How to get out of an Emotional Rut in 5 steps | Combatting Lethargy & Listlessness

Depression comes in all shapes and sizes, but I have a few symptoms that are really hard to deal with: lethargy, listlessness, and lack of motivation.

In an attempt to help these symptoms, I’ve come up with 5 steps to getting out of an emotional rut. With lots of trial and error, I’ve found that these steps are the best way for me to get myself out of a depressive flare, or at least help myself through it.

Step One: Recognizing your Negative Emotions

When you’re depressed, it’s easy to stop paying attention to your feelings. Why would you want to sit around and think about feeling bad? Unfortunately for both of us, that is the first thing you should do when you start feeling bad. Stop and really think about how you’re feeling. Are you feeling incapable or unworthy? Are you lonely? Are you bored? Are you jealous? Are you frustrated? Are you worried or sad about something specific? Try to pinpoint EXACTLY what you are feeling, and try to go deeper than just “sad” or “depressed”. Bonus points if you write your thoughts and feelings down.

I know this isn’t fun, but you can’t really address the issue if you don’t recognize it, pay attention to it, and think it through. Would you expect scientists to cure cancer without thinking about cancer? I don’t think so.

Step Two: Understanding that Negative Emotions Serve a Purpose

You are feeling negative emotions for a reason! And not just because “you have to get sad to feel happiness” (because I know we’ve all heard that one enough). Below, I’m going to list a few negative emotions and possible positive outcomes from them*. I encourage you to think deeper about your specific emotions (the ones you identified in step one!) and identify where they’re coming from and why.

Anger: This emotion is a wake-up call, and usually serves as a motivator and energizer (think about it, would someone that wasn’t angry have the energy or motivation to slash someone’s tires?) When you get angry about something, it shows you and others that what happened is not okay. This can also help people realize and set boundaries.

Sadness: This emotion gives people the opportunity to reflect. Although sadness at times is a deeply immobilizing emotion, the very nature of sadness forces people to stop, think, pay attention, and fix the problem. Sadness also creates opportunities for us to communicate that there is trouble. Often, sadness also allows us to be more empathetic to those around us.

Shame: This emotion frequently has positive social repercussions. Shame can lead to greater social cohesion, as people are more aware of how they want to be seen by others. Additionally, when you are shameful, you want to do something to erase the source of the shame. This pushes people to action in a unique way.

Although your emotions might not fall into one of these categories, I hope you take some time to think about why you’re feeling the way you are!

Step Three: Accept your Negative Emotions

In this step, you have to accept your negative emotions and allow yourself to address them. If you’re feeling lethargic, embrace it! Watch movies in bed all weekend, say no to those plans you don’t want to go to, and give yourself a break. If you’re feeling lonely, embrace it! Invite someone you really care about to dinner, text someone you miss, or have a quality conversation with someone. Think about what the negative emotions you discovered in step 1 are and what you discovered is causing them in step 2. Then, give yourself a strict, set amount of time to fully dive into that emotion. Give it what it wants!

I’ve found that negative emotions don’t leave until you spend some time with them. This step is both emotional and physical. By physically allowing yourself to take the time to address the issue, you pave the road for emotional healing to follow.

Step Four: Take Care of Yourself (Hint: it doesn’t involve a facemask)

There has been a huge rise in self-care in recent years, which is a great thing. Life is fast, crazy, and exhausting, and it is EXTREMELY important to take care of yourself. But, I’m not really talking about the spa day, call-out-of-work-sick kind of self-care. I’m talking about genuinely addressing something that you need to do.

This step is the worst, but it is also the most important (why is life like that?!). You need to GET SOMETHING DONE for yourself. Think about what you have been dreading the most. Maybe it’s cleaning out the garage, writing that essay, or making a doctors appointment. Whatever it is, stop procrastinating or making excuses. Get it done!

Here’s the magic behind this step: you lift something off of your chest and you kickstart your motivation. By finally finishing that ONE THING that you’ve been dreading, you give yourself a tangible reason to feel better. You’ll probably find pride, accomplishment, and relief living in the space where the dread used to be. Who wouldn’t want to feel that way, especially after being depressed for a while?

If you don’t have a chore or task you’ve been dreading and putting off, do something for you that you never seem to have time for. Pull out your paintbrushes, cookbook, running shoes, or computer game and go at it! But also if you don’t have something you’re dreading are you even a human?? Either way, this step will give you the boost you need to get to step five.

Step Five: Treat Yourself!

When you’re in a depressed or negative emotional state, the things you usually enjoy doing aren’t fun anymore (at least, that’s usually the case for me). Even if you feel this way, I want you to think about something you USUALLY enjoy doing. Even if all you’ve wanted to do for the past week is sleep and doing anything at all sounds like emotional torture, think about what you like to do when you aren’t feeling that way. And then do it! I usually enjoy reading, but when I’m depressed I have zero interest in it. When I get to this step, I go to a park or beach with a good book and give myself a couple of hours to read. Does the trick every time!

Even if you don’t want to do anything, the confidence and relief from step four combined with the lightheartedness and fun from step five will (hopefully) boost you out of that emotional rut you’re in.

Bonus Step: Printables

I have two free printables to accompany this blog post! When you subscribe to my email list, you get a free printable with every post!

One is a worksheet that asks you a question that corresponds to each step. This one walks you through the 5-step process and allows you to adapt my method for yourself! I’m going to print mine out and laminate it so I can keep it on my desk and fill it out with a dry erase marker!

The second is a printable infographic with a list of each step. That way you don’t have to read this entire post every time you want to use this method!

You can find all of the printables in 8.5×11 and 4×6 here.

A few notes…

1: I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional. Please meet with a medical professional if depression or anxiety is an ongoing issue for you.

2: The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255, and there are many other, more specific suicide hotlines (LGBTQ, teen, etc) available nationally as well.

3: *Thoughts on positive experiences from negative emotion were heavily influenced by the book Interpersonal Conflict by William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker

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