racorn/Shutterstock
Source: racorn/Shutterstock

Until a couple of weeks ago, l had no idea that I've been stuck in a rut. It's an odd statement: How does one not notice getting stuck? If your car is stuck in the mud, you don't say, "It's no big deal, I'm just feeling tired." But that's the good and bad thing about being human—when we are stuck, we just keep going.

During the next few weeks, I'll write about the many steps I've taken and will take to get unstuck. Today, I want to talk about rut diagnosis. Let's start with a checklist. The more items you find yourself checking off, the more likely that you are stuck.

  1. Day to day, you don't look forward to much (other than maybe sleeping or just getting through whatever you're doing).
     
  2. You'd like to get your creative juices flowing, but it seems someone left an empty juice bottle in the fridge.
     
  3. Even though you keeping checking things off your to do list, it doesn't feel like you are getting much done.
     
  4. Your days all blur together, and it's not weird to look up blinking and ask, "Is this Tuesday or Thursday?"
     
  5. By the time you get "free time" you are too tired to do something interesting with it or are just plain unmotivated.
     
  6. If you answered "How are you?" genuinely, you'd say something like, "Meh."
     
  7. You fantasize about getting away (and not just away on vacation).
     
  8. You'd like to add something new to your life, but you're sure that you'll never have enough time and/or energy for it.
     
  9. You're getting sick of hearing yourself complain about feeling stressed, tired, and unfulfilled.
     
  10. ... and the Number One rut symptom: Even though you think you'd be happier if you made a change, it's more comforting to stay the same and mope around about it.

If you recognize yourself or someone close to you in the items on this list, it might help to think a bit about rut psychology: What does it actually mean to be stuck in a rut? And does the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) recognize being stuck in a rut as a real disorder?

Here are some of my thoughts. I'd love to hear yours:

The closest disorder to a rut in the DSM is dysthymia—the mild, chronic cousin of depression, the symptoms of which are low energy, low mood, loss of interest, and general anhedonia (loss of pleasure). Dysthymia can last years and often goes undiagnosed because life still goes on, although it feels like the colors are muted. That faded-color feeling is likely a result of reduced activation in the reward centers of the brain. For example, in a study of how people's brains react to their favorite music, researchers found that healthy participants' brains got excited, while the brains of depressed participants hardly seemed to notice the music was playing. That's what it's like to be stuck in a rut: You just stop hearing the music.

But ruts come in many flavors. Perhaps your variety is chronic stress, chronic anxiety, or chronic exhaustion. The key word in all these rut types is chronic: Our bodies do not thrive in chronic states. For example, chronic mild stress is far more harmful physically and psychologically than intense but scattered stressful events. Why are chronic states so dangerous? First, there is no recovery period—no chance to come up for air and head in a new direction. Second, chronic states wear us out, reducing our resources for recovery (imagine a rug exposed to the same foot traffic patterns over and over, or a kid poking you with a weak but persistent finger in the same spot all day long). Last, and most dangerous of all, we get used to chronic states: To our brains, a world of muted colors, faded music, and a constant hum of stress becomes normal. So normal, in fact, that it seems like no big deal. When we feel extreme pain or anger, our bodies push us to make a difference. But when the discomfort is mild and persistent, it's hard to find enough motivation to change. 

Often it is only when we get a glimpse of beauty, joy, or even anguish that we realize how much we are missing and how much more life has to offer. 

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