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You know who’s brilliant at looking backwards in time? Anxiety fighters. We are remarkable in our ability to get lost in grief, regret and pointless review of earlier days, earlier self-perceived failings and mistakes and not “getting it right.”

We who battle anxiety by definition are lost in the future too much of the time, no doubt. That’s the heart and soul of anxiety. But we can get lost in the future by getting consumed by the past and what did or didn’t happen. (What? How does that work? Stay with me – I’ll explain myself in a bit.)

To wage this battle against anxiety effectively we have to do something that always makes me laugh (and shake my head, remembering my own long history of doing this regret thing) when I hear my friend Sam say the following truth: “We have to give up hope for a better past.”

That’s the mission of today’s blog post: getting our heads out of the past is essential to getting free of anxiety. We can’t fight anxiety in the future OR the past (although, in truth, it is always and only EVER about the future.) We can only fight it here in the present.

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Looking over our Shoulder all the Time gives you a Stiff Neck…

One of the gifts of being human is that we remember stuff. We remember our names, where we live, what we did 4 weeks ago that was fun, why we shouldn’t touch a hot stove, cool stuff like that. It is sometimes great that we remember things.

Remembering things is essential to learning. There have been people who have taken brain injuries of one kind or another who literally cannot remember anything long enough to retain it – and as a result they cannot learn. Remembering is good because it can lead to learning. (Note that I said CAN – other things come into play, which we’ll get to in a minute – but it doesn’t have to drive learning.)

On the other hand one of the big challenges of being human is that we remember stuff – stuff we would rather not remember. We remember mistakes, failings, angry conversations, hurts, abuses, dangerous situations, scary situations. If we are not careful we can get lost in remembering, over and over.

We can get stuck in the past. This can in turn feed issues like lingering regret, on-going grief, sustained anger, the fear of loss, and yes, anxiety. We can get stuck in a feedback loop of, at least in part, our own creating. We review the past, we pore over our mistakes and stumbles, we do mea culpa (or rage against the injustice, or whatever we’re thinking about the past), and that in turn makes us feel all the feelings I just listed – and we start the merry-go-round up again.

All of this getting stuck in the past can be summarized by saying we are scared of what that past means for our future. We are scared of what it meant then, no doubt – but more importantly we’re scared of what it means for the future. Yeah – the future.

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All anxiety is about avoiding danger – real, or imagined. If we think that something in our past means something for our future, and that thing is scary, then we’re going to start treating it as a crisis.

Examples of how we can let the Past Scare us about the Future

Let’s say we went through, in the past, a really crappy relationship. We fell for the wrong person, or that person went off the rails, or whatever the problem was the relationship ended badly. We were pretty hurt, pretty damaged by the whole experience.

More importantly, it scared us. We were left doubting our ability to DO relationship in healthy ways. We began to speculate, using those two, terrible words: what if. What if I’m unable to have a healthy relationship? What if it is ME that makes it so hard? What if I just can’t find someone who I can make a life with EVER?

It feels like we’re stuck in the past. And we are. But we’re not really worrying about the past. We’re worrying about the future. And in our worry we’re treating that hypothetical, always-alone, never-find-love-again as a crisis – and that of course is firing up Flight or Fight, which feeds the anxiety and creates a wonderful feedback loop…

And presto, we’re anxious.

Or let’s say we suffered some terrible trauma in our earlier days. Maybe it was a bad car accident. Maybe somebody attacked us physically. Maybe we were physically abused. Maybe we got sick, or had a scary hospital experience. (Ugh. All terrible things to have to endure.) No question that anybody would have to do some recovering and healing from such experiences.

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It feels like we’re pinned by those bad experiences. We keep reliving them, or running away from them, or both. But there’s a problem with that thinking: the event is already behind us. Regardless of the trauma experienced, regardless of what happened, it is DONE.

I am not, in a thousand years, trying to say that we should “just get over it” or pretend somehow that it didn’t happen. Far from it. I’m saying that in the normal course of mental, physical and emotional healing we would normally grieve, process and then move on.

But when we start making it a crisis that we hang onto we are really worrying about the future. And that’s where we get in trouble. Having a bad experience in the PAST doesn’t mean that we’re forever chained to that past!

Were we emotionally and mentally hit (and scarred) by that experience? That’s not a small thing. I’m not saying that we didn’t experience trauma. But it is what we DO with that trauma moving forward that is crucial to breaking anxiety’s hold. Something that is done is DONE. It is only a burden to us if we carry it forward.

And the way we carry it forward is being afraid of it as if it was going to happen again. We don’t have to be conscious of that fear/assumption to have it rule (and ruin) our lives in the present. We can simply flinch away from the terrible memories, feelings, experiences to have them wreak havoc in our current life.

I’m not claiming that this is easy work. Any “what if?” thought can grow to giant proportions if we feed it over time.

So what do we DO about past trauma that is making a mess of our present?

My first recommendation is to find a good therapist. I’m not talking about an MD here. I’m talking about someone who is trained to deal with trauma and even PTSD. Yes, past trauma, even for people that have never been to war or caught in a firefight can be labeled PTSD.

It is in fact my argument that PTSD is just a very extreme form of what if thinking linked to a past traumatic event that we’re projecting into our future. Therapy, effective therapy, is often vital to that work. Get somebody who will both listen to you and help you see that the past is in fact the past, whatever happened – and that your mission moving forward is to get into the present, working to build the kind of life you want.

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My second recommendation is to get clean on precisely what you are what if thinking about. Depending on the intensity of the issue (a bad accident or hospital experience, for example, or a physical assault) it might be better to identify those what if assumptions WITH a therapist.

It is also however work that may be possible to do with journaling, a coach or a close friend/family member that we can drop our shields with and do some working through about. All anxiety comes down to what if thinking (anxiety that isn’t induced by, say, 4 café grandes from Starbucks.) Certainly doing both can only advance our cause.

My third recommendation (and related to number two) is to get clear what our expectations were and are about our life – what SHOULD have happened, what we SHOULD have experienced, what we SHOULD be able to do, etc. We can get stuck in what if thinking in part when we are holding onto old expectations, old rules, old assumptions about how life should or shouldn’t work…

This is emotional and difficult work. It will, for a while, ramp up Flight or Fight in our bodies and feelings. It will ruffle our feathers and make us scratchy as hell. We won’t do it all at once. We will flinch back some more and get mad and sad and frustrated.

But letting go of the past is one of the most healthy things we can do for ourselves, and especially a past that we are carrying with us into our present. The past is done, however much we regret it, however much we were hurt in it.

Today is today. And the future, as long as we’re here, stretches before us. Isn’t it time to stop paying rent on the past?

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