How To Overcome Past Memories That Keep Coming Back

painful memories mindfulness

I used to wonder: Why does my past keep coming back in memories? I would constantly relive the same memories over and over. But then I learned how to change that.  

I learned that we do indeed have the power to change memories of the past. And in so doing we can create a brighter and happier tomorrow.  

Everyone in the world has at least one painful memory from the past. But if you’re reliving the past repeatedly, it is time to stop the vicious cycle. You need to remember happy times instead. Otherwise, you will be lost in a perpetual cycle of woe. 

But how do you stop painful memories? 

Often it comes down to forgiveness. Perhaps you can’t forgive yourself for something that happened. Or you can’t forgive someone else. And so, you keep reliving it over and over.  If that’s the case, please try this transformational meditation for forgiveness.  

Sometimes there are other factors, such as resentment and regret [READ: Meditation for regret].  

Ruminating thoughts can have a detrimental impact on mental health. [READ: meditation to stop depression]. Indeed, rumination is a significant cause of anxiety and depression according to Louisa C Michl [Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, MA, USA.] 

So what can we do about it?

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Why The Past Keeps Coming Back And Cutting You Up

Painful reflections (like my memory of my father’s drinking) can gradually wear down your mind. They chip away at you until you develop a mental health condition, says Dr. Deryn Strange [professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College]. [2].

That’s why we need to change it. But first, let’s look at why it happens in the first place. 

Why you keep thinking about painful memories…

There is a reason the past keeps coming back. It’s because you’re stuck in one way of thinking or feeling.

Because of neural networking, when we feel a specific way or think a certain way, we think about other times we felt and thought the same way. Hence, if you feel sad, you will think of other times when you felt sad.

If you are feeling sad now, you will bring to mind sad times from the past. 

For instance, if you are sad because someone has passed away, you will likely think of many sad experiences that happened with that person. And this can cause grief (read: meditating on grief )

Same with thoughts. If you are thinking about death, for instance, you will think about all the times you experienced death. For example, all the times when relatives passed. 

This becomes a perpetual cycle in which you are stuck in one way of thinking or feeling. To change the cycle, we must change our thoughts and our emotions.

Let me show you how.

How To Overcome Past Memories That Keep Coming Back 

1. Be mindful of them 

The key to overcoming your past memories is realising that those memories exist in your mind now. Even though you cannot change what happened, you can change the way you feel about it. You can choose to remember the past differently. 

Buddhism teaches us that our thoughts and memories exist in the present moment (a fact that is obvious, yet oh so easily forgotten). To change them, you need to start seeing them as something tangible, something that is real, something that is happening now.  

In The Art Of Happiness, the Dalai Lama says: “It’s still there [a painful memory]. But even though that feeling of regret is still there, it isn’t associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back.”

To Buddhists, this idea of being “pulled back” means being attached to something from the past. One of the main Buddhist pearls of wisdom is the idea of letting go and accepting things as they are. When we are too attached to one idea, one perspective, the mind is hindered.

To overcome painful memories, be mindful of them. See them for what they are. Don’t judge them. Just accept. Should they create physiological responses (a tight throat, heavy chest etc.) be mindful of that feeling too. Mindfully observing these things helps us to let go.  

  • If you think the past is gone and done, you cannot change it.
  • When you think of the past, the only thing that exists is the thought of the past. And the thought of the past exists now.
  • Realise that the past (the ideas and the thoughts of the past) is happening now. And so, we change it. 

2: Focus on the present moment.

You don’t want to live in bad memories. You want to live in the present moment.

Suppressing unwanted memories by executive control can help. 

Neuroimaging studies prove that it is possible for the brain to block unwanted memories. Focus on the present moment by practising mindfulness.  

However, don’t ignore your painful memories. Doing so can have severe psychological consequences. Also, don’t try to prevent yourself from reliving painful memories. Writing for Nature Communications [3], Justin C. Hulbert, Richard N. Henson & Michael C. Anderson says, “If you are motivated to prevent yourself from reliving a flashback, anything that you experience around the period of time of suppression tends to get sucked up into this black hole as well.”

Instead, accept your painful memories of the past and recognize that they are alive now. When we do this, we give them a present-moment reality, and this empowers us to change them.  

If you struggle to stop painful thoughts, schedule thinking time and tell yourself that you will think about it later. Then continue focusing on what you’re doing. This will help you to stop dwelling on the depressing topic. Do not punish yourself by rehashing the past over and over again.  

3: Replace painful past memories 

Memories occur to substantiate our personal beliefs. For instance, if you believe you are a victim, you will continually see memories of times when you were victimised.

The mind stores memories by using proteins to stimulate brain cells to grow and form new connections. The worse a time is the more vividly we remember it. Hence why victims of child abuse, domestic abuse, trauma, combat experience, and violence tend to recall memories more vividly. 

The recollection of bad memories is performed by the orbitofrontal cortex. The more you dwell on memory the stronger those neuronal connections become.

However, when you revisit a memory, you have the power to change it.

Through a method called reconsolidation, it is possible for the mind to change memories. For instance, if you choose to look at the past in a more casual light, the memory will change. 

Change your perspective.

