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This content is taken from the University of Reading's online course, Understanding Depression and Low Mood in Young People. Join the course to learn more.

Dealing with ‘stuck’ thoughts

Sometime thoughts are really hard to catch and pin down – they go around and around and get stuck. Sometimes this is because we try to work out a problem and think about it over and over. This kind of thinking kept Emma awake the night before she went to school – it’s called rumination and is a really common problem when people are depressed.

These are the kinds of thought that are common in rumination:

  • Why on earth did I do it like that?
  • Would it have made it better if I’d done it differently
  • What if I’d said x instead of y?
  • Maybe if I had done this instead of that it would have worked out better
  • Why does this kind of thing always happen to me?
  • What makes me so stupid?
  • Am I being punished?
  • What’s wrong with me?

It’s hard to break away from repetitive thoughts like these but some strategies can help.


Rumination tends to fill empty spaces and time, and is a particular problem at bedtime or when a young person is alone and unoccupied. For this reason, activities that involve paying attention or being physically active can really help with rumination – the young person just doesn’t have enough spare mental or physical energy to ruminate at the same time.

Letting negative thoughts ‘go’

This is a different way of managing stuck thoughts. Thoughts are just thoughts. Thoughts come and go, in and out of the mind. Some are positive and some are negative – either way they’re not ‘facts’. Mindfulness practice treats thoughts in this way and many schools and community organisations now offer training in Mindfulness for young people. If you’d like to learn more about Mindfulness there is a FutureLearn course that you can sign up for here.

Another excellent resource for helping to let negative thoughts go is the psychological approach based on self-compassion. Many of the negative thoughts that are common in depression, are highly self-critical and involve a lot of self-blame. Young people who are their own worst critic may find self-compassion very useful.


Writing about bad experiences can help sort out jumbled up thoughts and feelings, and there’s evidence that emotional writing has a positive effect on well-being. It’s not important how to write completely, or particularly well, or to worry about grammar and spelling. Just getting thoughts down on paper (or computer) can make them a little more manageable. It’s important to remember that anything a young person writes down is private and is for their eyes only.

Worry time

A specific time which is allocated just to worry can be helpful, as long as it’s bounded by distracting activities before and immediately afterwards. Worry time allows young people to ‘hold’ their worries for a period, as they know they’ll be able to spend time thinking them through at a later date.


If worry or rumination is based on distressing events or trauma, for example bereavement, family losses (eg parental separation), or a break-up of a relationship, counselling can provide a safe and confidential area to share repetitive and distressing thoughts.

Problem solving

In Week 5 we look at this constructive and practical way of tackling difficulties. You might be able to help a young person to use this strategy to solve specific difficulties they’re experiencing.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Depression and Low Mood in Young People

University of Reading