What can we do if we can’t seem to let go of the past? Some people seem to be able to move on from bad experiences very quickly; others struggle for years to “get over” unpleasant life experiences. How can we truly move on from the past?
Sometimes talking about the past, or following standard cliche tips and advice, can help people get over it, but sometimes it doesn’t really help, and this article is aimed at these more severe cases where the person may even do the right thing in seeking help and support but still struggle to get over unpleasant life experiences.
In these cases there needs to be slightly different approach to dealing with the past. We need to actually access and process it on some level that is deeper than just talking about it. There are two main ways of doing this which we will cover – EMDR therapy and mindfulness meditation.
Not being able to get over the past can manifest in a number of ways. Here are some of the more common ones:
- Constantly ruminating or going over the past.
- Keep having flashbacks of past experiences, often with bursts of anger or other emotions.
- Memories of unpleasant experiences keep popping into a person’s mind randomly, especially when trying to do something they consider “fun” or enjoyment.
- Other symptoms, like sleep disturbance, nightmares, eating disorders.
- Chronic depression and low mood.
- Feeling of flatness or numbness.
- Can’t get enjoyment out of things they used to.
- Negative “glass half empty” mindset – can’t be happy that they’re not currently experiencing trauma or around toxic people; can only ruminate on the bad things they have experienced. Mindset stuck in the past. Can’t seem to move forward and live in the present.
The Connection With Trauma
Some readers may notice the list above is pretty much a copy over from any list of trauma or PTSD symptoms. This is because the idea of the “unresolved past” and trauma are pretty very closely related, in fact often identical.
This inability to let go and move on from unpleasant past events is pretty much synonymous with the idea of trauma. If there isn’t a perfect correlation then it is pretty close to perfect. The very fact that the person cannot let go means that the distressing life experiences they have had are still stuck inside them to some extent.
Psychologists such as Freud and Jung spoke about the unconscious or subsconious as a kind of reservoir or storing ground for all our past memories, but it is perhaps time to recognize these concepts as symbolic or metaphorical to some extent.
Rather, it has become more evident through the work of Alice Miller and others that trauma actually remains stuck in the body if unresolved. Unresolved experiences actually remain trapped physiologically within the person, demanding expression that so often leads people to inexplicably repeat the same dynamics in their life against their conscious will and intention.
What is happening here is that the trauma is still seeking expression and resolution through the person’s life experiences. Only by resolving this trauma at the physiological and psychosomatic level can it be really released to the point where the person is unburdened from it.
This is where it becomes important for the person who cannot get over the past to seek, not just any therapy, but the right kind of therapy, to really allow them to resolve the trauma sat inside them and make peace with their past.
We have already covered how in some cases standard talk or cognitive therapy can be ineffective in dealing with trauma. Whilst there is arguably always a benefit from having a safe, confidential space to talk about things, some people find that just talking about trauma just doesn’t get it resolved, or else is painfully slow in seeing progress.
Rather, there needs to be some way to actually access the trauma on a visceral, deep level so it can actually be processed and moved on from. Thankfully, there are forms of psychotherapy which are specifically designed to do this, which we will now turn to.
EMDR as a Trauma Focused Therapy
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR is a form of therapy which is aimed at resolving trauma on a psychosomatic level, and has proven to be very effective in this regard. It is worth serious consideration for anyone struggling to get over unpleasant past events in their life which continue to stay stuck inside them.
The general methodology of EMDR consists of using eye movements or some other form of bilateral stimulation to stimulate the mind/brain to actually process or “digest” trauma that has been stuck inside the person for a long time.
EMDR has been around for several decades now and has been formalized into a rigorous 8 step process which has proven very effective at dealing with trauma. Here are the general 8 steps:
- Client History – Identify target memories.
- Preparation – Prepare the client appropriately for the therapy.
- Assessment – Fully assess and evaluate target memories, feelings, beliefs etc.
- Desensitization – Use eye movements or other forms of bilateral simulation to process memories.
- Installation – Install positive beliefs about self to replace negative beliefs and affects associated with memories.
- Body Scan – Eliminate any remaining physiological symptoms with further bilateral stimulation.
- Closure – Return client to safe calm equilibrium as session ends.
- Re-evaluation – Check that all aspects of memory have been fully processed.
The process has proven so powerful that is an officially recommended treatment for trauma by the World Health Organization, and is highly commended by patients and therapists alike who undergo the treatment. See our videos page for some excellent videos on the subject as well as testimonials.
