When Thinking About the Past Helps Anxiety

Thinking about the past is a major cause of anxiety. Ruminating over past situations, conversations, things we did or did not do or say, and anything else that has already happened can be incredibly anxiety-provoking. When we don't let go of the past, the mind can run wild and make problems and difficulties grow. Reliving thoughts and feelings can keep us anxious, stressed, and stuck. However, the past does have a place in reducing anxiety. When you look to the past to identify things that have gone well and cultivate gratitude for what is good in your life, you take steps to reduce anxiety

Use the Past to Tackle Anxiety in the Present

Learning to live mindfully in the present moment, pulling ourselves out of racing, anxious thoughts about the past or future and paying attention to what we are doing right now, in this moment, is a powerful way to reduce anxiety. However, thinking about the past does have an important place in moving past anxiety.

To do so, think of yourself as an archaeologist rather than a traveler in a time machine. You're not out to go back in time and relive the past. Instead, as an archaeologist, you're still living in the present moment. You're just a distant observer and an investigator seeking clues that you can use to reduce anxiety now, in your present life. 

You can do an exercise that draws on Throwback Thursday for inspiration. Look back to your past to observe a time in the past when:

  • Your anxiety was better (not necessarily completely non-existent) and/or
  • You felt grateful about something in your life.

Doing these things helps broaden your perspective. Anxiety can become all-consuming, and it can genuinely feel that it has always been part of our lives. It also can overshadow memories to cast much of life in a negative light. It  can seem as though we've always been anxious that that there was never a time when things were good. This belief is an automatic negative thought, a natural component of anxiety, known as all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking. 

No matter how it seems, though, it's quite likely that there have been times in the past when anxiety was better. There have been times to be grateful for. Getting curious about the past and investigating it to discover that time and learn about it can help reduce anxiety in the present.

Try This 'Archaeology' Exercise to Reduce Anxiety in the Present

Like actual archaeology, this exercise requires patience, practice, and persistence. Set a time to do this regularly, perhaps weekly (more or less often based on your own unique personality and preferences). The more you do it, the more you'll expand your thoughts and be able to adapt what you discover to help your anxiety in the present. 

  • Close your eyes, and recall a time in the near or distant past when your anxiety was better. This might require exploration because it won't necessarily be easy to identify. Stick with it, and be patient with yourself.
  • Describe that time. Write about it in a journal or notebook, or talk about it with someone supportive. 
  • What were you like back then? What were you doing? 
  • What was the setting?
  • What was happening in your world? What else was going on?
  • Look for patterns to identify what was going well, what you were doing that kept anxiety from looming large.
  • What made you feel grateful, light, calm, happy, etc.?
  • How can you do more of what worked then to improve your anxiety, and your life, now?

The purpose of this exercise isn't to keep you stuck in the past. It's meant to be empowering as you remember that anxiety hasn't always dominated your life and that you have done things in the past that worked well for you. Use what you discover to help shape your current actions as one way to reduce anxiety.

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, July 8). When Thinking About the Past Helps Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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