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’d look for ways how to overcome part memories. I would constantly relive the same memories over and over. But then I learned how to change that.  

You have the power to change your memories of the past. And in so doing you 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 painful past memories over and over again, it is time to stop the vicious cycle. You need to overcome bad memories and remember happy ones instead. Otherwise, you will be lost in a perpetual cycle of woe. 

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

You may think that your painful memories are karma. But in reality, it probably has nothing to do with karma; it is simply reflections of earlier times in your life.

Yes, you can change memories of the past 

The good news is that you can change those recollections, even if it seems hard. One of my personal favourite ways is to use a powerful meditation script for sadness.

When my father died, I was left with painful memories. Most of those remembrances stopped eventually, but a few particularly painful memories kept coming back to me. 

Hurtful reflections, like the ones that haunted me, are said to be ruminating. Ruminating thoughts are ones you keep thinking over and over, and these can have a detrimental impact on mental health.

For your mental wellbeing, it is imperative to learn how to overcome past memories that keep coming back all the time.

Thankfully, it is possible.

Science is constantly finding new ways how to intentionally forget a memory, including “forgetting pills”, therapy, memory suppression, exposure therapy (mostly for PTSD) and Propranolol (a beta-blocker often used for memory suppression).

But there are healthier ways. One of the very best ways to stop memories from coming back is to use cognitive behavioural therapy exercises.  

Why The Past Keeps Coming Back And Cutting You Up

Rumination is a significant cause of anxiety and depression according to Louisa C Michl [Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, MA, USA.] [1]

That’s why it can be helpful to pay attention to your habits of thinking. It’s a good idea to try to change negative thoughts, including memories. One way to do that is to use meditation to stop depression.

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

But before we look at how to overcome painful memories of the past, let’s investigate why your memories keep coming back.

man thinking about painful memories
man thinking about painful memories

If you keep thinking about painful memories…

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

Because of neural networking, when we feel a specific way, we think about other times when we felt 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 )

Complex emotions like these are a challenge. But there are ways how to overcome past memories.  

Do you feel like you are a victim of your past?

Does it feel as though life has dealt you a bad deck?

Do you dwell on painful memories from the past even though you know you’d be far happier if you could move on?

If so, I’ve got some powerful ways to overcome your past memories so they stop coming back.

looking through family photobook
looking through family photobook

How To Overcome Past Memories That Keep Coming Back To You

Here are five ways how to overcome past memories that keep coming back.


 

1. To overcome past memories, 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 memories of the past, 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, or one memory, the mind is hindered.

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

To overcome bad memories of the past, you must see them as part of the present moment. 

  • 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.
  • If you think the past is gone and done, you cannot change it.
  • Realise that the past (the ideas, the memories, and the thoughts of the past) are now, we can change them.
  • So the best way how to overcome past memories is to be mindful of them in the present moment. 

2: Free your mind by harnessing the present moment.

You don’t want to live in bad memories. You want to live in the moment right now. If you want to know how to overcome your past, focus on now.  

Suppressing unwanted memories by executive control can help.

Don’t let your mind dwell on the past. Don’t let thoughts take away your power. Choose to live now.

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

However, you should not ignore your painful memories. Repressed painful memories can have severe psychological consequences. Nor should you 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 recognise that your memories are alive now

When we realise that our memories are occurring now, we give them a present-moment reality, and this empowers us to change them. This is one of the best ways how to overcome past memories. 

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 with new ones

If you want to change your memories of the past, you need to change your beliefs about yourself.

We all have memories we want to forget, and we can choose to rebuild those memories. Memories occur to substantiate our personal beliefs. 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 a 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 tor the mind to change memories. For instance, if you choose to look on a painful memory 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.

You can overcome victim mentality (and other residual issues from painful memories).

Choose to focus on memories that build positive beliefs.

If you want to feel loved, remember times you were loved. 

Note: Make sure you do this with a professional counsellor.  


4: Reconnect with old friends

One of the best reasons to stop bad memories is that they often skew your opinion 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 stop the 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. This is a surprisingly powerful way how to overcome past memories.


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

If you genuinely want to stop bad memories of the past that are about people, you need to learn 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.

To stop the bad memories of people, 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 stop the bad memories of that person and 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.

This is a painful but cathartic way to overcome past memories. 

Painful memories live in us today. They are tangible and changeable. We are not their victims. We are their masters. The past is putty in your hands, my friend. Shape it into what you want. You can totally overcome your past. And when you do, you will start to remember happier moments of your life.

 

old man looking at old photos from the past

old man looking at old photos from the past


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

So we’ve looked at how to overcome past memories that keep coming back to you. But it’s good to remember the reasons why we have bad memories. It’s because they teach us things.

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.


Conclusion

We have to accept negative emotions and learn from them all the while we are changing bad memories of the past. We need to learn the lesson that regret is teaching us, use it as motivation for tomorrow, and at the same time learn to recall happier moments from our lives.

Ask what your painful memories are teaching you, learn the lesson, and then start to build more positive recollections.

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By Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.