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Let go and move on: 10 tips to forget the past

July 20, 2022 - 14 min read


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What are the consequences of traumatic memories?

What is the relationship between emotions and memories?

How to forget the past and move on with your life

When to seek professional help

Your next steps

Tripping in front of a crowd. A bad breakup. A flubbed line during a presentation. 

We all have bad memories and embarrassing moments we’d prefer to forget. Some are easily left behind. 

Other events can stick with you, like heartbreak. Letting go of the past isn’t easy. 

We might struggle with traumatic memories in particular. Traumatic memories are intense and seem like they take control of our whole bodies. They can be visual flashbacks that cause us to feel physically ill. These can cause us to experience headaches, profuse sweating, stomach aches, and feel weak. We may also feel the impact of extreme stress after we think we’ve moved past the flashback.

So while it’s understandable to want to put your energy toward living a happier life, that’s often easier said than done. 

But there are benefits when you learn to forget traumatic moments from the past — or remember them with less sharp emotions associated. That’s true too for unpleasant memories of the past that aren’t traumatic — like embarrassing moments from middle school that still occasionally flash in your brain.

You’ll adopt a growth mindset, which enables you to grow and experience all that life offers. 

Find out more about the effects of traumatic memories and past emotional pain — and how to forget the past, or at least, move past it.


What are the consequences of traumatic memories?

Less serious events, like tripping in front of a crowd of people or a bad grade, can still result in negative feelings and discomfort when we reflect on these moments.

We might feel increased anxiety when walking in front of a group or taking an exam if we have a history of negative outcomes. You might wonder how to forget your past relationship when you meet someone new because you want a clean slate.

In more serious events, we may struggle with trauma. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional (and potentially physical) response to any terrible event, like assault or a natural disaster.

After the trauma has occurred, long-term effects that disrupt your quality may be diagnosed as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can lead to physical symptoms like migraines or nausea, a difficulty with sustaining relationships, and more.

Traumatic memories manifest in different ways and can affect any aspect of your life, from your career to your relationships. This can dictate how you live, your choices, and your overall physical well-being or emotional well-being.

Most consequences of traumatic memories fall into these three responses: 

Emotional responses:

Recalling negative memories can cause people to feel all sorts of emotions, such as anger, sadness, and embarrassment. Memories can also be a source of anxiety for people. 

Emotional pain isn't limited to only a few emotions. 

Depending on the memory, you may experience several of these emotions — or others. For instance, if you make a mistake when public speaking, you could feel doubt about whether you should do it again.

In the moment, you may feel shame and embarrassment. This painful memory might make you less inclined to leave your comfort zone in the future for fear of experiencing these emotions again. 


Cognitive responses:

A true traumatic event isn’t something simple like spilling food on yourself. Rather, it’s a major past event that continues to leave you shaken and emotionally harmed. It often continues to negatively impact your mental health and potentially limit your coping skills. 

For instance, a person who is abused as a child may be hesitant to trust others or feel threatened by behavior that triggers memories of past abuse well into adulthood. The Cleveland Clinic has found that children who experience trauma have a more significant risk of health problems like anxiety, depression, heart issues, and high levels of stress

Physical responses:

Traumatic events might trigger people to respond physically to situations. 

You can have a sense of fear if you go back to a specific location where you have painful memories, and your heart rate may start to race. Your breathing can become shallow and you cause shakiness when you remember past experiences.

Research has also found that our bodies can respond to traumatic events by struggling to sleep. Our bodies feel exhausted, but we’re so agitated that we can’t relax. A lack of sleep then contributes to other physical, cognitive, and emotional responses.

If we can’t rest our bodies, our minds can’t rest, either. Traumatic events and the associated stress can even cause disturbances and pain in our gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, and respiratory systems. This can also stem from the stress we endure as we remember our traumatic memories.

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What is the relationship between emotions and memories?

There's a reason why your most vivid memories are the most emotional. You can thank a structure in our brain called the amygdala for this. The amygdala is in charge of emotional regulation and how memories are processed through our brain. Memories that we recall with ease are usually associated with intense emotions — negative or positive. 

The amygdala is critical for learning from past mistakes and improving emotional intelligence. Still, because it can remind you of painful memories and past experiences, it contributes to your struggle to move forward. 

Of course, it can be difficult to stop reminding yourself of the memories that cause you pain and contribute to your negative feelings. But some researchers have been studying ways that you can deal with bad emotions and memories.

Research has found that reframing negative memories to focus on any potential positive aspects helps us create more healthy functioning. Bottling up and surprising your emotions does nothing good for you. Instead when you reflect on your emotions, you can think of anything positive that happened as well.

It could be anything from the weather, a friend who was present, or a friendly dog that walked by. 

Next time you think about that bad memory and you start feeling negative emotions, you can remind yourself of any positive elements. This will prevent you from dwelling on the negatives and help to promote positive thinking.

Reading this, you might start to resent your amygdala. But don't forget that your amygdala reminds you of your happy memories too. If you're constantly struggling to see the positives, a BetterUp coach or mentor can help you develop a positive attitude while you work to achieve your goals


How to forget the past and move on with your life

There’s no single way to move on from negative or traumatic memories. Some people find success with specific strategies that others struggle with. 

While you check out these 10 tips, consider if any complement your existing routine and lifestyle or if you’re willing to try them out:

  1. Keep your distance from people or locations that might trigger negative reactions
  2. Incorporate self-care into your daily routine 
  3. Spend time with positive people with whom you have healthy relationships
  4. Swap out negative thoughts for positive self-talk
  5. Let yourself feel your emotions rather than deny them
  6. Take a social media hiatus to live in the present moment
  7. Understand that some people may never apologize to you
  8. Forgive yourself for any past mistakes you've made
  9. Write down your goals and make a plan for your progress
  10. Practice mindful meditation to help recenter your focus 



When to seek professional help

With some bad memories — particularly ones rooted in trauma — you may need help to move on. There’s no need to struggle alone while working through the impact of a  traumatic event's impact. 

Studies have shown that when we have a solid social support system, our overall mental health is better. Our social support can come from friends, family, and even our coworkers. It’s also been found that people who don’t have any social support are at an increased risk of mental health issues.

The positive impact that our support system has on us helps us feel more motivated, safe and loved. 

Your best friend could be a great person to talk to, but they might not understand or be equipped to give you the support you need. Sometimes, it’s impossible to leave the past behind without proper help.

See a licensed mental health professional about memories and events that amplify depression, anxiety, or PTSD. A social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist can suggest and start you on a treatment plan to make a significant difference. They could offer coping strategies that you never thought of before or prescribe medication.


Your next steps

You can't resolve the emotional pain of traumatic events and bad memories with a Band-Aid. It’s hard to accept that there's no way to go back in time, prevent those events from happening, or live without those experiences.

Sometimes you may take a couple of steps backward, but healing is never linear. Learning how to forget past mistakes isn’t an easy process. Along the way, make sure you're patient with yourself. A victory is a victory, no matter how big or small it may be.

Moving on from the past means that you're allowing yourself to live a happier, healthier life. It's a way of life that will benefit you in the long run. Your career will develop and your personal life will fill you with confidence and a healthy well-being. It's the life we all deserve to live.

At BetterUp, we want to see you live that life. Let’s get you back on track. 

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Published July 20, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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