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Don't Let Regrets Ruin Your Health

How to wise up and move on

  • Shift from inner to outer focus. Take your regrets seriously, says Roese, "but then move on by taking new action." Maybe you can't make amends to the late cousin you dissed. "But you can rechannel that energy to people around you now," says Roese. If you regret parts of your education, "take a new class in pottery — or anything," says Roese. "Switch your mind away from the past to focus on the present."
  • Write out your angst. Bauer asked people to write about regrets: One day they wrote about people who had regrets more severe than their own, another about external circumstances that led to regret, and finally, about goals for the future. "The adults who went through the writing intervention reported fewer cold symptoms than the others," says Bauer. "If you write about recent emotional experiences daily, it helps you put them in context and leave them behind," says Roese. A 2008 Australian study also found that writing once a week for three weeks about an upsetting experience reduced intrusive thoughts.

  • Practice the positive. When you find yourself focusing on regrets, shape your thoughts by exploring the silver lining in whatever you did, says Roese: "What were the lessons learned? How did you gain wisdom out of a particular situation?" In the case of an unhappy marriage, for example, celebrate the children that came from it, says Wrosch. "That doesn't change anything about the marriage, but it makes it easier to live with the situation."

  • Assess your actions. Let's say you bought a house that turned out to be a money pit. Examine the process that led to the purchase, says Roese: "Did you do a house inspection or decide on impulse? Sometimes it's good to go back and assess. You may see that there wasn't anything else to be done, and that's comforting."

  • Set new goals. "Let go of regret by finding something positive and meaningful to do," says Wrosch. "It may not be the same things you were engaged in when you were working, but the underlying themes may be similar: traveling, making new friends, learning something new."

  • Seek help. If you find yourself unable to stop thinking about regrets, consider counseling, says Roese. "Cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular, emphasizes changing thought patterns that are destructive."

Also of interest: Optimism linked to reduced risk of stroke.

Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a freelance writer who lives in North Carolina.

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