A severe case of the regrets — feeling overwhelmed by the coulda-shoulda-woulda of life — not only robs us of energy and imprisons us in the past, it can also make us sick
According to research at Concordia University in Montreal, the emotional distress of regrets can disrupt your hormonal and immune systems, particularly if you are 65 or older, which can lead to colds, headaches — or worse.
"People with severe life regrets had more cold symptoms, such as nasal congestion, coughs, sneezing, fever and headaches," says Concordia researcher Isabelle Bauer, now a clinical psychologist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
Bauer also found an increase in depressive symptoms — such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating — in those with unresolved regret. "Obsessing or ruminating over regrets can also lead to depression and anxiety as you kick yourself over and over," says psychologist Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Roese's 2011 study of most common regrets found that romance topped the list, followed by regrets about family, education, career, finances and parenting. But he adds that regrets can have their upside as well. "They can be a signal that it's time to change your strategy, and a motivator for new action," he says.
The other goods news is that as we age, most of us become more adept at letting go of regrets. We may not have as much opportunity to undo the past — return to school for a degree, say, or undo an unhappy marriage — but life experience has wised us up. "We get better at accepting things we can't change," says Carsten Wrosch, an associate professor of psychology at Concordia University.
Here are some experts' tips for overcoming regret and moving on.
- Focus on others' regrets. When the source of your regret is undoable — say, a badly chosen career path — realizing that someone else's sorrows are more wrenching than yours can help you more easily make peace with the past, says Bauer.
- Let others motivate you. "If you can change what led to regrets, thinking about people who are better off than you can be motivating," says Bauer. "It can make you think of how to take advantage of current opportunities." For instance, if you regret not spending time with family during your working years, perhaps you can follow the lead of a buddy who dotes on his family now.