How to get over regret
When Frank Sinatra crooned ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few…’ in the first breath of what is arguably his most famous song, he probably wasn’t kidding. Nearly all of us know what that sinking feeling is like when we realise we could have done something better, when we made the wrong decision, missed out on a great opportunity or when we could have acted or spoken differently.
In fact many of us spend so much time obsessing about the questionable decisions we made and actions we took in the past, ’If only…’ could be one of the most well-worn phrases known to humankind.
What is regret?
There are lots of ways you could describe regret, but they all boil down to the same general idea. Regret is a negative emotional or cognitive state. It happens when we blame ourselves for an outcome we believe could have turned out better if we’d made a different decision (whether the decision was to do something, say something, not do something or not say something, and so on).
Life is what you make of it, they say. And that makes all those decisions you take – from the small, everyday ones to the major, life-changing choices that come around every now and then – all the more significant. So when the consequences of your decisions turn out to be far from what you’d hoped for, no wonder you kick yourself and become consumed with thoughts of what might have been.
In terms of neuroscience, researchers have discovered regret involves activity in parts of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus (i). Scientists have also looked at the nature of regret, finding that we tend to regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do (one survey found that 54 per cent of people regretted inaction compared with 12 per cent who regretting their actions more (ii) ).
What commonly causes feelings of regret?
As to the most common things we have regrets about, some researchers have pinned it down to what they believe is the top six (iii):
Overall, the researchers claim, people’s biggest regrets are a reflection of where in life they see their largest opportunities – that is, where they see real possibilities for change, growth and renewal. More recently some of the same researchers have discovered that while romance is a common source of regret, women are more affected than men: 44 per cent of women reported romance regrets compared with 19 per cent of men (iv). They also found that 34 per cent of men had regrets about work compared with 27 per cent of women, and that men had more education regrets than women too.
But the problem with regret and the guilty feelings it can cause is that – especially if they are severe and long lasting – they can lead to other mental health issues, such as low self-esteem, stress, anxiety and depression.
How do you manage regret?
Regret keeps you looking backwards and focusing on what might have been. If you want to move on, there are a few things you can do that may help.
Accepting human flaws
One of the first things you can do to deal with regret is to remind yourself that making mistakes is a natural part of life. We’re all fallible, and even though some people may seem as if they never trip up in life, they’re not perfect. Nobody is. So try to accept that at least some regret is not just normal but inevitable, and that nobody gets it right all of the time.
Something that may help with this acceptance and self-forgiveness is to realise that, while you may have made a mistake today, you’ve probably made lots of good decisions in the past – and you will in the future too. Try to focus on these good decisions. And even in situations you regret there are probably some things you did right. If you did the best that you could in that situation with what you knew at the time, give yourself credit instead of beating yourself up.
Mistakes can be great ways of learning lessons about yourself and life in general. So if you’ve made a bad decision, try to think of it as a lesson you can learn something from. You may not be able to change what you did, but you can let it help you make better decisions in the future. This is an example of how you should focus on the things you can control – that is, the future – not the things you can’t (the past).
Right your wrongs
Sometimes we regret our actions – or perhaps lack of action – because of the way they may have affected other people. So instead of letting it keep churning you up inside, try taking positive action to put things right. You may, for instance, need to apologise to someone for something you’ve done, or you may need to own up to something. If so, the longer you wait and stay silent, the more you will dwell on your regret. So don’t wait any longer – speak to the person in question or send them a message now. Even if your actions don’t fix everything, you’ll feel much better afterwards knowing that you tried.
Forgive yourself and move on
If you’re regretting something and it’s really weighing you down, instead of trying to push it out of your mind it may be a good idea to confront it, so that you can move forward.
First, try writing down what is making you feel regret, whether a decision, a situation or otherwise. Include details about why you regret it so much – for instance, has your action or decision caused problems for you or someone else?
Then try to write about what led you to make that decision or take that action at the time. Consider all the circumstances that affected you – you may have been under a lot of stress, for example, or you may not have had all the information you really needed to make a good decision. If you find this part of the exercise difficult, try writing it from the point of view of a friend or close family member – what would they say about the situation?
Next, write down what you would do differently if the same situation or choice were presented to you now or in the future. This can show you how much you’ve learned from your experience.
Are there positive elements of feeling regret?
Regret may be largely seen as a negative emotion but you could also argue it’s a useful one. Without regrets, for instance, we may not find the motivation to make better and more careful choices in the future. Regret can help us learn about ourselves and what we really want, and to grow into better people. Also if you don’t experience regret you may find it difficult to cope with uncertain and unpredictable situations.
In fact you could see regret as an important tool that shows how much we learn from our mistakes and acknowledge our weaknesses. You could even say regret is something we should embrace – that is, as long as it helps us to change for the better, rather than making us miserable and having a negative effect on our mental health.
Sharing our regret with other people can also be a good thing. That’s because if you tell others about the things you regret, it could then help them if they’re ever faced with similar choices or decisions.
Natural support for negative mood
If you don’t manage regret it can fester and have an adverse impact on your mental wellbeing. As well as taking the above steps to cope with it more effectively, you could try one or more natural nutritional supplements to help put you in a better and calmer mood.
Multivitamin and mineral
Most of us know how stressful it can be to have big regrets. But taking a good-quality multivitamin could be useful, with one study suggesting that it may help you cope better with situations that are stressful (v). Another study has found multivitamin supplements could help boost mood and improve feelings of day-to-day wellbeing (vi).
Ashwagandha is a traditional Ayurvedic herb often used to help with tiredness, fatigue and stress. One study suggests it may help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (vii), while another discovered 88 per cent of people feel less anxious after taking it (viii). Indeed, ashwagandha may help with stress because it affects the hypothalamus (a small region in the brain) and its interaction with the pituitary and adrenal glands (the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is thought to play a role in the body’s stress response (ix) ).
If stress is a problem, you may want to try rhodiola rosea, a herb used traditionally for stress relief thanks to its many active ingredients such as rosavins and salidrosides. Scientists have found rhodiola may reduce anxiety and stress more effectively than a placebo (x), and that it may also prevent chronic stress and stress-related complications (xi).
If you want to try rhodiola, look for a supplement that guarantees a potent 3% level of rosavins.
Obsessing about your mistakes can affect your mood as well as your stress levels. If you’re experiencing low mood, one of the nutritional supplements you may like to try is 5-Hydroxytryptophan – or 5-HTP. This is a natural amino acid, and studies suggest it may be as effective as conventional antidepressants (xii). There’s also some evidence that 5-HTP may help with anxiety disorders (xiii).
St John’s wort
St John’s wort is a herb that is often used for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only. There’s some evidence it may be more effective than a placebo at treating mild to moderate depression (xiv), with studies suggesting it’s as effective as some popular prescription antidepressants (xv).
Always consult your GP or pharmacist before taking St John’s wort, as it can interact with some other medicines.
Regret may have a useful purpose, but once that purpose is served you shouldn’t have to keep living with it. However this guide should give you some ideas about how to move on and shake off those negative thoughts. For more advice on managing your emotions, why not visit the mental health section of our health library?
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.