Six years ago, I was lying on my bed in my university halls, feeling not at all like my usual, bouncy self. It was my first year of university and, although I had made some great new friends and I was enjoying my course, I spent weeks at a time feeling empty and spaced-out. During these periods, I couldn’t be bothered to do anything, even things I usually enjoyed, and I worried that I would feel this way forever.
I describe this time as me being in a “rut” – although it might be more accurate to call it “low-grade depression”, which Michelle Obama talked about having last year, and is the term used by Counselling Directory member Pam Custers who runs The Relationship Practice. “Low-grade depression is where someone is perfectly coping with life but has stopped enjoying the kinds of things they used to enjoy,” she explains.
One night, near the end of my first year at university, I decided I was tired of these bouts of numbness. I turned to Google.
I fell down a rabbit hole of Reddit threads and found one (which I have not been able to find since) where a man shared his five steps for getting out of a rut. I wrote them down and stuck them up on my university bedroom wall. And, sure enough, they helped me get out of the rut – and they’ve helped me ever since.
The plan centres on doing something every day which relates to each of these five key areas: health, socialising, work, relaxing and creativity. But more on the specifics later.
For me, this plan gave me something to focus on, so I didn’t have time to get bogged down in analysing my emotions. It is still the advice I give to friends who find themselves in a rut – including the one who was having a hard time at university the year after I joined and the friend who lost their job during the pandemic. They both told me that this plan helped them by giving them something to distract them from their worries.
I’m no medical expert or mental health professional, of course, so I have consulted Pam Custers about my plan. “I love the idea of having a five-step plan,” she says.
“I think it’s extremely powerful. When we have a roadmap to looking after ourselves and creating a better, more free-rounded human being by attending to all these things, then what happens is we start having better days. And every better day we have is more emotional resilience in the bag, and when we’ve got emotional resilience, that’s when we’re able to get through those difficult moments in life.”
She acknowledged that the real difficulty is getting the motivation to give the plan a go, but she recommends we “take tiny steps”, such as eating a banana or picking up the phone. “Each one will spark a level of enthusiasm that will kickstart this process,” she says.
But the best part of a plan is it’s easy to follow. “What we all want and what we all need as individuals and as a country is a sense of hope, and hope is nothing without a plan,” Custers says. “What you’re doing is giving people a plan.”
The 5-step plan for getting out of a rut
To follow the plan, do one thing from each of these subcategories every day…
What this could include: Eating a banana; going on a walk or jog; doing yoga; trying out an online boxing class.
Why it works: Exercise releases feel-good chemicals, endorphins, and can give you a “mood boost”, says Dr Rachel Allan, a chartered counselling psychologist based in Glasgow.
“More broadly,” she adds, “leading a healthy lifestyle can help us feel positive that we are perhaps doing something good for ourselves, for our own health.”
Eating healthily or doing exercise, Custers says, goes hand-in-hand with self-care. “This is all about radical self-care,” she explains, “and with radical self-care we can get ourselves out of rut.”
What this could include: Going to work if you have a job; doing the laundry; cooking a meal for your family; doing the shopping for an elderly neighbour.
Why it works: Work “gives us a sense of purpose,” Custers says. “It affirms us in a number of ways, it gives us a sense of our identity. When we’re working well and we’re acknowledged for the work we’re doing, that allows us to feel fulfilled.”
If you enjoy the work you’re doing “it can be a really important source of self-esteem,” Dr Allan adds. “Having pride in your work and enjoying your work, if you’re fortunate enough to have it, can have a very powerful influence on wellbeing.”
What this could include: Learning how to draw using a YouTube tutorial; getting out the old paint set; trying a new recipe; writing a detailed diary entry.
Why it works: Being creative allows us to “do something that is enjoyable,” Dr Allan says, and that can give us “a sense of making a contribution, or self-expression and those things can be really important for wellbeing”.
It also allows us to have fun, without constraints, which engages our “free child” within and makes us feel good, according to Custers. “It’s joy with no strings attached.”
What this could include: Phoning a friend or relative; joining a Zoom quiz; going on a socially distanced walk with a friend
Why it works: “Connection is such a source of comfort in life and a way of moving us forward,” says Dr Allan. “When we feel a threat or we feel uncertain or afraid, sometimes the natural response in that situation is to turn inward.” However, “it’s often through connection that we can make meaning and help ourselves and find a way to perhaps frame things more optimistically and move ourselves forward,” Dr Allan adds.
Certain forms of conversion are particularly beneficial, according to Custers. “We need to have a connected conversation – often we can go through days of just having chit-chat or transactional conversion, but what we really need to is to feel connected, to feel heard.” Having these connected conversations, about more than surface-level topics, makes us feel good and “enriches ourselves in terms of self-love”.
What this could include: Reading a book; having a bath; lighting a candle; meditating; watching a TV show or film.
Why it works: Relaxing is a form of “self-care” – a term that has been heavily (mis)used over the course of the pandemic. At its core, it’s about “protecting time for yourself, where you can recharge and soothe and unburden parts of yourself that perhaps are overstretched or heavily burdened,” Dr Allan explains. It helps to “replenish our energy,” she adds.
“Relaxing is that moment where we recharge our batteries,” Custers agrees. “That’s really important because if our emotional cup is full – if we expend all our energy, if we don’t recharge – then we have very little to give to others. And the stuff that we do give, we deplete ourselves. So without relaxation, we become depleted, and we become dull and exhausted.”
Other tips from experts on how to get out of a rut
My five-step plan is similar to the advice Custers gives to her clients in her practice. “I often teach my clients about the five emotional needs that we need to do on a daily basis – and you are touching on some of those,” she tells me. These emotional needs include exercise and connected conversation, which overlap with my plan, but there are three other aspects that could be useful.
The first is an act of kindness. “What happens when we are in a rut is we often turn inwards and we become quite self-focused,” Custers says. An act of kindness means “we look outwards rather than inwards”, and that makes us feel good.
She also recommends trying something new, and taking a moment to “notice the things far greater than ourselves” – the buds on the trees, the stars in the sky. That, she says, is a form of mindfulness that helps us put our problems into perspective.
Dr Allan advises you listen to your emotions when you’re in a rut. “If you can, tune in to what it’s about – what’s going on here? Is it about one thing in particular or is it a general sense of unease?”
However, she also advocates sometimes sitting with your feelings. “While it’s great to have coping strategies – and of course I’d encourage anyone to use coping strategies that work or them – I’d also warn against seeking to get rid of difficult feelings all the time because actually sometimes those difficult feelings might tell us something or indicate we need to think more broadly about change, but also sometimes the best thing we can do is just open up to that and sit with that.”
She does encourage people to reach out for help if they need it. This could mean reaching out to friends and family or seeking a professional’s services.