“Sticky thoughts” are the hallmark of depression, research finds.
Bad things happen to most of us at some point, but some people take it worse than others.
This is partly down to the inability to mentally turn away from them.
Thoughts about negative experiences can get ‘stuck’ in the brain.
Professor Jutta Joormann, the study’s first author, explained what happens in the minds of depressed people:
“They basically get stuck in a mindset where they relive what happened to them over and over again.
Even though they think, oh, it’s not helpful, I should stop thinking about this, I should get on with my life — they can’t stop doing it.”
The researchers compared the working memory of 26 people diagnosed with depression to 27 people who were depression-free.
Working memory refers to the thoughts that are active in your mind at this very moment.
Our present-moment experience, therefore, is highly dependent on how our working memory operates.
All the people in the study did a test that required them to think flexibly.
In other words, it required them to turn their attention from one subject to another.
The results showed that depressed people had particular problems turning their minds away from negative thoughts.
For example, if they were reminded of ‘death’ or ‘sadness’, their minds got stuck on these ideas and couldn’t change to focus on something else.
Professor Joormann said:
“The order of the words sort of gets stuck in their working memory, especially when the words are negative.”
People who were susceptible to getting these ‘stuck thoughts’ were also likely to ruminate more on their problems.
One way out of this trap is to first, learn to notice when this is happening.
Secondly, it is vital to refocus the attention elsewhere.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Joormann et al., 2011).