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Don't Let Regrets Ruin Your Health

How to wise up and move on

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.

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"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.
  • 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."
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