Ever got your car stuck in a ditch? Maybe you parked on the beach and when you tried to leave, realized you were trapped in the sand and couldn’t go backward, forward, or anywhere at all.
You realized pretty quickly spinning your wheels only mired you deeper. Frustrated and unable to move, you had to come up with a different plan.
Getting stuck emotionally can happen in a similar way. You move through life, following your routine, doing the same things each day. You don’t notice the rut coming on, just as you didn’t realize you’d get stuck in the sand.
But before you know it, life suddenly feels blah and meaningless. You don’t feel motivated. Creativity and inspiration have flown the coop. Work piles up, but you don’t know where to begin tackling it — and you can’t really bring yourself to care.
You know doing something different might help, but you lack the energy or motivation to try making a change.
Sound familiar? If so, you may have fallen into a rut. And just like with your car, spinning your wheels endlessly won’t do much to get you out. To excavate your car, you had to take some kind of action, whether it was shoveling sand or calling a tow truck.
Climbing out of a mental rut also requires action, but here’s the good news: You don’t need to wait for someone else to pull you out — unless you want some extra help.
So, you’re stuck in a rut. It’s OK. This is pretty common, and it won’t last forever.
But denial can keep you from making helpful changes. If you brush off your ennui by telling yourself, “I’m just worn out” or “I’ll feel more like myself tomorrow,” you’ll just continue spinning through the same cycle, prolonging your dissatisfaction and distress.
To begin remedying the situation, acknowledge the rut instead. And don’t forget to have compassion for yourself — blaming yourself won’t help you feel any better. So let go of self-judgment and focus your energy on moving up and out.
If you’re stuck in a slump, examining why can help you start pulling yourself up.
A little self-exploration sometimes yields answers right away. Perhaps your relationship hasn’t progressed as you intended or your job feels like a dead end. Or maybe a number of minor stresses have compounded to leave you emotionally depleted.
Ruts can have varied, complex causes, though, so tracing yours to the source may prove a little challenging. Maybe it’s related to a temporary situation beyond your control, or something that requires a bit more soul searching than you’re prepared for.
Asking yourself these questions can help:
- What parts of life bring me joy?
- What makes me unhappy or stressed?
- Am I doing things because I want to or because I think I should?
- Do my relationships provide meaning and fulfillment?
- Am I only sticking with my job/relationship/project because I don’t want to waste the time and effort I’ve invested?
Working toward specific goals can motivate you and give you a sense of purpose. Even if a goal lies a little outside your current reach, there’s nothing wrong with that. Life allows plenty of room to grow, and you can often achieve those goals with some work.
When most of your goals are unattainable from where you are right now, however, you might continue failing to achieve them and end up frustrated with yourself.
Instead of beating yourself up for not achieving things, ask yourself whether your goals align with what you can realistically achieve. If your (honest) answer is “no,” take your goal down just a notch and see if you have more success.
There’s nothing wrong with scaling back, and it doesn’t mean you have to abandon your loftier goals altogether.
Once you realize you’re stuck in a rut, you might feel tempted to completely restructure the situation by making a lot of large changes.
It sounds great in theory, but overhauling everything at once often doesn’t go as planned. Trying to change several habits or behaviors at the same time can quickly get overwhelming and make it difficult to stick with any of the changes.
Working on one or two smaller, manageable changes can make the process of change easier. Limiting the changes you make can also help you recognize when something isn’t working out, which makes it easier to know when to move on and try something else.
If you know what’s causing the rut, focus your first changes there.
If your struggles relate to work, for example, think about any changes you can make, whether it’s switching departments or asking for help around how to have a difficult (but necessary) conversation with a co-worker.
If you’re having a hard time identifying what got you into the rut, or just feel totally unmotivated to get out of it, do a quick check-in to make sure you’re looking after your well-being.
Good self-care practices help refresh your mind and body. They can also boost energy and motivation, leaving you feeling more capable of reworking your routine in other ways.
You don’t need to overhaul your lifestyle, but try to carve out time for some of the following:
- mindless relaxation
- breaks from difficult projects
- time off when you feel burnt out
- regular exercise
- time with loved ones
- regular, balanced meals
- plenty of quality sleep
A routine can feel familiar and comforting, and it’s not bad to have one.
Without variety, though, life can get a bit boring. You keep doing the same things each day because you’ve grown accustomed to them, but suddenly you start to feel worn down and bored.
Left to its own devices, a part of your brain — specifically, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — will try to work through problems by applying patterns or rules you’ve learned from your previous experiences.
When you face a new kind of challenge, these strategies may not work as well as they did before. This leaves you without a solution (and in a rut).
Fortunately, you can reset this part of your brain by simply unfocusing yourself. It might feel counterintuitive to deliberately throw focus to the wind, but doing so may boost your creative problem-solving skills and help you pick up new patterns and routines.
Impulsivity gets a bad reputation. Sure, some impulsive actions carry risks. But plenty of them are perfectly safe and beneficial.
Making snap decisions can increase your confidence and provide a chance to explore new options that add inspiration and variety to life. Even something as simple as walking the long way home can introduce you to things you’ve never seen before.
Approaching problems from an angle you’ve never considered before can also give you new insight that can help you climb out of the rut.
Take the reigns
Some healthy, impulsive actions to embrace:
- Say “yes” to that date.
- Sign up for that weekend training opportunity.
- Visit that city you’ve always dreamed of seeing.
- Volunteer to lead the team project.
- Explore a new part of your neighborhood.
Whatever problems you face, realistic thinking can help you find effective methods of solving them.
It’s understandable to want to pin the blame for the rut on outside sources, but most of the time, you can’t change anything except yourself.
Ruminating on things you can’t control typically doesn’t help. Neither does crossing your fingers, hoping for the best, or sitting back and waiting for things to magically improve.
Instead, consider things from a realistic perspective. Ignore the external factors and consider which of your actions (or lack of actions) contributed.
Those are the things you want to address and focus your energy on.
Perfection might be a health goal for some folks, but for most people, it just leads to self-sabotage.
When you have high standards, you probably spend a long time making sure your work always meets them. Even when you do a great job, you might believe it’s just not good enough and keep working at it.
A strong work ethic is an admirable trait. But it’s also important to recognize that making mistakes is a normal, important part of growth.
Trying to avoid a single mistake can often prevent you from getting things done. Plus, it can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression when you don’t succeed at total perfection.
Focus instead on putting in your best effort and seeing projects through to completion, even if it’s not the ideal endpoint you envisioned. Once you finish something, move on.
Sometimes a rut is just a rut — a temporary state that you can work to improve. It can also indicate something more serious, though.
Living with persistent depressive disorder, or dysthymia, can feel like being trapped in a rut you can’t escape. Dysthymia often goes unrecognized because it’s typically less severe than depression, though it has similar symptoms.
- low energy or mild fatigue
- less interest in daily activities
- anhedonia, or difficulty finding pleasure in life
- loss of motivation or productivity
- feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem
These symptoms can affect your daily life, but they usually remain fairly mild. You may not even realize they are symptoms because you’re still able to keep up with your usual routines.
But life doesn’t have to feel distant or muted. If you just can’t seem to shake the feeling that you’re stuck in a rut, you have options for support, which brings us to our last tip.
Therapy is a great way to get a little extra support when you’re feeling stuck, whether you have any mental health symptoms or not.
For many people, therapy simply serves as a safe space to explore past choices and options for the future.
A therapist can offer compassionate, judgment-free guidance and support as you work to:
- examine areas of your life that don’t entirely satisfy you
- identify existing strategies or habits that aren’t working out
- explore positive ways to make changes
Our guide to affordable therapy can help you get started.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.