We all have a few regrets. Think of venomous words blurted out during an argument, a car accident that in hindsight could easily have been avoided, or even that new haircut that makes you long for your former look. Having a regret or two is normal, but fixating on deep regrets long after you should have worked them out and let them go can take a toll on your health.
"When you repeatedly revisit a painful regret, you continue to experience and suffer the negative emotions generated by it," says Hamilton Beazley, Ph.D., author of No Regrets: A Ten-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past Behind (Wiley, 2004). Those emotions increase your levels of cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, compromising your immune system and leaving you vulnerable to developing health problems ranging from the common cold to sleep or digestive disorders and more. But when you limit the flow of cortisol by avoiding stress and negativity, you strengthen your immune system, improve sleep, ward off weight gain, sharpen your memory and reduce your risk of heart disease, among other benefits.
How can you overcome or avoid the perilous pangs of regret? These expert tips can get you started:
- Do something. If you’re flooded with guilt every time you think about how you let your sister down during a difficult period, don’t just stew about it. Use the strong emotions triggered by your mistake as motivation. "Ride the wave of regret to fuel changes,” advises Neal Roese, Ph.D., a researcher at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the author of If Only: How to Turn Regret into Opportunity (Broadway, 2005). Energy is energy, Roese says. You can use the energy generated by powerful feelings like anger, embarrassment and shame negatively, by spinning your wheels and beating yourself up, or you can use it as "a springboard" to positive action, like finally reaching out and telling your sister how deeply sorry you are.
- Consider poorer outcomes. "If you push yourself to think a little bit further and generate some other possibilities, it’ll help establish some context," Roese says. If you had an argument with a friend and now wish you hadn’t called her overbearing, he says, "imagine if you had called her something worse. Or what if your friend wasn’t so forgiving? Or what if you had never even met this person?” Realizing that things could be worse, or aren't as bad as they seem, he says, "is one way to appreciate your current circumstance.”
- Look for the hidden benefits. Believe it or not, Beazley says, "regrets can be a rich source of lessons and gifts." Maybe your regrets have taught you to be more resilient or, after a time, strengthened an important relationship. Even profound regrets, such as losing a loved one, can have value, as when people who've lost loved ones in tragic circumstances rechannel their regret into foundations or organizations to help other families facing similar losses. As Beazley points out, “They’ve made their loss meaningful in some way.”
- Focus on the big picture. Sometimes our regrets focus on small details and distract us from our overall goals. For example, Roese says, "if you had a bad day at work because sales were at an all-time low, you might chastise yourself over things you didn’t do or should have done differently. But what’s the bigger picture? Is there a grand-plan sales promotion that stretches over many months, and if so, how’s that going?” When you take a step back from your specific regret, you may see that while your current situation isn’t great, your life isn’t in ruins and your goals are still achievable.
- Learn from your past. "The good thing about regret is that is helps us to remember our mistakes,” says Marcel Zeelenberg, Ph.D., an economic and social psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands who has studied the relationship between emotions and behaviors. Thinking about a past mistake in the right way — how it happened, how it felt, how you know it would affect you if it happened again — can reduce your chances of repeating it, Zeelenberg explains. You may regret not taking actions you believe could have preserved an earlier marriage. But if there's a next time, you'll know to act differently and avoid further grief.
Becoming Wiser About Regret
Age and regret have a close relationship. As we get older, we rack up regrets, and find ourselves with less opportunity to repair them. This doesn’t mean, though, that regret will necessarily tarnish your future. Once people begin to realize that there’s nothing more they can do to change past mistakes, Roese says, "their regrets change to be less bothersome." A 2005 Canadian study of people between 60 and 95 found that older people actually do not have more intense regret than younger adults. This is due to disengagement, a term that describes the eventual withdrawal of effort and commitment. Participants in the study who were not burdened by their regret, says study co-author Carsten Wrosch, a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, had stopped "trying to undo the consequences of their regrets."
In their wisdom, they simply let go.