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Feeling Stuck and Frustrated?

Three hope strategies to help you discover new possibilities.

Key points

  • By staying focused on the problem, one cannot find the solution.
  • The first step in managing stress in order to think more clearly is to address states like anger and anxiety.
  • Enjoyable activities can take the brain out of its survival mode.
Diane Dreher photo
Source: Diane Dreher photo

Have you ever been stuck in a frustrating situation? I was when I began college as a first-generation college student, commuting to the University of California Riverside from my parents’ suburban house. I studied every night after dinner, but that was not enough. Committed to succeeding in college, I was frustrated trying to find more time to study on weekends.

Every Saturday morning, I’d do my usual household chores—dust and vacuum, clean the bathrooms, polish the silver, and other assorted tasks. After lunch, I’d take my books outside on the patio to study. But then my mother came up with another task—pulling weeds on the rocky hillside in the backyard. So for hours, I’d pull weeds in the hot afternoon sun while my books sat there on the patio. And the job was never finished. As soon as I’d pull the weeds in one area, by the next week they’d have sprung up in another. My parents didn’t understand what it meant to be a serious college student, and I felt stuck: repeatedly pulling weeds when I wanted to study world history, literature, science, and philosophy.

I was not only stuck physically but psychologically—stuck in frustration and resentment. For as long as I kept focusing on the problem, I couldn’t find a solution. But late one afternoon, while I was reading on the patio after a few hours pulling weeds, I looked up from my books and thought, “If something else was growing up on the hill, there would be no room for weeds.”

Diane Dreher photo
Source: Diane Dreher photo

I didn’t have money to buy plants, but I’d learned from my grandmother that geraniums grow like weeds in southern California. You can break a piece off, stick it in the ground, water it, and it will take root and grow. So I began an experiment. While commuting to school, I’d look for houses with geraniums growing in their yards, then stop and ask the owners if I could “have a cutting for my mother.” No one ever said no.

Scouting for geraniums was fun. I’d bring home cuttings all shades—red, white, pink, orange, violet, lilac, and more, plant them in the ground, water them, and watch them grow. As the weeks went by, the hillside became a beautiful garden with colorful geraniums cascading down between the rocks. With the weeding chore eliminated, I’d sit on the patio on sunny afternoons with my books and a glass of iced tea, grateful for the time to study and smiling at the hillside transformation.

Powerful hope strategies

Years later, I learned I’d been practicing three powerful hope strategies: Stress Skills, Happiness Habits, and Inspired Action (Hopeful Mindsets, 2021).

  1. Stress skills are essential for solving our problems. Neuroscience research reveals that when we’re angry, anxious, or frustrated, we’re in our brain’s survival mode, bypassing the higher brain areas that enable us to think clearly and creatively (Ledoux, 1996). The Hopeful Mindsets Project (2021) calls this survival system the “downstairs brain.” To solve our problems, we need to get back into the higher brain areas or our “upstairs brain.” We can do this with stress skills like taking slow, deep, mindful breaths, journaling, exercising, and listening to our favorite music. I found my solution while reading when I was back in my upstairs brain.
  2. Happiness habits are ways to spend more time in our upstairs brain. Some of these habits are getting regular exercise, spending time with friends, learning new things, feeling gratitude, doing things we enjoy (Hopeful Mindsets, 2021). One of my happiness habits was learning new things. In my experiment, I discovered another—enjoying the beauty of the geraniums and watching them grow.
  3. Inspired action means setting meaningful goals and taking small, progressive steps to achieve them (Feldman & Dreher, 2012; Hopeful Mindsets, 2021). My geranium experiment was an inspired action to give me more time to study. As a side effect, it also brought me the joy of gardening and created a beautiful landscape.
Diane Dreher photo
Source: Diane Dreher photo

Now it’s your turn. If you’ve been feeling stuck in a situation you don’t want, take some slow, mindful breaths to free up your mind and visualize what you do want. That’s your goal. Now think of three small steps to get there, and begin taking that first step. And remember to use your happiness habits to build your hopeful mindset and create momentum to achieve your goal.

This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.


Feldman, D. B. and Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 745-759.

Hopeful Mindsets Project (2021).

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York, NY: Simon &Schuster.

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