How to Get Out of a Mental Rut, According to a Psychologist

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Ruts happen to all of us. One day, life is amazing and everything is peachy—and the next, it’s a struggle to just get through the day. It’s not a really fun place to be.

The first step towards getting out of said rut, says Lindsay Tulchin, PhD, is to identify that you are, indeed, in a rut.

So what exactly is a mental rut and how do you know if you’re in one? Dr. Tulchin describes it as “a negative spiral of thoughts about yourself and your future that lead to avoidance of either actions that you know will help you feel better or actions that will help steer you in the right direction.”

In other words, if you have negative thoughts playing on a loop and you’re just going through the motions without putting energy towards your goals—welcome to Rut City.

To help you move past it, she offers some tips to get you back to slaying your goals.

Keep reading for 6 powerful tips that will help you get out of a rut.

Photo: Getty Images/ Muriel de Seze

1. Set small attainable goals

Setting small, short-term goals for yourself 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 out an important email that you’ve been putting off. These little wins will leave you feeling positive and provide a sense of accomplishment that’s currently lacking. “People often feel powerless when they’re in this negative cycle,” she adds. “The hardest part is the lack of momentum. Once you start, it’s 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 and you’re able 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 mind.”

3. Write down your negative thoughts

Dr. Tulchin also recommends taking it a step further and writing down any negative self-talk that’s going through your mind—like, actually bust out pen and paper old-school style. Again, this helps create distance between you and your thoughts.

“The simple act of writing [your thoughts] down and reading them back helps people see that they’re not really objective statements,” she explains. It’s from this perspective that you can more easily recognize that your negative thoughts are actually pretty silly, completely false, or just an overgeneralization.

4. Turn your negative thoughts into more empowering ones

When you’re going through a mental rut, the goal isn’t to always think positive—the reality is, negative things happen! It’s part of life. We can’t control outside circumstances, but 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, look at the situation from a fresh perspective, and know that if they weren’t the right person for you, that doesn’t mean that you’ll never find the one. It might just take some time.

5. Be proactive if you have a history of depression or anxiety

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.

If you have a history of depression, Dr. Tulchin says it’s very important to be proactive and use these tips and tools to help you get out of a rut before things start to spiral. “It’s much harder to get yourself out of a full-blown depressive episode than it is to recognize feeling blue and sad and starting there,” she says.

If you have a history of anxiety, on the other hand, don’t avoid the things that are making you anxious. “It’s much easier when you’re feeling anxious about something in the moment to just put it off,” she says. “The problem with that is that it’s just a short term Band-Aid to a bigger problem and the problem is only going to get bigger the more you avoid it.”

6. Find accountability

If you’re really struggling to get out of a rut, know that you don’t have to go through it alone. Dr. Tulchin highly advises that you enlist someone to help keep you accountable to your short- and long-term goals. It can be a friend, a family member, or a 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 though they feel hard.”

Need to take a mental health day to dust off the brain cobwebs? Here’s how to ask your boss. And try these physical exercises to help jumpstart positive thinking.