health and the creation of new pathways. 

Now you know how malleable the brain is. So let’s go over how ruminating on the past can harm your mental and physical health.

thinking about the past
Science reveals healthy brain habits.

Here are seven ways scientists say thinking about the past can harm your health: 

Ruminating is not a good form of self-reflection because it stirs up unpleasant memories and often does nothing to alleviate psychological pain. It can enhance negative feelings because nothing can be done about the past. It cannot be changed, so the only logical solution is to simply move on. However, many people have a hard time accepting traumatic experiences in the past and get stuck in cycles of replaying these situations.

However, remaining in a negative state only serves to bring more of these experiences into your field of awareness, as this is the vibration you’re putting out. Here are the ways that rumination can harm your health.

1 – Ruminating can become another addiction and form of escape.

Just like drugs, alcohol, sex, or any other addiction, ruminating can feel right at first because it takes you out of the present moment. Humans can become addicted to anything that brings them temporary pleasure, even if it ends up harming them in the long run. 

2 – Rumination can lead to depression.

Moreover, it can increase the likelihood of having recurring depressive episodes. Living in the past leads to depression because it makes us feel powerless. We can’t change it, but we want to justify what happened to us somehow. Of course, the only way to successfully deal with the past is to accept it and move on. The future is waiting for us, and we deserve to give ourselves a shot at happiness. 

3 – Rumination can lead to alcohol or drug abuse.

The cycle goes like this: we think about a distressing event in our past, decide to numb our pain with substances and repeat this on a daily or weekly basis. You can see how this is maladaptive and can lead to serious health problems in the long term.

4 – Rumination can also lead to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorders.

Many people like to use food to numb their emotions, or on the other end of the spectrum, choose not to eat to punish themselves for their past. Either way, this behavior can lead to dangerous health problems such as heart issues and digestive disorders. 

anorexia nervosa signs

5 – Rumination usually leads to negative thinking if not kept in check.

Thinking negatively about our past invites these feelings into our present, which makes us feel powerless to change our lives. The future depends on our present actions, but if we constantly live in the past, then we cannot effectively make changes toward our future.

6 – Rumination can hinder problem-solving abilities.

For example, one study found that women who discovered a lump in their breast who also had ruminative tendencies waited two months longer to schedule a doctor’s appointment than women who didn’t ruminate. This can have disastrous effects on health.

7 – Ruminating increases psychological stress and cortisol levels

This point exposes a health danger. Increased stress leads lead to cardiovascular and heart disease in the future. Anytime the body is in a prolonged stressful state, the immune system can’t work as well, which can lead to disease.

How to stop thinking about the past

Because ruminating tends to work in cycles, the only way out is to simply find a new habit to occupy your time. When we live too much in the past, perhaps that means we don’t have enough going on to keep our minds focused on the here and now. The next time you catch yourself ruminating, distract your mind by going for a jog, watching a funny TV show, or anything else that releases endorphins. We want to increase our feel-good hormones, not deplete them with destructive habits such as rumination.

Humans easily pick up on habits, but the problem is, many of us reinforce destructive habits. Whether that’s having a few too many glasses of wine after work to calm our nerves, overeating, or even sleeping too much, we can become addicted to bad habits quite quickly.

Unfortunately, depression is on the rise in our modern world, and perhaps rumination is a key factor in this uptick in mental issues. By removing ourselves from the present moment and rehashing the past, we don’t leave ourselves much room to experience joy. Also, forgiveness plays a key role in our ability to move on from the past. Whether that means forgiving ourselves or others for wrongdoings, being able to practice forgiveness is essential in moving on. 

thinking about the pastLearning the art of forgiveness

Here’s how to forgive, according to Dr. Robert Enright, a pioneer in the field of forgiveness:

  1. Know that forgiveness is always in reach
  2. Make a choice to forgive
  3. Make a list of people to forgive
  4. Honor your feelings before forgiving them
  5. Commit to forgiving them
  6. Consider how you might have hurt others as well

In this step, feel free to reach out to those who you think deserve an apology. It might bruise your ego, but you will feel much lighter after going through this essential step.

  1. Realize that everyone is human and makes mistakes, including you
  2. Open your heart
  3. Realize the pain makes you stronger

You might feel pain during this phase, but realize that the experience made you more resilient and built your character. Being able to forgive people is an essential part of being human. This skill will help you later on when you encounter others who hurt you.

  1. Reflect on what you’ve learned

forgiving someoneFinal Thoughts on How Thinking About the Past Damages Your Well-being

Being able to forgive yourself or others is a courageous act, and often sheds light on the human condition. So give up on obsessively thinking about the past. Instead, realize the struggles people go through daily. And you also learn that their negative feelings toward you are just a reflection of something they’re going through internally. Don’t take it personally.