Regret is a common feeling that has both negative and positive effects. Knowing how to move past and learn from them is key to your overall well-being.
Regret is a feeling based on the idea that you could have acted differently to produce a more desirable outcome.
Regret can be accompanied by guilt, embarrassment, and self-blame. It can include asking yourself a lot of hypothetical questions: “What if I acted differently? What if I took that opportunity? What if I didn’t say what I said?”
Because you can’t go back in time, you’ll never know the answer to those questions. For that reason, you might ruminate about it — thinking the same thoughts over and over again, wondering what could’ve happened.
You might regret something even when, realistically, there’s nothing you could’ve done, and even if ultimately you believe you made the right choice. The feeling of regret itself isn’t proof that you did the wrong thing — you might simply have complicated feelings about your experience.
Why are regrets harmful?
Regret is associated with higher levels of cortisol. Known as the stress hormone, cortisol helps you when you enter flight-or-fight mode. Chronically high levels of cortisol are associated with mental and physical health problems.
According to a 2015 study, people who are prone to regret are more likely to experience:
Many people ruminate about regrets. Rumination is when you can’t stop thinking about the past, even when you’re having the same thoughts over and over again. With rumination, these thoughts are negative or upsetting in nature.
Although most people ruminate, rumination is associated with certain mental health conditions, including:
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
It’s not possible to avoid regret entirely. But managing regret in a healthy, positive way can help you learn from the experience.
Can regrets be a positive thing?
Regret is a healthy, common feeling that most people feel once in a while. In some cases, regret can even be beneficial.
The benefits of regret can include:
Regret can improve your decision-making skills: While you can’t avoid mistakes altogether, regretting past decisions can help you make better, more thoughtful choices in the future.
Regret can motivate you: Sometimes, regrets can motivate you to perform better, take healthy risks, and focus your energy on what matters to you.
Regret can help you be more self-aware: Your regrets might teach you about your values, strengths, and weaknesses.
Regret can inspire gratitude: You can use your regret to fuel a deeper appreciation for the decisions you don’t regret and the positive things you have in your life.
With this said, if your regret is excessive or obsessive, it might do more harm than good. This is especially the case if you linger on regretful thoughts for too long or if you find it hard to think of anything other than your regrets.
What are common regrets?
A 2018 review found that ideal-related regrets are more enduring and painful than regretting other kinds of failures and decisions. Ideal-related regrets are about not living up to your goals and acting as you’d like your ideal self to act.
A 2016 study based on a survey ranked the participants’ most intense regrets. In order of importance, it found that people regret:
decisions that broke their own life rules — in other words, decisions that went against their morals and values
decisions that relate to relationships with others
decisions that lacked an explicit justification
The study also found that people were more likely to regret inaction than action. In other words, you’re more likely to regret the things you didn’t do as opposed to the things you did do. But regrets relating to action were slightly more intense.
How to stop thinking about regrets
It’s OK to have regrets. As mentioned, they might even be beneficial.
But if you often ruminate on regrets or find yourself having persistent, unproductive thought spirals, you might want to find a way to shift your attention elsewhere.
Here are some ways to press pause on those unconstructive thoughts:
Practice mindfulness: Focus on savoring the moment instead of getting caught up in ruminating. This isn’t always easy, but mindfulness gets easier with practice.
Focus your energy elsewhere: You could try engaging in an art project or reading an absorbing book.
Exercise: A large 2018 study found that short bursts of exercise reduced rumination and improved mood in participants.
Journal about it: Putting pen to paper can help you express and process your thoughts. Once you’ve gotten those thoughts “out” of your brain and into your journal, you might find it easier to mentally move on.
Tips to move forward from regrets
1. Let yourself feel it
Because regret can be so painful, it’s tempting to try to squish down the feeling.
But avoiding your regret can make it feel worse.
Instead, acknowledge what you’re feeling and try to accept it. Having regrets doesn’t make you a bad or foolish person — it’s a natural, common emotion.
2. Draw something positive from the experience
In many cases, regret can be valuable.
Your regret might teach you a valuable life lesson. For example, if a friend passes away and you regret not spending more time with them, your regret might inspire you to spend more time with your loved ones.
Alternatively, your regret might influence you to apologize and make amends if you hurt someone.
3. Be self-compassionate
Research from 2015 looked at three studies on regret and self-improvement. The analysis suggested that regret can lead to personal growth if self-compassion is involved. Acceptance and self-forgiveness could help you learn from the experience.
According to a 2018 study, self-compassion could also protect you from the potential health risks of regret, especially cortisol-related health conditions.
In relation to regret, self-compassion can include:
reminding yourself of your strengths
practicing loving-kindness meditation
taking care of your basic needs
allowing yourself to engage in enjoyable activities
4. Try to avoid what-ifs
It’s natural to think about what could’ve been.
If you made a different decision, the outcome might’ve been better. But it also might’ve been worse. The thing is that we can never know what the alternative outcomes are.
Although it’s tempting to run through the possibilities in your head, it can get exhausting after a while.
Try to recognize when you’re engaging in thought patterns that aren’t productive or helpful, and practice mindfulness so that you don’t get too caught up in the fantasy.
When to seek help
Anybody can benefit from quality mental health help. If you’re finding it challenging to process a regret, therapy can help you work through your feelings and cope with regret in a healthy way.
It’s an especially good idea to seek professional help if your regrets are:
severely upsetting or overwhelming
making it difficult to concentrate or think clearly
impairing your ability to make decisions
negatively affecting your day-to-day life (including relationships, home life, leisure time, or work)
Therapy might also be helpful if your regrets are persistent and accompanied by compulsions (behaviors you feel compelled to engage in), such as:
mentally repeating events
These symptoms can be signs of real event OCD.