Regret and mental wellbeing

Mental health issues

AS discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community. The guilt, pain and disappointment over things we have done or failed to do in life can compromise our mental wellbeing.

What is regret and what can make us regretful in life?

Regret is an emotion that can arise when we feel we could have done things differently in life. This can involve decisions we have made, words we have said to others, our behaviour and actions and our reactions to life and its challenges. Regret often comes with feelings of:

  • Guilt
  • Remorse
  • Self-blame, self-condemnation
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness

Studies have shown that people often regret decisions or actions involving relationships, family, parenting, finances and career choices.  What decisions or actions do you regret making or doing concerning your spouse or partner, your children, your parents or siblings, your friendships, your career or work choices, your finances? Do you find yourself constantly wondering ‘what if’ or ‘if only I had’?

How does regret affect our mental health?

Poorly managed feelings of regret can result in physical and mental health challenges including:

  •  Overthinking and rumination: constantly thinking about the past, past failures and past mistakes, ruminating and worrying about past decisions can be detrimental tour mental wellbeing
  • Stress and anxiety: regret can result in feelings of being overwhelmed as we develop chronic stress from worrying about the past. Regret can also affect our confidence in our ability to make good decisions and can result in anxiety when we need to make decisions going forward
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness: we cannot go back in time and change our past, as a result regret can eventually result in feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and hopelessness
  • Low self-worth and low self-esteem: excessive guilt and remorse can result in challenges in self-esteem and ability to value oneself. Ruminating over the mistakes of the past can overshadow our ability to make better decisions in the future
  •  Depression: regret can result in sadness, demotivation and exhaustion as the mistakes of the past weigh us down
  • Alcohol and substance use: excessive guilt and remorse can be troubling emotions that can sometimes lead us to using alcohol and substances to cope with them

What can I do to overcome regret?

  •  Acknowledge and take responsibility for the mistakes, actions, behaviours or lack of action that has resulted in the feeling of regret you are experiencing
  •  Let go of ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ thinking. Negative thinking patterns centred around imagining how things could have worked out differently are not helpful. Letting go of what could have been and embracing what currently is, is a great step towards healing from regret and building a better  future
  •  Forgive yourself: regret often centres around self-condemnation for what one has one or what one has failed to do that has resulted in the circumstances one finds themselves in. Forgiving oneself for the poor decisions, the lack of decision making, the mistakes, the poor judgements is essential to overcoming regret
  • Make amends: our decisions, our mistakes, our regrettable actions often affect others. Overcoming regret may also mean making an effort to make amends to those who have been affected by our decisions and restoring our relationships.

If you think that you or someone that you know maybe struggling with mental health challenge linked to regret, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

  • Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse  is a consultant psychiatrist. Feedback on WhatsApp: +263714987729)

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