EMDR can also be effective on dealing not just with trauma, but so many other conditions which often ultimately appear to stem from trauma when dug into a little deeper, like anxiety, depression, addiction and phobias. It truly is a “depth” psychotherapy which can pull trauma out at the root when properly done and not just address symptoms like other forms of therapy.
Many patients also report success with EMDR when other forms of therapy have been unsuccessful or only partially effective. This is perhaps because the EMDR framework acknowledges the point we made about that trauma stays stuck in the body if not deal with and continues to manifest with PTSD style symptoms, and therefore seeks to address it on it’s own terms and not just talk about it.
Mindfulness Meditation as Another Option
As a downside, EMDR therapy is not always so widely and readily available in all areas, and is also quite expensive. What about people who cannot get access to this treatment or can’t afford it. What other options are available?
MIndfulness meditation is a practice which is totally free, portable and easy to get into, which can also, over time, have a similar positive effect to EMDR in allowing people to let go of unpleasant things from their past.
The most common meditations simply involve focusing on a single anchor point, often the breath going in and out of the body, and bringing the mind back to this anchor whenever the mind wanders. One can also pay attention to any of the five senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching – on a moment to moment level.
The video above nicely sums up the Buddhist idea behind meditation “To observe reality is to see it more clearly, to understand it, and to understand it is to let go“. The relevant Buddhist concept here is that of the non permanence of suffering and other states.
We have all heard the phrase “Nothing is forever”. Good times don’t last but neither do bad times. But just saying or reading this does not really instill this into a person on a deep level. It’s just words like any other.
Prolonged meditation practice actually grinds this fundamental truth into a person’s mindset on a more deeper level. By observing the constantly changing nature of reality through the five senses, we come to see that everything is in a state of flux, and we learn to let go of strong attachments and ego investments, including attachments to past experiences.
See our Mindfulness Resources page for some introductory videos on the topic, as well as a set of basic meditation practices which are an excellent way to get started. By paying mindful attention to our moment to moment reality, with persistent practice remarkable insights can come, as well as a greater ability to let go.
Are EMDR and Mindfulness Related?
The EMDR and Mindfulness approach are in a sense related in that they both allow a person to process things which are stuck inside them, and both treatments involve to some extent focusing on inner experiences rather than talking about them. They are more reflective ways of addressing trauma, based on paying attention to one’s moment to moment experience and noticing what’s there.
EMDR however has proven to be far more powerful and fast acting than mindfulness, resolving trauma on a very deep level in a very short time frame when done correctly. Patients often report significant improvement in as little as one or two sesssions with EMDR, and the ripple effect of the treatment means that resolving one or a few major traumas can resolve all other related traumas by proxy.
Mindfulness by contrast is a much slower process, often taking many months or even years of practice to get to the same point. It can allow a person to let go of unpleasant past experiences, but does so in a much more gradual way than EMDR.
As a summary, if you can get access to EDMR, then go for this option, simply because it has proven to be the most powerful, effective and rapid approach in allowing people to let go of their past if other approaches have failed.
Mindfulness can do a similar thing but over a much more gradual, prolonged timeframe. It requires daily practice for a long period of time to deliver the same results that EMDR can deliver in as little as a few sessions.
On the plus side it is a totally free resource which anyone can start doing immediately as opposed to the expensive and and restricted access to EMDR. You don’t need to find a therapist or spend any money; you can start right away and our mindfulness resources page has an excellent set of introductory meditations to get started with.
So you can see there is a tradeoff here between effectiveness and cost/availability when comparing EMDR and mindfulness, even though they have some similarities and are capable of delivering similar results. See our full article on how EMDR and mindfulness are related.
It is Possible to Let Go Of The Past
In summary, there are indeed different ways to successfully let go of the past. Anyone can make peace with distressing events in their life if they have access to the right tools and resources. We created this article to spread awareness of two methods which have proven to be effective in this regard.
If conventional therapeutic methods are struggling to work, then the issue of trauma and letting go needs to be approached from a different angle; aimed at actually accessing the trauma on a deeper visceral level so it can be processed to resolution and fully released from the person psychosomatically.
Done within a safe, controlled environment with a qualified practitioner, this EMDR approach can be the way forward for people struggling to get past their past, to use the title of Francine Shapiro’s excellent book on the topic. Mindfulness can achieve the same thing in a more gradual way.