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Why You Are Stuck in a Rut and How to Break Free

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

The phrase “stuck in a rut” can mean different things to people. For some, it might mean you are bored with doing a certain task or activity consistently.

For others, the rut might seem much deeper and more fundamental, like life is constantly handing you the same type of mud to wade through. The origin of the phrase stuck in a rut illustrates exactly what this feels like.

‘Stuck in a rut’ refers to a wagon wheel getting stuck in deep channels that previous wooden wheels left in soft ground.

Picture it–you are riding around in your horse-drawn wagon trying to go the way the people ahead of you did. It’s the same way the wagons that came before them went.

Your wagon is bogged down with everything you own, and when you hit one of these ruts, you can’t move out of it because they are too deep and everything is too heavy. You are forced to remain on this fixed path.

Granted we do not traverse around the world in wagons now, so it might be a little less obvious when you are stuck in a rut.

“Life is for living not for been stuck in a rut of complacency where normality consists of the mundane.” ― Steven Redhead, Life Is a Dance

Why do we get stuck in mental ruts?

Humans are creatures of habit. Our brain’s electrical patterns literally create ruts in our brain, much like the deep grooves from a wagon wheel.

Whenever you encounter anything your brain files it away, so it can easily recognize patterns later. Your past experiences will guide your present and future behavior.

The brain will apply rules based on prior events to match the current context. This is thanks to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).

This is the area of the brain that seeks out patterns.

It does this so we can save time in situations where not having an idea of what to do could cost us our lives. It finds old rules that it previously learned and applies them to new situations in order to circumvent having to learn something new.

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Because of this physiological phenomenon, it is quite simple to get ourselves stuck in the ruts of our own making. Your brain is bogged down with the weight of every experience you have ever had.

And it is determined to go the way it has always gone. Now, the trickier part is recognizing when you are stuck in them!

“Because: when you believe something, you offer a vibration about it, and you KEEP RECREATING it. So, something that happened a long time ago, you keep renewing your membership to.

You keep bringing it forwards. And so, then the memory, which could be very slight or non-existent at this point, is really active and alive, because you talked about it today.

And you talked about it yesterday. And you talked about it the day before, even if it had happened 20 years ago.” ― Abraham Hicks

How to tell you are stuck in a rut

There are several signs you might be stuck in a rut, but these are some of the biggest red flags. You might feel a lack of interest in your normal activities, feel unproductive, or inadequate–all things that drain your mental health.

While being stuck in a rut isn’t a real mental health diagnosis, there is one that comes close–Dysthymia. It is also referred to as persistent depressive disorder.

You might be stuck in a rut if you answer yes to these questions:

  • Do you sound like a broken record? Are you complaining to yourself or others about feeling stressed, tired, and unfulfilled?
  • Are you resisting doing anything that might make the situation better because that involves change? It is much more comfortable to follow the path you know.
  • Do you feel like you aren’t finding the same level of joy in activities you used to like? Is life feeling a little boring and plain?
  • Are you struggling to get through today, just so you can do the same thing the next day?

These feelings not only indicate that you might be stuck in a rut but addressing them can cause some monumental changes in your life.

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“What does ‘stuck’ mean?” “It means I should make some big decision, I should do some enormous thing.

And I can’t do anything. I can’t stand my life, and I can’t change it.”

“Maybe it’s not an enormous thing,” he says. “Maybe you have to do one small thing and then another small thing.” ― A.M. Homes, Music for Torching

How to break free from a rut

Now you know the science of why you might be in a rut. You also have some signs to help you recognize if that is what you are dealing with.

The real question is, how the heck do you stop it? The answer is simple, although the execution can be difficult, as it involves doing quite a few things that your brain is not going to want to do.

Let’s look back at our wagon example. The reason it is stuck is two-fold: the burdensome weight of the wagon and the depth of the rut.

What would happen if you took a little extra time to take everything off of your wagon? It would be lighter and could easily get pulled out of the rut.

What is dragging you down? Are there things you are doing every day that are time wasters?

Do you dislike what you do every day for work? Are you spending time doing things for yourself to unburden your mind, like taking a walk outside?

Once you evaluate all of that, you are left with things that need to go back on your wagon and a choice. Should you continue to go down the road in front of you?

You do not have to, there are other choices.

Sure, the other path doesn’t have the ruts engrained in it that you think will lead you safely to your destination, but it might have much better things. Change is unknown and scary, but it can be the best thing you can do to get out of a rut.

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Being a little more impulsive and willing to take a risk is a sure-fire way to get out of a rut, that is a simple fact. Will it be worth it?

That I do not have the answer to, but you won’t know if you don’t ever try.

A friend once told me, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” Another interesting thing I read the other day, said that we encounter the same thing in life when we haven’t learned the lesson yet.

Instead of bemoaning the fact that you seem to be stuck in a rut, look at what is happening and see if there is something you can learn.

“But there was a difference between being stuck and choosing to stay. Between being found and finding yourself.” ― Martina Boone, Compulsion

What you can do right now

Realize that you are never truly stuck. You are not a tree!

You can make small changes that put you on the path you should be on. It could be something as simple as waking up a little earlier to meditate.

Try changing your diet and increasing your vitamins. All of these things fall under the category of self-care, but there are many things you could be doing for yourself, so find what works for you and do it!

Work toward your goals one small step at a time. Writing a book might seem like a daunting task, but writing one chapter at a time doesn’t seem too bad.

If even that seems too much start with a small number of words every day. Whatever your goal is those small steps will add up.

Is there something you have always been passionate about, but it seemed too risky to go for it? Do it!

The worst thing that could happen is you fail. However, you will learn something that is valuable, whether it is a new skill, something about yourself, or that pesky life lesson.

What are some risks that you have taken that have gotten you out of a rut? You can let us know in the comment section below.

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