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Dwelling On The Past

Written by Rebecca Watterson


“Don’t dwell on it.” That age-old advice that we have heard time and again when something happens to us and we just can’t shake thoughts about it.  What we could have done differently? Why did that have to happen? I wish I had said or done something else.  But what is dwelling on the past all about? Why do we do it? And how can we begin to stop dwelling on the past and living in the present? 


What is it? 

Rumination is having repetitive, and often negative, thoughts – literally feeling stuck in your thoughts.  Some people call it a cycle of negativity or dwelling on the negative.  Your brain is stuck on repeat in an unhealthy place.  We all have that little voice in our heads that shows up at the worst times. We have had a great day and then we start to scrutinise what we look like.  We gave a presentation and then we start wishing we had said something else. Now for some of us, we can manage to silence that voice immediately, or after a few hours or days of it taunting us.  For others, that voice can last.  Sometimes we dwell on the words or actions of others – things that are beyond our control.  We get our heartbroken.  Someone hurts us unexpectedly.  An insensitive comment towards us.  Sometimes we dwell on the stresses we encounter in daily life.  Having an argument with our partner.  Failing an exam. Missing an appointment.  All these things can cause us to dwell on the past, and sometimes that can last for a long time. 


What does it feel like? 

Dwelling on the past for a prolonged period, and not accepting what has happened, can cause different symptoms such as those seen in people who suffer from anxiety and/or depression. These cycling negative thoughts can make you unable to relax, or feel tense, feel down or upset, feel guilty, feel isolated, and massively lower your self-esteem.  You might even encounter more physical symptoms such as a feeling of tiredness, difficulty sleeping, physical aches and pains with no apparent cause, and a feeling of restlessness or agitation.  Anxiety itself can also cause rumination about anxiety, or other negative experiences or situations, so the cycle can be very difficult to escape from.  We can also worry about being judged by others, which adds more negative thoughts, but also a sense of shame.  We feel we might not be accepted, or that people are “onto us” and then we worry even more.  Shame can increase our negative thoughts and add to our dwelling in the past. 


Why do we do it? 

We do it because we are human.  We do it because we are socially conditioned to always consider how we look to others, before we consider how we feel.  We do it because we don’t love ourselves.  We do it because it is easier to tell ourselves negatives than to feel as though we are being boastful or proud.  We do it because anxiety is a natural response that can sometimes go awry.  We do it, but we can change it.  It can be very difficult, but it can be done. 


How to challenge it? 

  1. Question the negative thought: When we realise that we are thinking something negative about ourselves or the past, and we are dwelling on it, we should try to question it.  Try to negate it.  Challenge that voice.  Push back as if it was someone else speaking to you.  How would you react if someone else was saying this to you? You will begin to break that voice down. 
  1. Write down the negative thought; change it to a positive or a rational thought: By writing down the negative thought, you are acknowledging it and admitting to yourself that you are saying these things to yourself.  By trying to change it to a positive thought or a rational thought, you are highlighting to your brain that the thought is not correct.  It is not helpful.  It is not real life.  This will help you begin to move forward. 
  1. Ask for support: Having a group of people, or even one person such as a friend or family member who can distract you from those thoughts and bring you back to a more grounded reality is a crucial way you can help yourself begin to stop dwelling on the past.  Asking for help also allows you to acknowledge that these thoughts are not helpful or healthy for you, which is the first step to stopping them. 
  1. Don’t be afraid of therapy: Therapy is a dirty word – but it shouldn’t be.  There is ZERO shame in having a therapist or attending therapy or counselling for however long you need to.  How can having someone who is objective listen to your thoughts and help you reach a solution, be bad? Therapy is a fundamental way we can take care of ourselves in our lives generally, but especially when we are having trouble with dwelling on the past.  It can be costly, but your GP should be able to refer you (there will likely be a waiting list) or some workplaces have counselling as part of their benefits package. 


I am an overthinker.  My voice appears sometimes.  It has caused me a lot of pain over the years, especially when I got stuck in a cycle of negativity over so many different things that had happened.  I still have things that have happened in my past that I hold onto, but I know when I am ready to face them, I will be able to deal with them properly and let them go.  Because I have started it already.  I am silencing that horrible little voice that wants to bring me down.  One day it will be silenced forever. 


You are strong.  You are worthy. You are important.  Your present is literally your life.  Don’t let it pass you by without trying to live it as much as you can.  The past is done, and the future can’t be seen.  Every day is where your focus should be.   



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