How To Stop Thinking About The Past: 7 Strategies

You’ve tried a million times to stop thinking about the past, but no matter how hard you try, your mind always ends up stuck on things that happened long ago.

woman looking out the window thinking

Whether it’s a traumatic event, a hurtful memory, or prior everyday happenings, thoughts about the past can be hard to shake.

The good news is that it is possible to finally break free from your memories’ grip on you.

To help you focus your thoughts on the here and now, I’m sharing seven effective strategies for getting out of the negative zone of past thoughts and stepping into a better mental state.

However, first, it’s crucial to figure out why you think about the past so much in the first place.

Related: How To Declutter Your Mind: 10 Powerful Strategies

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Why Do We Think Of The Past So Much?

woman looking sad thinking

You aren’t alone if you find yourself constantly thinking about the past.

Many people find themselves thinking about previous life experiences, and often have trouble moving their minds to the present day. 

There are all sorts of reasons why we might dwell on things that have already happened, but some of the most common include the following:

Trying to make sense of what happened:

We often ruminate on past events as we attempt to understand them better. If something doesn’t make sense to us, we might keep going over it in our minds in the hopes of finding an answer.

Wanting to change the outcome:

It’s natural to wish things happened differently, but dwelling on what could have been won’t change anything. This type of thinking can lead to feelings of regret, bitterness, and resentment.

Avoiding current painful emotions:

Sometimes we think about the past to avoid intense emotions happening in the here and now.

If we’re not ready to deal with these feelings, we might try to push them away by thinking about happy thoughts from the past.

However, this strategy usually backfires, as the repressed emotions often come back even stronger.

Reliving past traumatic events:

Traumatic memories can be complicated to shake since they impact your central nervous system.

If you obsessively think about a traumatic experience, you may need professional help to overcome it. 

Being reminded of the past:

Memories can be triggered by all sorts of things, like sights, smells, sounds, or a connection request on social media.

When we’re suddenly reminded of something or someone from our past experiences, it can be difficult to shake those thoughts and move on.

Dwelling on repetitive negative thoughts:

Often, we find ourselves ruminating on a loop of negativity. The thoughts pop into our brains and then play repeatedly, like a broken record.

This can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

No matter why the past keeps rising to the surface, it’s important to find a way to change your mental state and focus on the present, so you can build the life you want to live.

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7 Ways To Stop Thinking About The Past

how to stop thinking about the past. 7 tips that help

Here are seven of the best ways to stop thinking about the past:

1. Take Notice And Understand Your Triggers

The first step in letting go of the past is discovering your triggers.

  • When do you find yourself thinking about things that you can’t change?
  • Is it when you’re alone or when you’re around certain people?
  • What are you doing when the thoughts start to creep in? Are you working, sleeping, or relaxing?

By understanding your triggers, you can start to take control of your thoughts.

For instance, if you know that you’re more likely to dwell on the past when you’re tired, you can work on changing your sleeping habits to get enough shut-eye each night. 

Or if you find yourself creating what-if scenarios about past relationships when you’re around certain people, you may need to limit your time with them.

Start paying attention to what is happening around you when obsessive thoughts creep in.

My Mood Tracking Journal can be a simple way to document your thoughts and emotions so you can begin looking for patterns or triggers.

Though it may take time to get into the habit of journaling, it’ll be worth it in the end. You’ll take positive action in the here and now instead of dwelling on the past.

2. Try Some Mindfulness Exercises

women practicing mindfulness on beach

Mindfulness is all about being present. When you’re mindful, you make a conscious effort to focus on your current surroundings, experiences, and thoughts.

Doing some mindfulness exercises can be a helpful way to stop thinking about old thoughts because it breaks the habit of rumination.

Instead of dwelling on things you can’t change, you’re training your brain to focus on the present moment.

There are all sorts of mindfulness exercises that you can try, but some simple ones include:

  • Focused breathing: Close your eyes and take deep, slow breaths. As you inhale and exhale, pay attention to the sensations in your body.
  • Counting: Start by counting to 10. Once you get to 10, start over again. If your mind wanders, that’s okay. Gently bring your attention back to the task at hand.
  • Observing your surroundings: Take a few minutes to look around you and notice the details of your environment. What do you see, smell, and hear? Focus on each sense one at a time.
  • Engaging in mindfulness meditation: There are all sorts of mindfulness meditation exercises that you can try. One popular option is the body scan, which has you focus on each part of your body, from your toes to your head. Another is mindful walking meditation, which involves paying attention to your breath and your surroundings as you walk.
  • Using a mindfulness app: If you need guidance to get started, there are plenty of great mindfulness apps, such as Headspace or Calm.

More mindfulness exercises: How To Practice Mindfulness: 14 Techniques for Everyday Life

3. Challenge Your Negative Thoughts

Often, the repetitive thoughts in your head aren’t grounded in truth. Instead, they’re based on your own biases and assumptions. 

Once you start questioning your troubling thoughts, you’ll realize that they’re not as accurate as you believed.

