My daughters and I enjoy time-traveling together. It's been a favorite activity of our's for many years. Every time we get together, we find ourselves somewhere in our distant past, reminiscing and re-living our favorite use-to-be’s. We sing songs that we sang when we were all younger, switching up the harmony parts, making faces and trying to make each other laugh.
All humans engage in mental time-travel because it's fun and there are adaptive purposes in it. At minimum, we learn from our past by remembering it and prepare for our future by anticipating it. Most of us are constantly flinging between our past and future, often stopping in to the present moment just long enough to refuel and engage in the must do’s.
But it’s true what Ernest Holmes said, “Where the mind goes, energy flows,” and Marcus
Aurelius, “The things you think about determine the quality your mind.” So it’s no surprise that when we allow our minds to dwell on past or future events, it can affect our mood and mental state in the here-and-now. It can trigger joy and sentiment, but also negative thoughts and feelings like guilt, regret, sadness, shame, despair, anger, fear, and anxiety.
Have you ever gotten stuck in a past time loop where you can’t stop re-living a painful breakup, or an unfixable mistake you made, or an injustice that was done to you, or an opportunity you missed? No matter how hard you try, you find yourself right back there again and again, sometimes lying awake for hours, or drifting away from conversations. Notice how your mood shifts and how hard it is to break out of it? You're stuck!
When this happens repeatedly, your mind may be looking for something - an answer, an explanation, absolution, love or acceptance from someone important, or clues as to what went wrong. Or maybe something isn’t resolved or finished yet.
Do you need to forgive someone for something?
Do you need to forgive yourself for something?
Do you need to right a wrong?
Do you need to grieve a loss so that you can let it go and move on? A lover, a friend, a family member, a missed opportunity?
Is there something you simply need to accept because nothing can be done to change it?
When you’ve answered these questions and done the work that can be done but still get stuck replaying a past event or situation in your mind, here are some quick strategies for breaking that time loop:
Say to yourself out loud, “I accept that that happened. It was painful, and I can’t change it or undo it. But I survived it and it is in the past. Now I am here, and I am safe.”
Engage your senses. While your mind can time-travel, your body cannot. Use your body’s natural senses to anchor your attention to the present moment. What can you see? hear? smell? taste? touch? Describe it in great detail as if to someone on the phone. You can do this while sitting, lying, or walking.
Stimulate your sensory motor cortex, such as by holding an ice cube for a few seconds or splashing cold water in your face. Like a slap from Cher, this can help you “snap out of it” and break cognitive and emotional loops long enough for you to shift your attention to something else. (Sorry if you didn’t see Cher in the movie, “Moonstruck.”)
Once you break the loop, immerse yourself in a project that can be all-consuming, like exercising, doing a puzzle, playing sudoku, organizing a closet, cleaning out your pantry or refrigerator, or learning a new language. Try to be present in the activity and not allow your mind to wander.
If your mind does wander, select a new memory to think about such as a favorite vacation, or plan a future event.
Practice living more in the now. Psychology Today has a good article to get you started here.
Remember, you can change how you feel if you change how you think. But changing thought patterns takes time. Be patient with yourself - you're worth the effort.
NOTE: If you’re stuck in a past time-loop that is connected to a traumatic event, you may have PTSD. In this case, consider talking to a mental health professional. PTSD is treatable and you can get better. Learn more about PTSD here.