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Regret is a very real reaction to a disappointing event in your life, a choice you made that can’t be changed, something you said that you can’t take back. It’s one of those feelings you can’t seem to shake, a heavy and intrusive negative emotion that can last for minutes, days, years or even a lifetime. Imaging studies reveal that feelings of regret show increased activity in an area of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex.
Dealing with regret is even more difficult because of the other negative emotions connected to it: remorse, sorrow and helplessness. Regret can increase our stress, negatively affect physical health and throw off the balance of hormone and immune systems. Regret is not only unpleasant. It is unhealthy.
But there is good news: regret can be overcome through interventions like therapy and evidence-based strategies.
There are basically two ways to experience regret: one is what researchers refer to as the action path and the other is the inaction path. That is, we regret the things we did – or we regret the things we did not do.
Research suggests that action-related regrets, although painful, spur people to learn from their mistakes and move on. But regret related to the inaction path – the things undone, the opportunities lost – is harder to fix. This kind of regret is more likely to lead to depression, anxiety, a sense of “stuckness”and a feeling of longing over not knowing “what could have been”.
As with other negative emotions, it doesn’t work to avoid, deny or try to squash regret. In the long run, these tactics only increase negative feelings and prolong the time you suffer with them. Rather than stay stuck, you can manage these emotions in four steps:
Accepting that you have feelings of regret does not mean that you like these feelings. It just means you know they are there. It also helps to identify the specific emotion you’re feeling. Instead of telling yourself, “I feel bad,” say “This is me, feeling regret.” Simple as it sounds, the semantic difference has a big emotional impact.
Acknowledging your thoughts and feelings can bring relief from strong negative emotions. When you’re regretting something, remind yourself that you had no crystal ball. Instead, you made the best decision you could, given the information you had at the time, and given the same circumstances, most of your contemporaries would have made the same decision.
This method of noticing and then restructuring your thoughts is sometimes called cognitive reappraisal. Seeing the situation in a different way may help reduce regret and help you make future decisions.
Forgiving yourself for actions taken or not taken is a powerful step toward overcoming regret. This has been formalized into a commonly used cognitive psychological model called REACH, which asks people to Recall the hurt (face it), Empathize (be kind and compassionate), Altruistically offer forgiveness (to oneself), Commit publicly (share it) and then Hold on to that forgiveness and stay true to the decision. Research shows that six hours of work with a trained professional using this model can have a positive impact .
Finally, you can release these feelings of regret by practicing self-compassion. This means reminding yourself that you are human, you are doing the best you can, and you can learn from past decisions and grow. Showing this compassion to yourself can help you accept and move past the regret.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
Feelings of regret are linked to negative emotions such as sorrow, remorse, and helplessness. Neuroscientists explore the neurobiology of regret and provide tips to overcome feelings of regret.
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