How to Stop Living in the Past

The past is no place to park yourself for a lifetime. Why you look backwards. Where you get stuck. And how to pack your baggage to be and live here now.

Lu Hanessian, MSc

There’s ‘been there, done that’.

And there’s… ‘been there, stayed there’. Bought real estate there.

Maybe it’s an old relationship (unforgiven). A past conversation (interrupted). A former job (quit, fired), missed opportunity (that ship sailed), betrayal (still fresh), or bitter disappointment (still bitter).

It’s an old house. You know it well. Every nook. All the dustballs and cobwebs in your mind. You rarely leave those cramped, familiar quarters. Like the doors are always locked from the inside.

As a conflict resolution practitioner, I have listened to many locked door stories. I’ve facilitated resolution between people. And within people.

Our own inner conflict emerges between reality and a story we tell about it. We get stuck. Gridlocked. As we look for any piece of information to confirm that old story, we are actively living in retrospect.

And now? In this era of timelessness and uncertainty, where the future seems like a mirage, living in the past can become our preferred default mode.

Unmet needs can show up as ruts. We get mired in the quicksand of the past.

Rumination is not a bad habit or lousy character trait. It’s a state of mind and body. A mutual messaging system. It’s a way of trying to make sense of something. The problem is that we never do make sense of it. It grips us. Drains us. Compromises our health. And relationships.

How can we recognize that we are recycling old stories? And once we see the pattern, how can we change it? What would make us want to?

Once we figure out the dynamics of “been there, stayed there”, we can learn to shift. Our state. Our awareness. Our attention. And our internal clock — from then to now.

Dynamic #1. By rehashing old scenes, we reinforce patterns of thinking and reacting. (It’s our story. And we’re sticking to it.)

By revisiting an event, a conversation, a relationship, a window of time, again and again and again, we train our brains to fire a certain way.

Neuropsychologists say we’re activating our “self-referential circuit”. For example, this shows up in depression research as a “persistent, repetitive” self-criticism. Otherwise known as ‘ruminative brooding’.

Rumination is not benign. By repeating and rehashing our thoughts, brooding, we reinforce old patterns of thinking and painful patterns of reacting. We run them and react to them again and again, until we’re convinced there have only ever been two choices to anything in our life: The right one and one we chose. (Rumination and regret spend a lot of time together.)

Re-living the past means we’re living somewhere else.

Some of our replaying is self-protective. Painful memories often live in our body, not because we’re intentionally storing them, but because the brain and nervous system is organized to file them for later processing.

Dynamic #2. The longer we store unprocessed fear, the more our bodies remember. (It alters our state.)

The more fear shows up in unexpected ways. When our mind feels scrambled, stuck on spin cycle, our thoughts can feel like the silver ball in the pinball machine. Pinging from edge to edge until it falls through and comes back up for more.

Our body feels it all. And negatively adapts.

Racing thoughts mean a racing heart. Patterns of feeling and thinking are associated with physiological ways of reacting.

If you experience a stressor — say, a thought or event —and feel something activate in you, you react. That chain reaction of stress responses happens without your intention or permission.

You fight (lash out, defend, argue, feel anxious, angry, escalate). You flee (check out, run away, hide, avoid, feel anxious, hibernate). In both cases, you mobilize. If fight or flight stress responses don’t reduce the discomfort of your stressor, you numb out, collapse, immobilize. You freeze.

There are powerful modalities to help us through these tender, tangled places. Personal and professional support, excellent reading sources, and other generative pathways for health and wellbeing can turn up plenty of potential resources.

Learning and practicing self-regulation helps to calm the body, and stabilize the nervous system. Once our body feels calm, even for short periods, we can work with our thoughts and beliefs. A calm body makes way for clearer thinking.

Dynamic #3. Re-living the past keeps us stuck between reactivity and resistance. (It’s familiar.)

Ruminating over the years we think we “wasted” doesn’t bring them back. It brings us backward. Like a clock that’s stopped and tells the same time no matter how many times we’ve orbited the sun.

Living in the past is a feedback loop. All repetition, no restoration. We get into two rigid cycles. Cycles of reaction and resistance that keep us locked in an uncomfortable, but familiar place. And that’s part of the lure: It’s a known entity.

Reactivity: The anxious cycle (future tense)

We are tense about what might lie ahead. So we brace. We live in a place of constant cognitive and biological vigilance. Like our nervous system has high beams on all the time. It’s all unknown. Unlike the past, for which there is nothing to prepare for or predict. Nothing to lose or protect.

We can feel exhausted, helpless, anxious, vulnerable to outside forces that can potentially hurt and thwart us and people we care about. These future worries are based on past experiences.

Stuck in reactivity — even if it’s anticipatory fear — is another way we live in the past. We revert to past experiences that taught us to expect the worst. We replay old fears and hurts that keep us immobilized.

Resistance: The vicious cycle (past tense)

We are tense about what has already transpired. So, we “chew it over”, “turn it over in our mind”. Every time we turn it over, we feel it all over. We live it again. And again.

ruminari, v; Latin; 1530s; “to chew the cud”, “to turn over in the mind”

By chewing it over, we become invested in the past. Hey, it doesn’t argue with us. There’s no risk. No surprises. No more potential for disappointment or failure. No demand for change. But…

The fallout of perpetuating these dynamics is that we live small. We shrink. We minimize. Immobilize. And we suffer. Not only does life pass us by while we’re looking backward, but we lose our capacity to cope, to hope, and to dream.

