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I’m in a Rut. What Can I do About It?

People pushing a van out of a rut

[Editor’s Note: Every month, MCN’s Director of Witness to Witness, Kaethe Weingarten, PhD, shares stories, resources, and helpful tips to support health care workers during these ongoing unprecedented times. Dr. Weingarten also offers a twice-monthly newsletter, filled with resources, recent articles, and her news and views. Sign up for the newsletter on the Witness to Witness webpage.]

What exactly is a rut? A rut is a pattern of behavior or of the fabric of one’s life that is so familiar that it feels boring and unproductive. Many people have started to feel – or have been feeling for quite a while already – that they are stuck in a rut that they cannot get out of. COVID has produced the conditions to feel stuck in just this way. When a person is in a rut, life feels blah and dull. Even if what you do has meaning – for instance, you are a health care worker – the stressors within your days may undercut the value of its meaningfulness to you. Or, work may feel meaningful, but the rest of your time feels empty of genuine interest to you. You may work and recover from work; repeat the cycle.

A rut is something only the person living it can name. For instance, when my family goes out for ice cream, my husband always chooses vanilla. If a grandchild says to him – and they do – “Why don’t you try a different flavor? You’re in a rut,” he responds that he always chooses vanilla because he’s convinced it’s the flavor he will like best. In other words, what looks like a rut to his grandchildren, looks like a peak to him. To generalize from that, sometimes we repeat the same activity or make the same choices again and again because we genuinely think they are the best, and they do give us pleasure, even joy. So, repetition is not a clue as to whether a practice is a rut. Boredom is. Dullness is. The absence of a kick is.


Introduce Variety

Many activities that spice up a life have been “off the table” for a long time, particularly for people who are immunocompromised or among families with children under five, who still cannot get vaccinated. I miss going to the movies, listening to live music, going out to dinner. I also miss traveling, meeting up for coffee with my friends, and going to my dance class in person. Doing the same old, same old every day, makes me feel like I am in a rut. By varying what I do, a few practices save me from feeling I am in a rut. Well, much of the time, they do.

  1. I want something special or unusual each day, and I am not picky about how small or grand the uniqueness is. I keep track of what my day is like so I can add variety into the day if there hasn’t been any.
      
  2. I introduce variety into even the most mundane of tasks. I always enter different numbers into the microwave when I heat food. I put a different pretty object on the dinner table every night.
      
  3. When I go out for my daily walk, I look for something beautiful. Sometimes it is a blossom peeking out of the ground or the shape of a pile of leaves, or a cloud is skittering across the sky. These things are always there. What matters is noticing them and registering them as beautiful.
      
  4. I change the location of an object in a room. If it’s something I use, I will be jolted a bit each time I look for it, and it isn’t in its customary place. Or, if it is something I see but don’t use, I will likely notice it more against its new surroundings.
      
  5. Changing my position in the bed is too big a stretch for me but switching my pillows and blanket arrangements is not.

Each of these ideas falls into one category: the introduction of variety. Other less planful ways introduce variety and help people break out of a rut.


Impulsivity

Although impulsivity can be troublesome, there are plenty of times when acting on impulse brings fun, sparkle, and excitement. Say “yes” to a friend instead of “no” when asked to do something you would typically never do. In the middle of your run, go a direction you’ve never ventured into. Change the channel in the middle of a piece of music you are listening to. Decide one evening to have a backwards dinner. Our grandchildren love having dessert first, although I do make them promise before we do it that way that they will eat the main part of dinner too.


What if it doesn’t work?

Let’s say, though, you try these kinds of suggestions and find you still feel blah, empty, lethargic, or discontent. 

Maybe you are demoralized or languishing. Ask yourself the question, “if I had tried these suggestions, but under the life circumstances I had three years ago before COVID, how would I feel?” If your answer is: “so much better,” then it is likely the problem is your circumstances.

If your answer is, “I still feel the same flat, numb lethargy. I feel like I am living behind a glass wall and I cannot get out from behind,” you may be suffering from depression. Depression can be painful, and it can also be treated. There are many depression screenings online, like this one. You can get a free screening and then schedule an appointment with your primary care provider to discuss the results. 

There are surely big changes we all long to make now. For some people, big changes have arrived or are on the horizon. For others, less so. These suggestions are for the days and weeks when the big picture will not change, and we must find interest in where we are with what we have now. At my house, we changed the position of our kitchen table. Does it look better? I can’t tell you that. Does it lift my spirits every time I see it in its new spot? Absolutely. And that’s what these small changes do: This tiny shift in my daily life sparks a moment of levity when I notice it -- just enough to propel me out of my rut. And there are infinite number of ways to get that same tiny jolt, even if the days look similar otherwise.

 

 

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