To challenge your negative thoughts, ask yourself questions like:

  • What evidence do I have to support this thought?
  • Is there another way to look at this situation?
  • How would I feel if I didn’t have this thought?
  • What would I tell a friend or family member in this situation?

As you answer the questions, you’ll likely find the evidence is flimsy. That’s because there’s no truth behind what you’re thinking.

Since truth triumphs over untruths, simply challenging your unwanted thoughts breaks their power over you. 

4. Practice Gratitude 

When you’re caught up in the past, it’s easy to forget all the good things happening in your life right now.

Practicing gratitude can help shift your focus from the negative to the positive.

Each day, take a few minutes to write down things you’re grateful for on a piece of paper or in a journal. It can be anything from your health to a great cup of coffee in the morning.

Keeping a gratitude journal can help you see that even though the past may not have been ideal, better things are occurring daily. 

In addition to helping you focus on happy thoughts, researchers have discovered that practicing gratitude can actually change your brain and help you enter a more peaceful state of mind. 

They learned that people who regularly practice gratitude have more positive emotions, feel more connected to others, and even sleep better. These things can help you overcome rumination and move on from the past.

It’s like self-help author Melody Beattie said: 

“​​Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

5. Make Goals And Take Action Towards Them

Where do you want to be a year from now? Five years from now? Ten years from now?

It can be hard to let go of the past without a clear vision for the future. When you have goals and dreams to look forward to, it’s easier to focus on the present moment.

So take some time to consider your long-term goals.

  • What do you want to achieve?
  • Write down what your ideal life would look like and create a vision board to help you visualize it.

Once you have a clear idea of what you want, think about what you need to do to make it happen. Break your action steps down into tiny, manageable pieces. 

Then every day, make it a point to do something that will help you move closer to your new goals.

As you start seeing progress, you’ll feel more motivated to keep going. Plus, by keeping busy and taking action, you’ll have less time to dwell on the past.

6. Let Go And Forgive Yourself If Necessary 

woman thinking with eyes closed

If you’re having trouble letting go of the past, it may be because you’re holding onto resentment, anger, or other strong emotions. These negative emotions can keep you stuck in the past and prevent you from moving forward.

Holding on can also cause bitterness to send a root through your heart, making it difficult to experience positive emotions until it’s pruned.

To forgive yourself or others, try this exercise:

First, write down the event that you need to forgive. Then, next to it, write down all the negative emotions that you’re feeling.

Now imagine that those negative emotions are physical objects. For example, if you’re feeling anger, imagine that it’s a rock in your hand. Once you have a clear image of the object, release it.

You can visualize yourself throwing it into the ocean, setting it on fire, or doing whatever feels right. As you let go of the physical representation of your negative emotions, feel yourself forgiving and releasing the past.

Another option is to write a letter to the person who wronged you (even if you don’t send it). Write down everything you need to say, then rip up the letter or burn it when you’re finished.

You may also need to forgive yourself for your own actions or past mistakes. Remember that you’re a human being, and everyone makes mistakes.

When you forgive yourself, you’ll finally be able to let go of any guilt or shame you feel so you can move on.

7. Seek Professional Help

women getting therapy

If you’re having a difficult time letting go of negative experiences, it may be time to seek help from a therapist.

A host of mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression, can make it difficult to change your thought cycle. 

If you’re dealing with any of these issues, therapy from trained mental health professionals can be an extremely effective treatment.

A therapist can help you understand and manage your emotional pain, work through past trauma, and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

There’s no shame in asking for help. It takes a lot of strength to admit when you need assistance.

o if you’re struggling to let go of the past, reach out and get the support you need to start living in the present. 

If you’ve been keeping a mood tracker, bring it to your first therapy session. This will give your therapist a better idea of how your thoughts and emotions have affected you. It’ll also help them track your progress over time. 

Better Help

Get The Help You Need Today

Fill out a brief questionnaire for online therapy and get matched with a licensed therapist. With over 30,000 licensed therapists, BetterHelp has one that fits your needs all within the comfort of your home. Get started today and enjoy 20% off your first month.

I earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no extra cost to you. Disclosure info here.

How To Stop Thinking About The Past: Conclusion

It’s normal to dwell on the past from time to time. However, if you find yourself stuck in a cycle of negative feelings or thoughts, I hope the seven tips above on how to stop thinking about the past can help.

Remember, the past does not define you. You have the power to create your own future. So the best thing is to focus on the present moment and take action towards your goals. 

With time, you’ll be able to leave the past behind and start living a life that you love.

It also helps to keep these wise words from Louis L’Amour’s book The Walking Drum in mind:

 “A ship does not sail with yesterday’s wind.”

– Louis L’Amour

Yesterday is over. Today is a new day. So let go of the past and pour your mental energy and time into the present moment.

Do the clutches of your past hold you tightly?

What steps will you take to start pivoting your mind into the future?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

More Resources To Help You Stop Thinking About The Past:

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About Yolanda

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I’m passionate about helping you live life to the fullest so you can choose to find happiness and purpose. Learn how to CREATE THE LIFE YOU LOVE with intentional living and discovery of the simple things life has to offer. Learn more…

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