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What to Do When You’re Stuck in the Doldrums

Lately, I’ve been feeling stuck in the doldrums.

I first learned about the doldrums when I read The Phantom Tollbooth, which is still one of my favorite children’s books. In the book, the Doldrums is an actual place where the character Milo ends up, and the Lethargians who live there do nothing all day. They don't even think or laugh.

Milo asked what they could do without laughing or thinking, and they had quite a few answers. The list included daydreaming, dawdling, lingering, napping, loafing, lounging, putting things off, and wasting time.

They said: “As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we'd never get nothing done."

In the regular world, the doldrums is also a place called the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, a band near the equator where sailing ships can get stuck without wind for weeks. They’re literally motionless.

Photo by Florian van Schreven on Unsplash

And it’s also an emotional state, of feeling lethargic and stagnant.

I can relate to all of these. I’ve been doing quite a lot of dawdling, lounging, procrastinating, and dillydallying. I’ve also found that it’s very easy to use food for these purposes.

And lately, I’ve excelled at putting off things until tomorrow… and then the day after that… and so on. This leaves me feeling motionless and lethargic.

As for how I got stuck in the doldrums, I can think of a few reasons, and maybe you can relate:

  • Everything in the world feels overwhelming

  • Going to places where there are other people feels dangerous

  • Letting myself think about what’s going on seems pointless because I feel like I can’t do much to change it and it’s all bad news anyway

It doesn’t help that the end of June and beginning of July bring around memories of losses from earlier years. I’ve especially been thinking of my aunt Gail, who died fourteen years ago on June 26 at the age of 44 – the same age I am now.

This feeling of being stuck is uncomfortable, and the longer I’m there, the less motivated I feel to do anything. Maybe you’re feeling something similar.

But the good news is, we can get out of the doldrums – here are a few ways.

Think About Something Different

I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I feel like I’m supposed to fix things, that it’s my job to make everything better somehow.

The problem is, I can’t make everything better, and it’s not my job to do that. But because that’s how I feel, it seems like I shouldn’t be thinking about things that aren’t related to addressing climate change… racial inequality… homelessness… food insecurity… or anything else you might add to the list.

But then I get paralyzed because it feels like too much, and I stop thinking altogether. This is one way of slipping into the doldrums, both in The Phantom Tollbooth and in the real world.

This also means that one way to get out is to start thinking – but you can think about something different than all the world’s problems.

This might feel like shirking your responsibility, or at least it does for me. But really, it’s better to start thinking about something than it is to sit in a numb, safe place of dwelling on nothing.

One thing that helps me start thinking again is listening to interesting podcasts. Some of my favorites are Stuff You Should Know, Creature Feature, and Brain Science.

You might prefer watching or reading something, or taking a class, but whatever it is, see if you can find something you want to think about.

Find Something to Laugh About

Similarly, see if you can find something to make you laugh!

This seems straightforward, but it’s another one I struggle with sometimes because of that feeling of responsibility. How can I possibly be laughing at a time like this?

And yet, laughter is extremely important. It helps us form bonds with other people, it makes us feel good, and it encourages different regions of our brains to connect.

And of course, it just makes you feel better! And when you feel better, you’re more likely to be motivated and stop lollygagging quite as much.

Help Someone Else

While it’s true that I’m not responsible for everything – and neither are you – it’s still good to find ways to help other people.

You don’t have to do something big. Even helping someone in a small way can make a big difference in your mood.

You’ve probably noticed this yourself, how if you’re stuck in your own thoughts and worries, doing something for others changes your perspective. It gives you a sense of satisfaction, and it also reminds you that you can make a difference.

But for this to work, the offer of help has to be genuine. Trying to help someone out of a sense of obligation doesn’t cut it, and it’s not great for the person on the other end either because then they feel like they’re burdening you. You have to genuinely want to help – and if you do, everyone wins.

Maybe you could check in on elderly relatives or neighbors. Or see if there’s a local organization that’s looking for some volunteer work that you could do safely and that wouldn’t feel like a burden to you. Or you could write thank-you notes or letters of gratitude to important people in your life.

Get creative on this – even if we can’t physically interact much these days, we can still help each other out.

You Don’t Have to Stay Stuck in the Doldrums

When you’re in the doldrums, it can feel like you’ll be there forever. It might seem like there’s no way out.

But you don’t have to stay stuck there. You can look for things to think about that don’t feel overwhelming or depressing, or things that make you laugh, or ways to help other people.

The key is to feel motivated enough to do something, even if it’s small, to get you moving again (physically or figuratively). Once you start, you’ll feel encouraged and might be up for a little more, and soon you’ll be clear of the doldrums.

Do you have other methods of getting unstuck? Leave a comment! And if you’re having trouble getting moving again, please reach out – I’m happy to help.

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