Can having regrets kill you?

Mar 10, 2011
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Most people have something that they regret in life. But new study found that if you can’t shake your regrets, then it could cause long-term health problems. Having regrets and not trying to “undo” them may not kill you, but it can physically make you very ill. On the other hand, dealing with regrets positively can make you emotionally and physically healthier.

A new study from Concordia University looked at how older and younger adults coped with regrets and found that, regardless of age, if regrets are not dealt with properly then it can cause physical health problems.

Carsten Wrosch, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Psychology and a member of the Center for Research in Human Development, said, “The emotional distress of regrets can trigger biological disregulation of the hormone and immune systems that makes people more vulnerable to develop clinical health problems – whether a cold or other potentially longer-term health problems. In this study, we showed that downward social comparisons can improve emotional well-being and help prevent health problems.”

Isabelle Bauer, who completed her PhD in Concordia’s Department of Psychology and the Center for Research in Human Development, said, “One common coping mechanism was through social comparisons, which can be both good and bad, depending on whether people think they can undo their regrets. Generally if people compare themselves to those who are worse off, they’re going to feel better. When they compare themselves to people who are better off, it can make them feel worse.”

104 adults of various ages completed a survey about their greatest regrets. These ranged from having married the wrong person to not spending enough time with their family. Participants were asked to report how the severity of their own regrets compared to the regrets of other people their age. The study found that age had no effect on how people reconciled their regrets.

People who deal better with regrets even report having fewer cold symptoms. In regards to all ages and regret types, people who learned to look towards and compare others who are worse off than they are, reported a positive effect on their emotional and physical well-being over the months that followed.

Bauer said, “The effectiveness of coping mechanisms depended more on an individual’s perceived ability to change their life regret than on their age. Moving on and being able to maintain good emotional well-being depends greatly on an individual’s opportunity to correct the cause of their regrets.”

“Making Up for Lost Opportunities: The Protective Role of Downward Social Comparisons for Coping With Regrets Across Adulthood,” published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Image Credit: Carlos Almendarez

Author: Tessa