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Are you living in the past? You could need help!

Thinking too much about your past can make you forget your present says Dr Amitabh Ghosh.

Nostalgia is a great thing; it helps us relive some of the sweetest and unforgettable memories of the past. Listening to a song your grandmother sang to you when you were little magically transported you to your childhood. Sometimes, it is the taste of a berry you shared with your friend that can make you wistful about your past. It s like instant time travel to a place we all cherish fondly in our hearts. Read: The brain can't preserve memories if you don't sleep.

While it is beautiful to revel in our happy memories, at times, these thoughts can also bring us pain. If nostalgia ends up making you sad instead of giving you happiness, there could be a problem. Also, some people dwell excessively in the unhappy events of the past, which makes them miss out on their present. Could this fixation with the past point towards a worrying problem? Yes, says psychiatrist Dr Amitabh Ghosh.

Nostalgia is more of the remembrance of past events, usually good which you miss and long to experience again. That s fine. But what if you are suffering because you are not able to get back those moments? What if those pleasant moments of the past are making you struggle to fix things so that you can enjoy them again? You are stressed, draining your energy and not being able to focus and thus missing the good moments in the present. This will be a hindrance to a more productive and valued life, says the doctor. In this article, Dr Ghosh helps us explore the possible causes that make us dwell too much on our past and lose control over reality.

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It s all in our head

Dr Ghosh says that there are three networks in our brain:

  • The Attention Network Active when we have a task at hand and need to concentrate.
  • Default network Active when we are mentally passive (daydreaming and imagining things) It is responsible for our spontaneous thoughts when we talk to ourselves.
  • Salience network Scans all the information it receives and accordingly stops the attention network or the default network, depending on what is more important.

So what happens when the default network becomes overactive and overpowers the other two? Your mind will be wandering, and you will not be able to concentrate when you have a work at hand which needs focus. Default network activity is increased in conditions like:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Marijuana usage.

What causes it?

Similarly depression and anxiety can be for many reasons. One of which is the memories of mental trauma in the past, says Dr Ghosh. It can be a major trauma or a repetition of low-grade trauma over a period. Examples of a major trauma may be a rape or a major accident. Minor traumas could be incidents like repeated insults, beatings by the caregiver, slapped in public, bullied in school, etc., he adds.

These traumas develop a negative belief system about the self in the child, like I am not worthy, I am stupid, I am not smart, etc. This belief system affects the cognitive and behavioural functions of the child. Read: How to get bad memories out of your head.

What happens where there is an excessive fixation on the past?

Dr Ghosh reveals, They move into adulthood with this belief system and thus find a lot of difficulty in building a good career and healthy relationships. Some of the problems they develop are:

  • Ultimately they develop depression and anxiety disorders.
  • They dwell in the past and lead their life based on the belief system developed from the recent incidents.
  • They are unable to form a proper value system and take committed actions and set smart goals.
  • They are unable to live a valued a life that is based on the principles of how they want to live to be more fulfilling and happy.
  • They develop a rigid sense of self-defined by the past. They are unable to see the past incidents as past with little relevance to the present time.

How can it be cured?

The suffering in these patients are intense, and although the symptoms can be reduced by medications for a long-term benefit, they will need therapies like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) mindfulness, attention and commitment therapy, CBT to name a few. EMDR is particularly helpful for people suffering due to a traumatic memory. Read: Myths about meditation debunked.

Dr Ghosh has a piece of advice for those living excessively in the past; they should tell themselves the past is not a rule. It need not repeat itself. He says that one should learn to distance oneself from the self-deprecatory thoughts that arise from dwelling in traumatic events of the past.

Read this in Hindi.

Image source: Shutterstock

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