Menu Menu

Are past-focused approaches to therapy getting it wrong?

Traditional approaches to therapy tend to focus on unpacking difficult experiences from the past. Could incorporating a mindful, future-focused method be more practical?

If you’ve ever been to therapy, you’ve probably been encouraged to tell your story and to ‘start from the beginning’.

Our life experiences shape who we are, making past-focused counselling helpful for identifying the root of certain negative behaviours, thought patterns, and habits.

But many people enter therapy because they know past experiences are hindering their ability to cope in the now. This can make thinking about the long-term future difficult and can make regular deep dives into the past seem counterproductive.

For this reason, psychological research on present and future-focused therapy is mounting. Along with it is evidence that reshaping our views and attitudes about the present moment – as well as what is to come – can help protect us from depression and deal with stressful situations more effectively.

So what do present and future-focused approaches entail? Let’s take a look.

The benefits of mindfulness in the present

Today, we are more distracted from the present than ever before. Our collective desire to take a momentary (and sometimes vital) break from it all has led to more than 2,500 mindfulness apps becoming available in app stores since 2015.

Popular apps like Calm and Headspace have been downloaded over 150 million times and counting, suggesting that self-soothing our anxieties by grounding ourselves in present moment – away from work, personal life, and social demands – is a valuable practice.

Numerous studies have proven that practicing mindfulness reduces rumination (i.e. repetitive or obsessive negative thoughts) and stress, boosts working memory, regulates emotional reactivity, encourages cognitive flexibility, and builds relationships satisfaction, amongst other benefits.

Of course, mindfulness apps cannot fully supplement professional help, and while those dealing with significant traumas will likely benefit from seeing an expert, it’s clear that shifting perspectives in the present can be immensely beneficial.

In psychology, present-focused models are known to produce similar results to mindfulness in patients living with PTSD by fostering new coping and anxiety management skills. Amongst these are techniques for relaxation, grounding, and cognitive restructuring. Noticing any parallels?

Though researchers noted that past-focused models were just as sufficient when used alone or in combination with present-focused models, some patients may view the latter as a more useful alternative to reliving and discussing their trauma at every session.

With that said, the future is always upon us, and researchers at Psychology Today suggest we can unlock further benefits of mindfulness practices by venturing there via ‘mental time travel’ – otherwise known as imagination.

Future-oriented thinking and therapy

Considering mindfulness is all about connecting to the present, observing sounds, sensations, and feelings as they occur in order to ‘slow down,’ it may seem counterproductive to say that such practices can be applied to the future.

But being mindful about the way we think about the future – from internal visualisations, narratives we build, and the language we use to describe it – plays a part in how we will expect things to play out and how we will be prepared for challenges it brings.

The framework of scientific psychology was built on the fact that we learn from our past experiences – you know: touch the hot stove, get burned – but growing research in the field suggests our ability to ‘navigate into the future’ is crucial to determining human behaviour.

In a way, this style is already being harnessed in therapists’ offices. In future oriented or solution-based therapy, patients are encouraged to accept that events from the past cannot change – rather their meaning and expectations stemming from those events can.

Working together, therapists and clients can successfully transform the meaning of particular events and build confidence that the future will continue to be positive. I know, it may sound a little ‘don’t worry, be happy’ but there’s proof that optimism helps.

A breadth of research suggests optimism about what’s to come can ‘significantly influence mental and physical well-being by [promoting] healthy lifestyles, adaptive behaviours, and cognitive responses.’

Getting help with mental health, despite growing awareness on the matter, is still somewhat taboo and can even be scary to a lot of people. Knowing what the options are and figuring out the right approach could make the process a lot smoother.