The most painful fallout of living in the past? We stop growing. Time passed becomes time past.

Living in the past keeps us from being present to ourselves now. We are not allowing ourselves to be in relationship with ourselves — to update who we are in this present reality.

It’s never too late to interrupt these patterns of avoidance and aversion. Thanks to neuroplasticity — our brain’s capacity to grow and change — what we practice grows.

We can develop a new practice. How? Here are 6 science-based suggestions.

Get curious. About what exactly? (Good start.)

Curiosity promotes brain growth. Literally. The more you reflect on what is bothering and blocking you, the more you grow new neural pathways.

The denser your brain tissue, the smarter you become. Not quantum physics smart, but emotionally intelligent. That kind of process boosts every system in your body. Immune. Heart. Respiratory. Inflammatory. Integrative.

Curiosity builds connective tissue. It invites inquiry. It keeps you occupied in the now. It asks you to be patient. And trust.

Next level? Call up a fear — of rejection, of loss, of failure, of success — and trace it to its birthplace. How many of your frustrations and concerns are rooted in the past? How does past fear show up in your life now? What’s its pattern? How do you know? What terms and conditions are you living by?

Living in the past can be an indefinite waiting place. Waiting for what?

Come to your senses.

Occupy the moment. This requires us to become curious about our own present moment experience. What are you aware of right now? You can use your five senses to get some specific intel. Our senses give us information about our experience and environment. Right. This. Minute.

This awareness gets you out of your default mode network (DMN) in your brain — the region neuroscientists have nicknamed the “home of personal melodrama” — and gets you into the area that mediates awareness, sensory information, self-reflection, self-knowing.

Coming to our senses means we are directing attention inward, not backward. Focusing on the past doesn’t allow us to hear what’s around us now. Being in nature connects you to your own nature.

Your brain takes note, and cc’s the rest of your body to get on the same page.

Get anchored.

How you breathe affects your state. Shallow or erratic signals danger to the body’s stress sensors. Even a minute of attending to the rhythm of your heart and lungs anchors you to the present moment. Breathing brings you here.

Settle, stabilize, and shift. When we become aware of the present moment feeling, thought, sensation we can begin to modify it. Even a hair. From anxious to less anxious. From less anxious to relatively calm. And so forth.

Gradually, this breath anchoring tethers you to the moment. You’re building a foundation for self-regulation. That will allow you to eavesdrop on what’s going on inside you in the moment — and notice your reaction.

Notice your body’s reactions to stressors.

Sensory data aligns our minds and bodies with reality. It’s what we’re noticing in this snapshot of time. We can take these bits of data in without judgment. And without a story attached.

What am I feeling right now? Where do I feel it? What do I need right now? What’s another way of seeing this?

Toggling between sensation, breath, thoughts and emotions is a fascinating and powerful process of self-regulation. Using both bottom up (calming up through the body) and top down (using cognitive processes) regulation is a two-way system.

With practice, we can get better and quicker at calming. And noticing...

Notice what you’re trying to avoid.

Once you are feeling connected in body and mind, you will notice things. Curiosity creates more space inside us. In that open space, you may feel more tethered to yourself. As though the ground feels more solid. You don’t feel bound to that reflexive old sense of floating or wanting to distract or hide.

You can tolerate more. Your bandwidth is expanding. Things that drove you nuts a little while don’t bug you as much now. Your window of discomfort is wider. You’ve noticed that all these feelings and sensations… pass. If you let them go.

Your thinking is a little different now, isn’t? It’s not so rigid anymore. You notice that your stress response is less reactive, more proactive. Less out of your control, and more within your range of choice. You are starting to see that the past is no place to park yourself for a lifetime. You start packing your baggage.

Now that you are here, you can ask yourself some tougher questions with tender care. What does your heart want? What is your hope for yourself? What work do you long to do in this world? What has been stopping you? What does living in the past allow you to avoid?

Reframe.

More grounded, open, curious, and tolerant, you can question beliefs. Explore your intepretation of things. Learn to discern how you see. How the way you see has narrowed or expanded your repertoire of actions.

Recall an old story that still activates you today. The past is present. Ask yourself what you still believe about it, about yourself, about others. How do you tell the story to yourself? And what is the consequence of that angle of storytelling? How do you feel because of it? What do you feel and do next?

With curiosity and self-empathy, ask yourself: what’s another way of seeing that? Am I telling myself the whole truth about it?

By questioning our own perception, without judgment, we begin to consider other angles. Like pulling our eye away from a pinhole and noticing a whole vista before us.

Changing the way you feel changes the way you see.

Becoming aware of what you’re avoiding and recycling helps you make micro-moment decisions about what you know to be true right now.

Being present is not a goal. It’s a given. We’re given this moment. Presence is a series of moments. Moments are fleeting, because we are always growing.

Reframing allows us to look within, instead of looking backward. We can access our our inner gridlock, and loosen it. We can respond to ourselves with courage, compassion — and respect.

Finding our way from past to present with hope for the future is an act self-respect. Respect. Another word of intriguing Latin origin: respicere, v. ‘look back at’.

Researcher, educator, journalist, former NBC network anchor/Discovery Health Channel. Brain. Resilience, Media. Health. Culture. Education. Social Change.

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