The Impact of Regret on Anxiety

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Carving of sad face on a stone wall

“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” Thus sang Frank Sinatra. Regrets, unfortunately, add more stress to our busy lives, and that stress can lead to anxiety. Anxiety comes about when we have filled up our (metaphorical) stress bucket. It can be filled with things like: too much to do, worry about the future, uncertainty, and of course regrets about past events.

The Stress Bucket

Where our stress bucket becomes too full, the primitive part of our brain engages in “fight or flight mode”. This generates anxiety. Anxiety is the brain’s primitive part telling us that something is wrong, that there is danger about, and we need to get ready to fight or flee. And this anxiety comes about when we have a build up of too much stress in our stress bucket.


Regret is a natural emotion that arises when we have either done something that didn’t work, or not done something that would be good for us. It is nature’s way of telling us to learn from our mistakes. If we look back in time and recognise things that may have not gone as well as we would have hoped, we have a chance to learn from those events and so choose a different path in the future.

What Happens When Regret Gets Out of Control

The problem comes when we spend too much time and emotional energy regretting the past. We may regret saying something mean to a friend in the heat of the moment, but if we spend hours agonising over it rather than doing something about it, then we will add a large amount of stress into our lives. The bigger the mistake the bigger the regret, and the more anxiety we suffer from.

John (not his real name) developed diabetes in later life, after having spent years eating a high carbohydrate, high sugar diet. He developed a lot of anxiety over the problem. He spent years of his later life regretting the bad eating habits of his youth, and wishing that he has had to self control to eat a healthy diet. The emotional energy that the regret (and the subsequent anxiety) prevented him from dealing with the diabetes itself.

Regret can become a vicious cycle. When you regret the past, you add stress into your stress bucket. The primitive brain recognises the amount of stress that you are under. It assumes that there is something wrong, and so generates anxiety. The anxiety is there to make you look around for the source of danger, but it ends up with you thinking about your regrets again.

What Do I Do if I Can’t Stop Regretting the Past?

Logically, there is no point in having regrets other than to make sure you don’t make the same mistake in the future. However, the primitive brain that generates anxiety (and makes you think about the regret) is not logical. The primitive part of our brain does not contain the same logical circuits that our prefrontal cortex, the most advanced art of the brain, has.

You need to find a way to remind yourself that you have got all the information you need from your regrets. Remind yourself that the past is gone, you can’t change it, and you coped with it all.
Now you have the future, and the future is there for you to make something better of your life. Focus your mind on the future and what could be, rather on the past and what could have been.

Changes will not happen immediately, the primitive part of the brain, the fight or flight part, will not respond immediately. You need to remind yourself every day that the past is gone and now is the time to think about the future. Keep at it. You will get there eventually.

Good luck!

If you have difficulty coping with anxiety on your own, you might like to consider hypnotherapy. I run my anxiety clinic in Fleet, Hampshire, using hypnotherapy to help normal people get over their anxiety.

Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

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Tim Maude

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