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The psychological benefits of ‘letting go’

Letting go offers us freedom. How we experience the moment isn’t pre-determined by the past but only by the present moment. Even if the past is full of pain, letting go allows us to only focus on what is happening just now in this moment. It allows us to experience the warmth of the sun during a summer day, the care and concern of a friend that we are talking to, the melody of a piece of music that we find beautiful.

There are significant psychological benefits of letting go. When we let go of painful emotions and focus on the present moment this regulates our feelings more effectively. There is considerable evidence that mindfulness practice improves both mental and physical health. Mindfulness also improves our resilience to deal with adverse life events.

We are all conditioned to view the world through certain filters. Through our childhood, adolescence and young adulthood we develop these ways of seeing the world through our experiences. These experiences become lenses through which we make sense of new situations and people we meet. In many respects our minds are conditioned to look for similarities to develop a shortcut through which we can assess new events to ensure that we learn from the past. The difficulty with this is that over time we become less able to take in information that is different to our existing ways of seeing the world because this causes too much anxiety.

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Many years ago psychologists developed a theory referred to as ‘cognitive dissonance’ which refers to ‘the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time’. To offer an example of this, if over time and difficult life experiences I think that ‘I am not good enough’ when I succeed in an area of my life this is likely to cause dissonance because it doesn’t fit with my view of myself. To avoid this sense of distressing conflict I might then explain my achievement as good luck or tend to underestimate how much of my success is to do with my actual abilities. Essentially our minds are drawn to make sense of things in a way that is familiar to us to avoid an experience of anxiety even if the familiar beliefs are unhelpful to us. We hold on to the past to avoid the possibility of future pain but by holding on we often end up experiencing far greater pain because we don’t open ourselves to new possibilities.

Letting go involves stepping back from painful experience and noticing what is going on in our mind, observing our thoughts and feelings. Over time the ability to observe our mind means that we can develop a certain curiosity about our experience rather than take our thoughts and feelings to be ‘the truth’. When we are struggling with a painful experience such as a loss of a relationship we might be struggling to let go because our mind is constantly revisiting the experience and trying to understand it which can often result in rumination. Letting go involves noticing where our mind is going, how it is drawn to certain painful thoughts, feelings or memories again and again and refocusing on the present moment. This involves both acceptance of what we think and feel but also a conscious effort to refocus our awareness on another experience; the place we try to redirect our mind to  could be ‘internal’ such as our breath or ‘external’, for example the sounds in a room or a conversation we are having with a friend. Our mind might then revisit the painful thoughts and feelings again and again so letting go isn’t always an aim that is achieved quickly but a process that we consistently have to engage with over a long period of time.

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Psychologists develop an understanding of a person in the context of their life experiences. There are many therapeutic approaches and they all help clients let go of the past in different ways. Some approaches might revisit early childhood and help someone heal from past traumas that interfere with their life and relationships in the present. Other therapies focus more on working in the here and now and help by connecting people to their goals and values which then allows them to live a more meaningful life. There are many avenues to arrive to the same outcome and the approach we use depends on the individual client, their life story and what is likely to be most effective in facilitating change for them.

At The Chelsea Psychology Clinic we treat a range of difficulties such as depression, anxiety, work related stress, relationship difficulties, eating disorders, personality disorders and substance misuse. Difficulty in letting go can be implicated in many different emotional problems. The main therapies we use to treat these difficulties are:

  • Mindfulness based cognitive therapy – helps clients develop mindfulness skills which directly enhance their ability to stay in the present moment and let go of painful thoughts and feelings
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy – helps clients to develop a more meaningful life by focusing on their goals and values and being able to follow the path they choose in their lives without being obstructed by difficult feelings
  • Schema therapy – addresses past experiences and traumas and how they have shaped the way we see the world and different aspects of the self. Through this approach, clients can learn how to stop repeating negative patterns and how to change unhelpful coping strategies and develop a greater ability to meet their needs in intimate relationships