How to Let Go of the Past: 7 Ways to Move On When You Just Can't Stop Dwelling

how to get over the past

Not all of us can be like Elsa and just let it go. But that doesn’t mean we have to remain forever frozen in time, stuck in the past because of a childhood trauma, tough heartbreak or worse. 

Holding onto past pain, whether it’s emotional or physical, can be toxic and affect our current and future relationships (even if we’re not aware of it), stopping us from moving forward and being truly happy and content.

“Some people try to ‘just get over it’ or ‘just move on...that was the past, you can't change it,’” explains Dr. Nancy Irwin, a psychologist at Seasons in Malibu. But these types of messages are insulting, she says, and slapping a Band-Aid on it will only make it worse over time, perhaps resulting in physical, emotional and psychological symptoms. “People will have to try harder and harder to deny the experience or escape it in unhealthy ways [such as] displaced anger, substance abuse, overeating, rigidity and sleep disorders.”

Dr. Heather Stevenson, a New York-based licensed clinical psychologist, echoes that sentiment, saying that trauma that is not properly dealt with “tends to show up in unhealthy coping patterns and relationships, e.g., substance use or addiction, unhealthy relationship dynamics, negative mood or self-destructive behaviors. And often people compartmentalize or shut parts of themselves off as a way to cope, which ultimately results in feelings of disconnect from oneself and the world.”

Fortunately, it’s never too late to heal from trauma. Here, experts share their tips for letting go of the past, learning how to cope and moving on:

1. Be more mindful

To help you stay in the present instead of dwelling in the past, add mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation to your daily routine. Mindfulness is “characterized by an awareness of one's emotions, thoughts and actions without judgment or reactivity,” says Dr. Nathaniel Ivers, department chairman and associate professor of the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University. This is part of acceptance and commitment therapy, he explains, which encourages people to “accept the existence of negative thoughts, feelings and experiences, especially those which are out of one's control, as an alternative to fighting against or avoiding them.” In other words, don’t be so hard on yourself for feeling those feelings.

2. Don’t isolate yourself

It’s natural to become reclusive, says Dr. Jeff Nalin, founder and executive director of the Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center. “But while this may feel comforting at times, it will only slow down the healing process. Instead, seek support from a trusted friend, family member or counselor.”

3. Practice self-care

It might seem like “self-care” is everyone’s fave buzz word lately, but there’s a reason it’s top of mind. You’re able to manage stress and anxiety better if you take care of yourself. That’s why Dr. Nalin emphasizes the importance of getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising regularly when dealing with past pain. “Chronic stress can cause an overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which can wreak havoc on our bodies and lead to chronic disease. Eating well and taking proper care of ourselves is the best way to keep stress at bay.” Of course, self-care shouldn’t be stressful or create added pressure to an over-scheduled life, simply taking a bath, going for a walk or drinking some water can do the trick.

4. Take up a hobby

Similar to mindfulness practices like yoga, look for something that you’re passionate about to help you remain in the present. “The main thing is to find something that redirects your focus to the present, and helps you become fully emerged in the here and now,” explains Dr. Forrest Talley of Invictus Psychological Services. Learn how to knit, join a book club or sign up for a spin class. “Losing ourselves in a pleasurable activity has a calming effect, which strengthens our sense of well-being and feelings of self-worth,” Dr. Nalin adds.

5. Keep a journal

Sort of like writing out that email that you won’t ever send, journaling allows you to express your feelings and jot down details that you might not be comfortable sharing with others. Just a few minutes per day can be beneficial, Dr. Nalin explains. Or go the Oprah route, and try gratitude journaling (something like the Panda Planner can help get you started). It can help you focus on and appreciate the positive things in your life.

6. Imagine letting go of a balloon—really

Many therapists use guided imagery and visualization techniques to help their patients cope with stress and trauma. Try this technique from psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson, owner of Create Your Life Studio, and let your nagging, ruminating thoughts float away: Think of a color that reminds you of the person with whom you are struggling to forgive. For example, if your partner of ten years suddenly bought a red sports car and started having an affair with a coworker, you may think of the color red. Next, imagine the person’s head as a balloon of that same color. So, your horrible ex is now turned into a red balloon. When you notice that you are beginning to recall the betrayal or offense, imagine you are holding a balloon of that color, and then imagine releasing the balloon and letting it go. Visualize the balloon floating far away, high up into the sky, away from you. And then consciously say, "I release you, ________." You can imagine waving goodbye or saying, "Bye, Felicia!" You may also add an affirmation like, "This does not belong to me" or "I am letting you go."

In the beginning, you may be letting their balloon go all day, every day, explains Scott-Hudson, but this exercise will train you to become mindful of just how much time and emotional bandwidth you’re using to rehash these old hurts, and you will more easily and quickly identify these unhealthy thoughts and let them go.

7. Seek help

“The first step is to ask for help,” says Laura Braziel, marriage and family therapist of Authentic Relational Counseling. “You are not crazy. You are not weak. This is not your fault…. The symptoms can be just as devastating as a medical illness. And just like you would seek a professional to find treatment for any medical condition, the brain should be considered no different.”

Dr. Stevenson says that there are many different types of ways to treat trauma and heal from the past, and “it's often easiest to do with someone else walking us through it.” She adds that working through a trauma with a professional is “about building new healthy coping skills such as relaxation and grounding techniques, learning how to feel certain emotions without immediately reacting to them and recognizing the strengths and resilience each individual has. When we can do that, not only are we improving our mental and emotional health, but our physical health as well.”

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