In technical terms, psychologist Lindsay Tulchin, PhD, describes a mental rut as “a negative spiral of thoughts about yourself and your future that leads to avoidance of either actions that you know will help you feel better or actions that will help steer you in the right direction.” And as a result, the rut itself tends to have the effect of keeping you from doing the very things that would help you figure out how to get out of it.
"The inference from [having a] negative experience with something might be that you simply can't do it, which can start a vicious cycle of doing even less to change things for yourself." —social psychologist Ayelet Fishbach, PhD
"Often, the experience of a rut follows a setback or failing at something," says social psychologist Ayelet Fishbach, PhD, author of the forthcoming book Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation. Things like getting a negative performance review and having a fight with a loved one could fit into that category, or any other scenario where you feel like you've come up short. "But other times, a rut results from the sense that progress is just happening too slowly, whether in your studies, career, relationship, social life, or something else entirely," says Dr. Fishbach. "The inference from that negative experience might be that you simply can't do it—what psychologists call low efficacy—which can start a vicious cycle of doing even less to change things for yourself."
It's been particularly easy to fall into that cycle since the start of the pandemic, which, for months, kept us at home and unable to access many of the people, places, and things that bring us joy. This likely left many folks feeling lonely, sad, or bored for some time, says Dr. Tulchin. "And that could make the idea of meeting new friends or romantic interests now even more daunting," she says.
Since those lockdown days, pandemic-related anxiety and languishing have also translated into rising rates of overwork and burnout, which could easily result in a career-based rut, too. "Perhaps you notice that your job seems to have minimal opportunities for growth or positive reinforcement, or it causes excess stress, or maybe you're fielding negative responses while on the job hunt," says Dr. Tulchin. "In these cases, slowing your job search, not proofreading applications, or simply giving up would be typical rut-like behaviors."
But whether your rut is stemming from a career situation, or something in your social or personal life, it doesn't have to be your forever mindset. Read on for advice from the experts on finding the way forward.
Here are 8 psychologist-backed tips for getting out of any mental rut
1. Set small, attainable goals
Being able to mentally check off small tasks as complete, either daily or weekly, is one easy way to get through the funk, says Dr. Tulchin. The goals can be really simple things like cleaning out your closet or sending an important email that you’ve been putting off. In any case, these little wins will leave you feeling positive, and replenish your sense of accomplish. “People tend to feel powerless when they’re in a rut,” Dr. Tulchin adds. “Since the hardest part is often lack of momentum, just getting started makes it much easier to keep going.”
2. Practice mindfulness meditation
Dr. Tulchin suggests making mindfulness meditation—which involves focusing on your breath—part of your daily ritual. “Meditation puts space between you and your thoughts, allowing you to notice them for exactly that. They’re just words; they’re just thoughts,” she says. “We don’t have to fuse with everything that comes through our minds.”
3. Write down your negative thoughts
Break out the pen and paper, old-school style, and translate any negative self-talk into written words. Similar to the above, Dr. Tulchin says this can help create distance between you and your thoughts. “The simple act of writing [your thoughts] down and reading them back can often help you to see that they’re not really objective statements,” she explains. It’s from this perspective that you'll be more likely to recognize that your negative thoughts are actually pretty silly, completely false, or more so sweeping generalizations.
4. Turn your negative thoughts into more empowering ones
When you’re going through a mental rut, the goal isn’t to always think positively—the reality is, negative things happen. While we can’t control outside circumstances, we do have power over our own thoughts. So the key, Dr. Tulchin says, is to turn those negative thoughts into more realistic, helpful statements.
For example, if you’ve recently been dumped, it’s easy to think “no one is ever going to love me,” which is a huge overgeneralization not at all based in truth, Dr. Tulchin says. Instead, take a step back, and consider that if they weren’t the right person for you, that doesn’t mean that you’ll never find the one. Instead, you might reframe your thought to something like, "I'm glad I now have a new opportunity to find the person who will love me for me." And you can apply that same mindset to a negative interaction with a friend or coworker: Perhaps the positive spin is that you've learned a new way to resolve conflict in the future, or you have a chance to find a new project that aligns more with your work style or goals.
If the negative thought arises from an action you've taken (or failed to take) rather than that of another person or outside situation, Dr. Fishbach advises viewing the scenario as simply one roadblock in your progress-oriented journey, rather than as a sign of your low commitment or efficacy. While the latter interpretation tends to decrease your drive, the former is more likely to inspire you to get going.
5. Take on an entirely new activity
The rut arose from your current circumstances and mindset—so why not do something totally outside of your comfort zone, in order to change those circumstances for the better? Switching up your typical behavior is a way to get off the auto-pilot mode that can generate a feeling of being stuck or bored, says Dr. Tulchin.
"Socially, maybe this means enrolling in a beginner's improv class, or joining a community meet-up or gathering with people you don't know. And in the dating realm, perhaps it's going on a blind date without stalking their social media first," she says. Career-wise, she suggests considering a side project or even talking to your boss about taking on something new. "Additional responsibilities can often make way for more feelings of reinforcement," she says.
And if you're nervous about not succeeding in whatever new activity you adopt, Dr. Tulchin suggests leaning into that feeling—and actually trying to fail. "Often people are so scared of failure that they don't attempt new things that could ultimately generate more happiness and fulfillment," she says. But doing something that could potentially lead to some failure or embarrassment can give you a real dose of reality about how much you can actually tolerate.
6. Offer advice to someone else
It might seem counterintuitive to try to help someone else when you're struggling, but often, it just takes being in the position of the helper to see how we might help ourselves. "When people struggling with their finances or relationships give advice to others, research shows that they're often more motivated to help themselves," says Dr. Fishbach. The act of advice-giving essentially serves as a gentle reminder that your own situation could use a similar nudge.
7. Seek professional help
Although mental ruts can seem harmless, Dr. Tulchin says they can sometimes progress into more serious issues like depression and anxiety, so they're not to be taken likely—particularly if you have a history of either of these conditions. “It’s much harder to get yourself out of a full-blown depressive episode than it is to recognize feeling like you're in a rut, and starting there,” she says. As a result, if you feel like the negative thoughts of a rut may be on the verge of spiraling out of your control, it's best to consult a professional therapist who can guide you toward a calmer and more productive state of mind.
8. Find accountability
In a similar vein as the above, managing a tough time alone is only bound to make it tougher. Dr. Tulchin advises enlisting someone to help keep you accountable to your short- and long-term goals—whether that's a friend, family member, or therapist. “A major part of my role as a therapist is to assign homework and hold people accountable if they then don’t do it,” she says. “If they don’t do it outside of session, I have them do it in the session. I’m trying to show them that it’s really important to follow through and do the things that are going to help you, even if they feel hard in the moment.”
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