Being Stuck in the Past Is Associated With Anxiety, Depression

Sometimes it’s best to leave the past in the past. At least, that’s what a new study from psychologists in the United Kingdom suggests.

In the study, researchers had 372 participants complete a survey called the Temporal Focus Scale, which is designed to measure whether people are more focused on the past, the present or the future.

Based on how people scored, the researchers then divided the participants up into five groups: those who were especially focused on the present, on the past, and on the future, as well as those who were equally focused on multiple times and those who apparently had no focus on any particular times at all.

It turned out that the group that was oriented toward the past had uniquely poor mental health. Members of this group tended to have more symptoms of both anxiety and depression.

This result adds to a growing collection of evidence that suggests being too caught up in the past correlates with worse mental health. For example, the researchers pointed out that previous research grouping people based on their Temporal Focus Scale scores has found lower self-esteem among past-focused teenagers.

Along the same lines, other recent research has found that being focused on the present is associated with higher life satisfaction. The same study found that the link between present orientation and life satisfaction may have to do with rumination – specifically, people more focused on the present tend to ruminate on negative events less, which in turn predicts higher life satisfaction.

One study even suggests that whether we’re oriented toward the past or future influences how we deal with negative evaluations from other people. In particular, the study found that when people were evaluated negatively by groups they were a part of, they tended to take those negative evaluations to heart more when they were more focused on the past.

Summarizing these findings, the researchers pointed out that “a focus on the past may lock such individuals within their group’s history, whereas a vision of the future may open up opportunities for change.”

Image: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker


  1. H.W. on July 1, 2017 at 7:30 am

    If you ask people who avoid the past by walking on eggshells all day if they are happy, of course they’re going to answer “yes.” Anything else would cause their house of cards to crumble. People who have looked at the past and dealt with it may not be giddily happy, but they’re solid, mature, and brave, and can handle life’s inevitable tragedy much, much better than eggshell walkers.

    • Carolyn Janes on July 2, 2017 at 10:46 am

      I couldn’t agree with you more. Nicely put!