Science Says That If You’re Feeling Down You’ll Misremember Your Past As Worse Than It Was – Now You Can Break The Cycle

The way we feel about the future has a huge impact on what we do in the present, but now a new study reveals that how we view the past can also determine our future…

Depression is clearly not very good for your present or future self, but a new study has also shown it can damage your past too, trapping you in a nightmarish negative feedback loop – RISING caught up with the study’s lead author, Dr Julia Gross, to ask her for her six-step plan to taking back misremembered past events, and looking forward to a positive future…

1. Recognise That Your Mood Affects Your Memory Science already knew that if you’re depressed you’re likely to see yourself, the world and your future negatively, but now psychologists at Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf and University of Portsmouth have discovered it can overshadow your past too. ‘Our research shows that when depressed, individuals tend to view past negative events as both foreseeable and inevitable, and they even remember their prior expectations as more negative than they actually were,’ says Dr Gross.

2. Realise This Can Put A Serious Crimp On Your Present Not many of us can wipe the slate clean and start again every morning of our lives, so a po-faced past isn’t going to be good for morale. ‘If, in hindsight, you think that you foresaw negative but not positive outcomes, this is likely to impair your emotional wellbeing; but it also suggests a possibility of improvement in the future,’ says Dr Gross. So, not all bad then? Oh, hang on… ‘If, however, at the same time these negative outcomes appear inevitable in retrospect, this will make you feel helpless and out of control. Hindsight bias in depression will thus not only affect perceptions of the past, but also of the future.’ Your mood is essentially travelling back in time to mess with your past and affect your future – yikes! So, what’s to be done?

With hindsight, it’s always difficult to see the signs that pointed in other directions – was I really able to foresee the accident, illness or relationship break-up?

3. Beware The Warning Signs Of A Misremembered Past The first step in preventing your overall mood from re-inventing your history is to question your explanations of how things panned out in the past. ‘Was I really able to foresee the accident, illness, relationship break-up?’ says Dr Gross. ‘With hindsight, it’s always difficult to see the signs that pointed in other directions. When looking back on our past, we should attempt to establish a balanced and differentiated view.’ Of course, that’s easier said than done when you’re feeling down, but there’s no shame in asking for some assistance, recommends the Doctor. ‘We should be warned and consider seeking help if our thoughts are generally pessimistic and centre on failure, self-criticism, and guilt.’

4. Look To Break The Feedback Loop The best way to keep your past looking rosy is to avoid getting sucked into a loop of negativity – what Dr Gross calls letting the ‘negative schema’ dominate your thinking. ‘It is extremely important to make new experiences that challenge or contradict the negative schema. In other words, engage in pleasant activities with kind people as often as you can,’ she says. ‘In psychotherapy, breaking the cycle could involve a guided retrospection of past positive and negative events, including an in-depth questioning of dysfunctional beliefs about foreseeability and inevitability of events.’

5. Kill Your Smartphone’s Social Media Notifications Ah, Facebook – where else can you see TBT reminders of the lovely summer you shared with that FB friend you were dating? Awkward! And nothing is going to make a past event feel less special than its photos getting zero likes, even though that has no effect on how it felt at the time. So disregard the public face of events and avoid living your life vicariously through images of others. There’s no scientific evidence for social media messing up your past but Dr Gross agrees that it’s hardly helping: ‘Social media supports values like appearance and status, and personal opportunities increase the pressure to live a “happy, successful life”. Not being able to live up to these expectations may pose a risk factor for depression and depressive thinking, including a clouded view of the past.’

In a mindful mindset, we can more easily distance ourselves from intense feelings, including those that arise from memories

6. Live In The Moment To Help Revive Your Past You might think that mindfully immersing yourself in the ‘right now’ of a sunset, or bike ride, has basically nothing to do with your past moments – but Dr Gross says you’d be surprised: ‘Sometimes, letting go of the past can only happen when we manage to confront ourselves with it. With a mindful mindset we can find an observing, non-judgmental perspective on what is now – this can be a powerful support for confrontation. In a mindful mindset, we can more easily distance ourselves from disturbing thoughts or intense feelings, including those that arise from memories of past experiences.’

WHAT NEXT? Feeling a bit down? Then read RISING’s guide to lifting your mood without prescription drugs...

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.