Depression & Getting Stuck on Negative Thoughts

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.” – Epictetus

What makes the difference between an individual who suffers a devastating loss or tragic life event and bounces back versus one who spirals into major depression?  About four out of five cases of major depression resolve on their own (i.e., without treatment) in about six to nine months, although half of the people with severe depression will experience it again in the future.  Why do many people who meet criteria for major depressive disorder feel back to their old selves in about six to nine months, whereas other people experience depression that seems to linger for years?

A recent study in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science indicates that people who don’t seem to easily recover from depression go over and over their troubles in their minds.  It is as if they are unable to turn their attention/focus away from the depressing/negative thoughts.  According to researcher Jutta Joormann of Miami University, “They basically get stuck in a mindset where they relive what happened to them over and over again.”

Researchers speculated that depressed individuals may have difficulties with working memory, which has to do with the thoughts that we can keep active in our minds.  Joormann wondered if people struggling with depression found it difficult to turn their minds to a new topic when negative thoughts arose.

Joormann and her fellow researchers conducted a study with 26 people with depression and 27 people with no history of depression.  Each participant sat in front of a computer screen that displayed three words one time, for one second each.  They were then instructed to remember the words in the order they were displayed or backwards.

Then, the computer displayed one of those three words and participants were told to respond as quickly as possible about whether that word came first, second, or third in the list.  Researchers determined participants’ thinking flexibility based on how quickly they were able to respond.

The people with depression had greater difficulty reordering the words in their minds, and when they were asked to recall the words backwards, it took them longer to respond.  Interestingly, they had significantly greater difficulty with recall when the words had a negative valence (e.g., “death” or “sadness”).

It was discovered that the ordering of the three words got particularly stuck in the depressed peoples’ minds when the words were negative in nature.  Not surprisingly, people who struggled with this were much more likely to ruminate on distressing thoughts and emotions.  It is hoped that this research will further point the way toward inspiring treatment for depression that teaches people how to actively shift their focus away from negative thoughts.

Even if you do not have a personal history of major depressive disorder, do you notice a tendency to stay “stuck” on negative thoughts when feeling down?  Does it make intuitive sense to you that focusing excessively on negative thoughts or replaying them over and over in your mind generally serves to keep you in a depressed state?  Try noticing your own habits of thinking when you are feeling depressed, sad, or simply let down.  How can you begin to take proactive steps towards changing your thinking without denying/invalidating your feelings?

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Association for Psychological Science. (2011, June 3). Depression and negative thoughts. Medical News Today. Retrieved June 4, 2011, from

Featured image: 5 stages of grief (Depression) #4 by COCOMARIPOSA / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on June 7, 2011 at 9:57 am

    I have indeed noticed that I get stuck on negative thoughts when I’m feeling down. It gets more complicated if you are consistently in the presence of someone who denies/invalidates your feelings. Under such circumstances you can find yourself replaying your negative thoughts over and over again in an effort to validate your feelings for yourself. It can be quite difficult to accept your feelings and move on when they are consistently being denied/invalidated by others. Any advice on how to handle such circumstances?

    • Laura on June 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

      James – It is such a common tendency for us to get stuck on negative thoughts when feeling down. Your insight about your tendency to replay negative thoughts over and over again (rumination) in order to “validate your feelings for yourself” is an excellent strategy in the sense that self-validation is indeed a helpful technique for lessening the effects of negative mood. In a way, self-validation is a form of self-soothing. I would ask yourself to what extent you have directly communicated your experience of feeling unheard by the other person/people to begin problem-solving. I would also recognize the difference between excessive rumination and self-validation and make attempts to veer in the direction of self-validation, as indicated by actively supporting yourself through the addition of positive thoughts (as opposed to focusing solely on the negative thoughts). I hope that this has been helpful. Thank you for your comment!

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