Yes, you remember your past. Vividly. But you only remember specific moments of your history. This occurs due to confirmation bias.  

In psychology, confirmation bias is the mental phenomena through which we think, recall, and search for things that confirm our beliefs. Hence why women who experience sexual abuse must try so hard to overcome the victim mentality. 

Choose to focus on memories that build positive beliefs. 

4: Reconnect with old friends

Bad memories skew your perception of the past. 

The mind builds associations based on commonalities. Hence, when you think of one memory you also think of other related memories. This is how a single memory can distort our recollection.   

But there’s good news: You can start to remember more of the good times by focusing on moments of profound happiness. When you do this, you will stop painful memories and start to build happy ones instead.

When were you at your happiest? Who were you with at the time? Reconnect with those people.

But maybe your relationships have changed. Maybe people used to be great, but time has soured your relationships. It is never too late to change your relationships. Be the bigger person. Make the moves you need to make to rebuild lost relationships.  

When you reconnect with the positive people from your past, you will remember more of the good memories and less of the bad ones.

5: Restart old hobbies

One mistake people make in life is that they abandon everything. Perhaps you were in a relationship in which you were always socialising and did lots of hobbies. But the relationship ended, and with the relationship, you also abandoned those old hobbies that used to make you so happy. 

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Just because part of the past turned sour doesn’t mean it all did. You can continue to do all the things that made you happy. When you do this, you will remember more happy memories and fewer bad memories. Don’t let one little hiccup become a disease. Don’t let one painful memory of the past prevent you from doing what you love.

Go through your past. Ask yourself “What mattered?”, “What did I love?”, “What made me happy back then?” Pick those things back up. Reconnect with the positive aspects of your past. And don’t let anything prevent you from doing what makes you happy. 

6: If you have bad memories of people, tell them, but be willing to listen

If you want to stop bad memories of other people, you need to forgive them.

Yes, there are legitimate reasons why we have bad memories of people. Bad times happen. Inevitably, we will all gather a few painful memories through the years—like that time the beautiful girl in the year above me at school laughed when I asked her out… sigh

Yes, that thing that happened to you probably sucked total balls. It probably made you so freaking angry that you never want to talk to that person again. That’s natural.

Naturally, you have some bad memories of people. But you should also have good memories of the people in your life too.

 Remember more positive memories.

Furthermore, talk to the other person. If people were brave enough to step up and say “You hurt me. And I want to tell you,” everyone would be happier. Because you know what? The odds are that the person who hurt you isn’t a bad person (obviously there are exceptions, but for the most part, people are generally decent). If they hurt you, and they’re an okay person, they will welcome the opportunity to say, “I messed up and I am sorry”.

But you know what? You hurt people too. Yeah, you did. We all do. That’s just part of the raw deal, right? We hurt each other. So, if that person comes back to you and says, “You hurt me too,” be strong and do the right thing. Listen to them. Allow them to overcome their bad memories of you

Nothing changes a bad memory like openly discussing it with the other person. That’s why in Restorative Justice victims of crimes feel better after chatting to the perpetrator. Because it puts a fresh perspective on a traumatic event. And even if no new perspective can be gleaned, the victim gets closure.  

Forgive people. Go up to the person that hurt you. Tell them. And if they say that you hurt them too, have the gonads to listen, own it, and apologise.  I promise you that if you do this, you will start to remember positive, happy memories of them instead.

You know what the beautiful thing about this process is? If the two of you own your sh*t and admit your wrongs, and you mutually apologise, you’re going to end up being in a much stronger relationship than ever before. 


 7: But don’t forget, the past is your best teacher

It’s good to remember the reasons we have bad memories They teach us valuable lessons.

We all know that we’re supposed to have no regrets, right? But if you have no regrets, what are you going to learn from? Instead of pretending that everything is perfect, be brave and admit what was wrong with yesterday. Then, you will know how to be different tomorrow.

Put your hands up right now and say with me, “I do have regrets in my life”. Done it? Great. Because here is the truth. The best way how to be different tomorrow is to admit what went wrong today.

What do you wish you had done differently today? What regrets do you have from today? Me? Now, I am not perfect. I am a happy person. Very happy, overall. In fact, my friends often tell me I am the happiest person they know. But I am most definitely not perfect. And looking back on today, I wish I had done things a little bit differently.

Now you are probably wondering, what did I do today that I wish my day had been different? Woke up. Worked. Worked… worked… And now, at 20:15, I’m writing this (which… ermmm…. is work, but with my readers, who are my family, so it’s good work). Yes, I spent all day working. And I didn’t even step outside once today. And I do regret it. I regret that the sun rose, lit up the day with its glory, and then descended, all while I stayed penned up inside, away from those golden rays.

I am going to be different tomorrow. 


More Ways To Overcome Past Memories

  • Meditation can help too. I once used a meditation script for sadness to stop a particularly bad memory of when my father died. I experienced that memory over and over.
  • “Forgetting pills”
  • Therapy
  • Memory suppression
  • Exposure therapy (mostly for PTSD)
  • Propranolol (a beta-blocker often used for memory suppression).
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy exercises



By Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a passionate meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. "My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation" - Paul Harrison

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