Lately, I’ve been mourning what I view as a serious loss.
It wasn’t the loss of a person or a pet or property. Rather, I’ve been mourning all the time in my life that I lost to anxiety – all those years I can never get back. What if? I find myself thinking. What if I’d reached out for help earlier? Where would I be now? Would my life be better?
It wasn’t until I started counseling, found some healthy coping techniques that work for me, and began to get some relief that I realized just how badly I’d needed help. I could finally envision a life without being anxious all day every day, and it seemed that there was so much opportunity ahead of me.
But after I while, I started to feel a lot of regret over how many past opportunities I might have missed. I felt better in general, but I was worried that I’d wasted my potential, sad that I spent so long being miserable. As this went on, I realized that in a way, I was grieving my own life — grieving a part of life that I didn’t get to really live.
I’ve noticed this topic coming up a lot when I talk to others who’ve struggled with anxiety and mental illness. “Mourning lost time” seems to be a common experience.
Moving Forward from Regret
This mindset can be easy to fall into when your anxiety has dominated your life for too long. You might daydream about the perfect life you’d be leading, the romance you could have had, or the career you could have succeeded in, if things had been different. You may even feel a sense of injustice and anger — that it’s unfair that all this happened to you, while so many people around you seemed happy and healthy. I’ve even heard this phenomenon compared to getting out of prison after a long sentence – even though you’re happy for the freedom, you feel that you lost the “best years of your life.”
This reaction makes sense — anxiety IS a bit like being imprisoned by your own mind. It’s natural to feel sad about the time you spent feeling trapped. But especially for those of us who are prone to anxiety or depression, it’s unhealthy to dwell these regrets for too long. You don’t want to replace your anxious “what-if’ing” about the future with regretful what-if’ing about the past.
These are the things I try to keep in mind when I find myself feeling down about “lost” time.
- Nobody’s led a perfect life. When you’re really struggling, it’s easy to see other people and take their perceived happiness at face value. But remember that, especially with social media, you’re only seeing the “photoshopped” version of people’s lives. No matter how fabulous things seem on the outside, every person has their own obstacles to overcome. It’s simply not true that if you didn’t have anxiety, your life would have been easy.
- You are who you are because of ALL your experiences. In fact, a lot of times it’s the negative experiences that make us stronger and teach us the important lessons in life. By struggling with mental health issues and finding your way to recovery, you have faced a huge challenge. The healthy coping strategies, better lifestyle, and strength of character that you picked up along the way will serve you well for the rest of your life.
- The present is what matters most. If you find yourself dwelling on the time you lost, ask yourself, “What am I doing right now?” (Besides what-if’ing, of course.) If the answer is “playing with my grandchildren,” take a deep breath and really put all your energy into being present with your grandchildren in that moment. Same goes if you are doing the dishes, or raking leaves, or driving to the office. Reminding yourself to breathe and be mindful helps you to make the most of each moment – which is far more important than re-imagining a happier past.
- Remember you were doing the best you could at the time. A friend of mine recently told me that she used to spend time wondering how her life could have turned out if she’d gotten control over her anxiety sooner. She said a simple realization changed her perspective: You were doing the best you could at the time. This really resonated with me. When you’re struggling just to stay afloat while life itself seems to want to pull you under, basic survival instinct is in control. But whether you’re just starting the recovery process or well into it, the fact that you made your way to this point is something to celebrate. The point isn’t that you missed out on life — it’s that in spite of all the obstacles, you’ve managed to get yourself to a place where you can start to truly enjoy your life.