Getting Unstuck from Problems

When problems appear in our lives, it is common to think about them and/or talk things through with others. For many years, psychologists have been interested in finding the line between helpful and unhelpful pondering of such difficulties.

Rumination & Co-Rumination

In considering responses to common psychological issues, such as depression, a person’s coping or ‘response style’ has been of particular interest. Psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema identified ‘rumination’ as a situation where people get stuck into repetitively thinking about the causes and consequences of a problem. With rumination, a person tends to get stuck in their thinking, failing to make positive progress with a problem. As a result, rumination tends to make an existing problem worse (and keep it going for longer).

Amada Rose has more recently identified ‘co-rumination’, which is repetitive/unproductive problem discussions between people (rather than exclusively inside your own head). Like rumination, co-rumination has been linked with depression, and anxiety, and a growing number of other psychological issues123.

The occurrence of rumination and co-rumination is complicated by the various healthy ways in which people can confront difficulties. For example, those who focus on available practical strategies to tackle a problem is likely to be more helpful than rumination. Also, discussing problems with others can help you feel supported and can improve relationship closeness2.

Different Approaches to Coping

So, the question is ‘Where is the line between helpful and unhelpful thinking/discussing of problems?’ One suggestion is to consider tackling a problem with two types of strategies; emotion-focused and problem-focused.

In emotion-focused coping, people look to manage negative feelings that come with problems. This is often the approach to problems that cannot be easily solved. Relaxation exercises, enjoyable activities, and spending time with supportive family/friends are examples of emotion-focused coping strategies. These activities are not intended to directly address a problem, but rather to take the edge of nasty emotional effects.

Problem-focused coping looks to tackle difficulties head-on. For example, you may feel low in mood due to big pressures at work or school to which you respond by changing jobs or dropping extra commitments.

To avoid slipping into rumination and co-rumination, you may find it helpful to keep both forms of coping in mind and focusing on two questions- ‘What can I learn from this situation’ and ‘What can I do to make progress with this problem?’ Common to both rumination and co-rumination is the tendency to get stuck with a problem. This happens when you focus solely on how bad you feel and worry about potential/actual negative effects.

What can I learn from this situation?

Consider what the situation teaches you about your own response to problems- ‘What is my usual response?’ ‘What are the pro’s and con’s of this response?’ ‘What am I trying to achieve with this response?’ ‘What does this say about my beliefs about this problem?’ ‘Are those beliefs valid?’ ‘Is there another way to think about this?’

What can I do to make progress?

In moving you forward with the problem specifically, consider questions like ‘What strategies will help me long-term (rather than focusing on short-term fixes)?’ ‘Are there other options (perhaps seen in others) I can take up?’

The Bottom Line

To get unstuck with a problem, spend time thinking about the above questions, as well as talking them through with others you trust. Keeping both problem- and emotion-focused coping in mind can help you think about a broad approach to tacking difficulties. Watch out for repetitive thinking and discussions that don’t seem to give you any new ideas/information about where to go with a problem. Also watch out for problem-talk that makes you feel more helpless and drags you into worst-case scenario day-dreaming. When you get into this type of situation, it’s time to change your approach.


1Calmes, C. A., & Roberts, J. E. (2008). Rumination in interpersonal relationships: Does Co-rumination explain gender differences in emotional distress and relationship satisfaction among college students? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 577–590. doi:10.1007/s10608-008-9200-3

2Rose, A. J. (2002). Co-rumination in the friendships of girls and boys. Child Development, 73, 1830–1843. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00509

3Rood, L., Roelofs, J., Bögels, S. M., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schouten, E. (2009). The influence of emotion-focused rumination and distraction on depressive symptoms in non-clinical youth: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 607-616.

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