While we tend to look to the past for reassurance, the past is history and gone forever. Dwelling in the past and harboring thoughts of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” can lead to depression. The fact remains: No one can say how life might have turned out under different circumstances. Assuming things would be better—and worrying about it—is just unproductive speculation.
Past and Future
Decisions you made yesterday or events that occurred last month or 10 years ago did not happen within a vacuum. They set off other events within your environment and affected others around you. It is really impossible to say for certain that if only you had done this or if only this had happened, your life would be better today. Dwelling on the future, on the other hand, can lead to anxiety; the future is unknown and fear of the unknown is a common trigger for stress. For that reason, much stress and anxiety result from our projections about how events of today will play out tomorrow. All those automatic tendencies of our brain tend to take us to imaginary places in order to protect us from the sometimes painful and dangerous realities of today. The truth is, if we do not cave in to those thoughts we end up better prepared to deal with the realities.
Lorraine is a 62-year-old real estate agent who described the past two years as “a nightmare.” She and her husband had developed financial problems due to a failed business venture. In addition, their daughter had financial problems of her own, requiring their help. On top of all that, one of their grandchildren developed a serious illness. At the time, Lorraine experienced recurring anxiety, fear and depression. Lorraine’s depression stemmed from her thoughts about her life before her misfortune, along with a lot of woulda, coulda, shouldas. Her anxiety arose from fearful thoughts. But, despite this, everything turned out fine. When Lorraine and her husband resolved a crucial financial problem, his back pain disappeared almost overnight—a pain that had plagued him for at least two years.
Look back to the past for only one reason—to identify those times in the past when you felt stressed or afraid. Now fast-forward to today. If you knew then how you would feel about those things today or how they ultimately turned out, would you have been so afraid back then?
How to Stay Calm and Productive
When faced with challenges, our instinct is to trust the automatic thoughts of a protective, primitive reflex, which tries to direct us to fight or flee danger, real or imagined. We start to believe that looking back will give us a reference point to understand the present danger, and that looking forward will prepare us for the multiple permutations of upcoming events.
The key is not to make decisions today based on those automatic thoughts. Below are some suggestions to help calm the whirlwind of thoughts that lead to feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
Be mindful that the primitive part of your nature will warn you that these steps are not what you need to do right now; however, they are precisely what you need to do right now!
As you dwell less in the past and project less into the future, you will start to see that the answers you seek for your current problems are already here with you, in the present, right now.