Modern Australian

Why do I dwell on the past?

  • Written by Laura Jobson, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, Monash University

Many of us enjoy writing in a diary, reading autobiographies or nostalgically reflecting with others about past times.

Why is remembering our past so important? Are there downsides? And what can we do if dwelling on the past bothers us?

Read more: Explainer: what is memory?

Memories make us human

Over several decades, researchers have shown remembering your past is fundamental to being human, and has four important roles.

1. Memories help form our identity

Our personal memories give us a sense of continuity — the same person (or sense of self) moving through time. They provide important details of who we are and who we would like to be.

Read more: Why we remember our youth as one big hedonistic party

2. Memories help us solve problems

Memories offer us potential solutions to current problems and help guide and direct us when solving them.

Read more: Most people think playing chess makes you 'smarter', but the evidence isn't clear on that

3. Memories make us social

Personal memories are essential for social interactions. Being able to recall personal memories provides important material when making new friends, forming relationships and maintaining ones we already have.

Read more: The power of 'our song', the musical glue that binds friends and lovers across the ages

4. Memories help us regulate our emotions

Our memories provide examples of similar situations we’ve been in before. This allows us to reflect on how we managed that emotion before and what we can learn from that experience.

Such memories can also help us manage strong negative emotions. For example, when someone is feeling sad they can take time to dwell on a positive memory to improve their mood.

Read more: Health Check: how food affects mood and mood affects food

Memories help us function in our wider society

Dwelling on our personal memories not only helps us as individuals. It also allows us to operate in our socio-cultural context; society and culture influence the way we remember our past.

For instance, in Western individualistic cultures people tend to recall memories that are long, specific, detailed and focus on the individual.

In contrast, in East Asian cultures people tend to recall more general memories focusing on social interactions and significant others. Researchers have seen these differences in children and adults.

Read more: 'Remember when we...?' Why sharing memories is soul food

Indeed, the way parents discuss past events with their children differs culturally.

Parents from Western cultures focus more on the child and the child’s thoughts and emotions than East Asian parents. So, there are even cultural differences in the ways we teach our children to dwell on the past.

People from Western individualistic cultures tend to recollect specific unique memories that reaffirm someone’s uniqueness, a value emphasised in Western cultures. In contrast, in East Asian cultures memories function to assist with relatedness and social connection, a value emphasised in East Asian cultures.

Memories and ill health

As dwelling on the past plays such a crucial role in how we function as humans, it is unsurprising that disruptions in how we remember arise in several psychological disorders.

People with depression, for instance, tend to remember more negative personal memories and fewer positive personal memories than those without depression. For example, someone with depression may remember failing an exam rather than remembering their academic successes.

Why do I dwell on the past? People with depression are more likely to remember the bad times rather than the good. from www.shutterstock.com

People with depression also have great difficulty remembering something from a specific time and place, for instance “I really enjoyed going to Sam’s party last Thursday”. Instead they provide memories of general experiences, for instance, “I like going to parties”.

We have found people with depression also tend to structure their life story differently and report more negative life stories. They also tend to remember periods of their life, such as going to university, as either distinctly positive or negative (rather than a combination of both).

Disturbances in memory are also the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is when unwanted, distressing personal memories of the trauma spontaneously pop into the mind.

Read more: Explainer: what is post-traumatic stress disorder?

People with anxiety disorders also tend to have biases when remembering their personal past. For instance, all of us, unfortunately, experience social blunders from time to time, such as tripping getting onto a bus or spilling a drink at a party. However, people with social anxiety are more likely to be consumed with feelings of embarrassment and shame when remembering these experiences.

Read more: Explainer: what is social anxiety disorder?

Finally, an excessive, repetitive dwelling on your past, without generating solutions, can be unhelpful. It can result in emotional distress and in extreme instances, emotional disorders, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I don’t want to dwell on the past. What can I do?

If dwelling on the past bothers you, these practical tips can help.

Set aside a certain time of the day for your memories. You could write in a diary or write down your worries. Writing about important personal experiences in an emotional way for as little as 15 minutes a day can improve your mental and physical health.

