How to Get out of a Mental Rut
A few weeks back I was in a rut. I couldn’t really pinpoint why. I just knew I was waking up and feeling incredibly stale. That’s the best way I can think of describing my mental/emotional state. Initially I thought it was daylight savings time (springing forward always throws me off a bit). Additionally, even though I wasn’t sick, I definitely felt less energetic than I’m accustomed to. Anybody that’s ever been in a rut knows feeling this way doesn’t exactly help you be as productive as you can normally at home, with our families or in the workplace.
That said, please don’t misread what I just said. I wasn’t cheating my work. I was still showing up, and outwardly I was physically fulfilling all my responsibilities. But internally I wasn’t feeling it. I’m sure most of us, if not all, can empathize with that. Sometimes you just fall into a funk. You feel out of rhythm and everything begins to feel so incredibly monotonous. It’s a feeling I can’t stand because it sucks the life, satisfaction and enjoyment in life. And it definitely sucks the sense of purpose that comes when we put in an honest day’s work.
After nearly a week of feeling this way I decided to take a step back and review possible causes. As I made a mental accounting of what had happened over the past couple of weeks, I noticed a common theme. Throughout the past few weeks I had received different kinds of unsettling news that had created a bit of worry. Although none of them directly impacted me, each one created it’s own sense of anxiety. The fact that they had all occurred within a short window of time didn’t help either. Lastly, during those few weeks I was traveling quite a bit for work and I realized I never really had a moment to process and reconcile what was happening around me. All of this ended up taking up quite a bit of mental energy. Examples of some of the worries on my mind included a close friend going through serious financial hardship, a relative that suffered an unexpected hospitalization and a sibling that wasn’t acting as responsibly as they should. While I wasn’t consciously worrying, subconsciously these things were on my mind; and at a physiological level that were impacting my mental stamina.
The physiology behind the mind, worry and vitality
Whenever something worries or concerns us, specialized brain cells known as neurons are activated and placed on alert. Neurons play a number of very important roles, but for the sake of simplicity, their primary function is to communicate information through the nervous system. This is done through biochemicals known as neurotransmitters. We’ve probably heard terms such as dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, endorphins or GABA. Each of these is a different kind of neurotransmitter.
What’s important to understand about neurotransmitters is that they’re very potent chemicals. When you consider the fact that these biochemicals literally change how we feel, we begin to grasp how incredibly important it is for the body to produce a properly proportioned and balanced amount of each one. Too much or too little of any neurotransmitter leads to lack of health and eventual disease. For example, too little GABA can lead to sleep disorders; while too much dopamine has been linked to mental disorders such as schizophrenia.
All that said, when neurons are on high alert – due to worry, strain, concern, anxiety or stress – the body is unable to to maintain neurotransmitter balance.
I was in a funk because each of my concerns, no matter how small, had activated numerous neurons that were literally nagging my brain – dragging my mental stamina and physical vitality along with it. While I wasn’t thinking about any of these worries consciously, they were still activating neurons in my brain and impacting neurotransmitter production. That helped explain why, despite sleeping a full eight hours, I was still waking up feeling groggy. Or for that matter, how I could go through the motions of hustling at work, but lack the extra marginal edge to help me perform my best in the workplace.
How I got out of the funk
To be upfront, I came across the solution of how to get out a funk by accident. I mentioned one of my worries was due to a relative who was hospitalized. Without getting into details, it was my wife’s aunt and her condition required physical therapy treatment. Coincidentally, she was reassigned to a facility that is pretty close to home – about 25 minutes away.
My wife recommended we pay a visit on a Saturday. I agreed because I knew it was the right thing to do. Now, even though I knew it was what we should do, if I’m going to be brutally honest, in the back of my mind I thought it was a good idea as long it didn’t impede with any plans that I had scheduled for the day. I know that was completely selfish of me. But I would invite anybody to ask themselves: haven’t we all agreed to do service or help out in the past, while holding on to certain contingencies in our minds or hearts? For me, on that particular Saturday I was already planning on taking care of very specific errands before the day got away from me. So my personal contingency was, “I have no problem making a visit, as long as we stay for about 30 minutes so we can go on with the rest of our day.” Of course – I didn’t say that out loud to my wife, but there were subtle hints I dropped to my wife, giving her the idea of what I was thinking. Looking back, I was looking to justify my contingencies. If my wife also thought a 30 minute was sufficient I wouldn’t feel guilty.
So Saturday came. We had a morning full of soccer games with our 8 year old and 5 year old. We came back home, got the kids changed and made our way over to make our visit. On the drive down I started to calculate how long we’d stay, how long it would take to drive back and the amount of time it would take to take care of all the errands while still making it back home in a timely way.
When we got there however, something changed. I can’t really pinpoint what happened, but what was supposed to be a 30 minute visit turned into something much more. In that moment, my heart softened. Instead of feeling sympathy, I felt compassion. My wife ended up taking their 4 kids to lunch, along with our children. I stayed behind and kept my wife’s aunt and her husband company. I spoke with him about how things were going at work, and what his plans were while his wife recovered. The next day was Easter, and I found myself asking him if they had a meal, and offering to bring them Easter dinner at the hospital if they didn’t already have something in place. After my wife got back with all the kiddos, we stayed a bit longer and continued talking and just being there for them.
We ended up staying for about 2 and a half hours – much longer than the initial 30 minutes I had in mind. The most interesting part of all was what happened afterwards. As we all climbed back into our car I began to feel purpose again. Something as simple as rendering genuine service created a change within.
The next morning I woke up feeling like my normal self again. No grogginess, no feeling of staleness. I felt alive again. Since my father studies the human body and mind, I thought I’d get his take on what happened. His explanation was simple. He said that we’re designed to help others out. When we fulfill that innate responsibility, the body provides a reward system that balances out neurotransmitters and creates feelings of well being. In other words, the service rendered, brought me biochemically back into balance and feeling like my normal self again.
Who would have thought that the answer to getting out of a rut can come through looking outward. There’s no doubt I’ve fallen into the trap of looking within too often, over analyzing things or looking beyond the mark. The biggest take away I took from this experience is that sincere, genuine service – with no contingencies – can help keep us out of a rut and get us out of one if we ever find ourselves there.