• Regret is more than just a feeling; it is a tangible reaction to events or past choices that can increase stress and negatively affect our physical health.
  • Research shows that regret caused by inaction is more likely to result in negative mental and physical health concerns.
  • Utilising the cognitive psychological model 'REACH', trained professionals can help individuals shift from entrenched feelings of regret.
  • Below is an exploration of regret and the research that's been done to overcome it.

A friend of mine – we will call him “Jay” – was working for IBM in New York City in the early ‘90s. He was a computer programmer and made a good salary. Occasionally, competitors and startups approached Jay to join their companies. He had an offer from an interesting but small organization in Seattle, but the salary was paltry and most of the offer package was in company shares. After consulting with friends and his parents, Jay declined the offer and stayed with IBM. He has regretted it ever since. That small company was Microsoft.

Regret is a very real reaction to a disappointing event in your life, a choice you made that can’t be changed, something you said that you can’t take back. It’s one of those feelings you can’t seem to shake, a heavy and intrusive negative emotion that can last for minutes, days, years or even a lifetime. Imaging studies reveal that feelings of regret show increased activity in an area of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex.

Dealing with regret is even more difficult because of the other negative emotions connected to it: remorse, sorrow and helplessness. Regret can increase our stress, negatively affect physical health and throw off the balance of hormone and immune systems. Regret is not only unpleasant. It is unhealthy.

As a licensed clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, I conduct research on stressful emotions. Through this work, I help patients overcome regret, move on with their lives and grow. And that is the good news: Regret can be overcome through interventions like therapy and evidence-based strategies.

Therapy, like this woman is having here, can help people consumed with regret to face their feelings and develop resilience.
Research shows that regret from inaction is more likely to lead to mental health concerns.
Image: Unsplash/Christina @ wocintechchat.com

A 'sense of stuckness’

There are basically two ways to experience regret: One is what researchers refer to as the action path and the other is the inaction path. That is, we can regret the things we did – or we can regret the things we did not do.

Research suggests that action-related regrets, although painful, spur people to learn from their mistakes and move on. But regret related to the inaction path – the things undone, the opportunities lost – is harder to fix. This kind of regret is more likely to lead to depression, anxiety, a sense of “stuckness” and a feeling of longing over not knowing what could have been.

As with other negative emotions, it doesn’t work to avoid, deny or try to squash regret. In the long run, these tactics only increase negative feelings and prolong the time you suffer with them. Rather than stay stuck, people can manage these emotions in four steps: First, accept the fact that you are feeling them; determine why you are feeling them; allow yourself to learn from them; and finally, release them and move forward.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

You can help release these feelings of regret by practicing self-compassion. This means reminding yourself that you are human, you are doing the best you can, and you can learn from past decisions and grow. Showing this compassion to yourself can help you accept and move past the regret.

Accepting that you have feelings of regret does not mean that you like these feelings. It just means you know they are there. It also helps to identify the specific emotion you’re feeling. Instead of telling yourself, “I feel bad,” say “This is me, feeling regret.” Simple as it sounds, the semantic difference has a big emotional impact.

Accept, acknowledge and forgive yourself

Acknowledging your thoughts and feelings can bring relief from strong negative emotions. In Jay’s case, he could remind himself that he had no crystal ball. Instead, he made the best decision he could, given the information he had at the time, and given the same circumstances, most of his contemporaries would have made the same decision.

This method of noticing and then restructuring your thoughts is sometimes called cognitive reappraisal. Seeing the situation in a different way may help reduce regret and help you make future decisions.

Forgiving yourself for actions taken or not taken is a powerful step toward overcoming regret. This has been formalized into a commonly used cognitive psychological model called REACH, which asks people to recall the hurt (face it), empathize (be kind and compassionate), altruistically offer forgiveness (to oneself), commit publicly (share it) and then hold on to that forgiveness and stay true to the decision. Research shows that six hours of work with a trained professional using this model can have a positive impact.

More knowledge = less regret

At first, Jay pushed away his feelings of regret. He continued to struggle with thoughts of what he missed. He did not change until he approached and explored his feelings of regret, first with a friend and ultimately with a therapist.

Eventually, he accepted the pain of not knowing what might have happened, but also reminded himself of his rationale at the time, which was actually quite reasonable. He demonstrated compassion towards himself, and spoke to himself kindly, the way he would when talking to a loved one or close friend. Practicing this self-compassion allowed him to build resilience, move on from the negative emotions and ultimately forgive himself.

On making future decisions, Jay recognized the importance of obtaining as much information about opportunities as possible. He challenged himself to learn about the big players in the field. Doing so allowed him to overcome his regret and move forward. New opportunities came along. Jay, currently employed by another giant computer engineering company, is doing quite well for himself, and has been able to move beyond the regret of his past decision.