Practice remembering specific positive memories from your past. This can allow you to engage differently with your memories and gain a new perspective on your memories.

Learn and practise mindfulness strategies. Instead of dwelling on painful memories, a focus on the present moment (such as attending to your breath, focusing on what you can currently see, smell or hear) can help break a negative cycle

When dwelling on past memories try being proactive and generate ideas to solve problems rather than just being passive.

See your GP or health practitioner if you’re distressed about dwelling on your past.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Authors: Laura Jobson, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, Monash University

Read more http://theconversation.com/why-do-i-dwell-on-the-past-121630

NEWS

Albanese promises a 'productivity project' in an economic vision statement harking back to Hawke and Keating

Anthony Albanese puts a “productivity project” at the centre of his economic agenda in the second of his “vision statements”, which seeks to further distance him from the Shorten era.“Productivity...

Friday essay: George Eliot 200 years on

A portrait of George Eliot at 30 by Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade. Her masterpiece Middlemarch is often claimed to be the greatest novel in the English language.Wikimedia CommonsMary Ann Evans took...

Vital Signs. Untaxing childcare is a bold idea that seems unfair, but might benefit us all

Win-win? No-one would be worse off under the UNSW proposal. Over time it should pay for itselfShutterstockAustralia’s system of childcare support is pretty good. It ensures high-quality care is provided...

Five ways parents can help their kids take risks – and why it’s good for them

Have real conversations with your kids about what they're doing, and the potential consequences of their actions.from shutterstock.comMany parents and educators agree children need to take risks. In one US...

a short, shaky history of curing with vibrations

Vibration devices have been used to treat everything from 'hysteria' to hair loss. So Marie Kondo's tuning forks and crystals are nothing new.from www.shutterstock.comYou might remember how Gwyneth Paltrow’s health...

These young Muslim Australians want to meet Islamophobes and change their minds. And it's working

While most research participants believe in the power of contact, dialogue and exchange to transform negative attitudes. ShutterstockThe political influence of the far-right, along with a more salient national security...

Smoke haze hurts financial markets as well as the environment

Sydney is currently blanketed by smoke haze from severe bushfires that have burned through New South Wales. Air pollution levels on Thursday reached hazardous levels for the second time in...

How 1 bright light in a bleak social housing policy landscape could shine more brightly

In the year since the Australian government created the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC), its bond aggregator, AHBA, has raised funds for affordable housing providers, allowing them...

why does wood crackle in a fire?

If you've ever put wet wood on to a fire, you may have noticed it makes a lot more noise than dry wood. ShutterstockWhy does wood crackle in a fire? –...

Scott Morrison will go into 2020 with a challenging cluster of policy loose ends

Scott Morrison’s government is heading to the end of 2019 amid a debate about its economic judgement and with a number of substantial policy moves started but not completed.Morrison this...

New report shows the world is awash with fossil fuels. It's time to cut off supply

Australia's coal production is expected to jump by 34% to 2030, undercutting our climate efforts.Nikki Short/AAPA new United Nations report shows the world’s major fossil fuel producing countries, including Australia...

Enough ambition (and hydrogen) could get Australia to 200% renewable energy

Hydrogen infrastructure in the right places is key to a cleaner, cheaper energy future.ARENAThe possibilities presented by hydrogen are the subject of excited discussion across the world – and across...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

4 Tips to Prepare for a Home Meditation RetreatWhy You Should Hit the Gym This SpringSaving History One VHS Tape At A Time4 Vaccines Your Teens Should Be GettingStrength Training Tips To Make Your Workout EffectiveTop Fashion Secrets To Look Stylish No Matter The Occasion  How to save money on major home repairsCan I Do Something About My Sensitive Teeth?Climbing Out of a Creative Rut – Strategies for Photographers5 Digital Free Holidays: Take a trek and get back to nature8 Things You’ll Need for a Positive Breast Surgery RecoveryThe Best Sites and Events to See in Melbourne Everything You Wanted To Know About Air CompressorsWhat to Consider When Buying a Home With KidsPlaces to visit on your first trip to North America