Stuck in a career change rut? Here’s how to get out

We’ve been cooped up for months. Cheek by jowl with our nearest and (not always) dearest. Holding our tongues, staying calm, being a grown-up when we’d rather throw our toys out of the pram. It’s hard at the best of times, worse still if we don’t like our job.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. And changing careers can be long and painful. Most of us would give an arm and a leg to fast forward to the good bit.

“I had this absolute sense I’d drifted very far from myself and lost sight of who I was. I was an empty husk. I had no interest in anything. I didn’t know what made me happy anymore. I’m coming out the other side of it now. It’s been a long process.” Tracey

It can be tempting to give into our moods. Dive headlong into their angry embrace. So what can we do when career change is taking time? These actions could keep you on track.


1) Positive mood boosters:

‘Happy hormones’ dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin help us regulate our mood, sleep better, give us pain relief and make us feel good.

Other hormones impact our health. When we’re in danger, cortisol increases our heart rate and blood pressure. Over time it can increase cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

Adrenaline is an emergency hormone that helps us think and react quickly. But too much for too long and adrenaline leads to insomnia, weight gain, headaches and anxiety. It can even bring on a heart attack or stroke.

I’ve interviewed 100 people going through career change. Many have had problems with anxiety, depression and sleep.

“I call them night terrors. You wake up at three in the morning with this horrible insomnia and you can’t sleep.”

“I felt so depressed and really fell into a deep pit of despair because I couldn’t see a way out.”

The anxiety got so bad I just couldn’t function. Panic attacks all the time. I was just a complete mess. I couldn’t be alone, but couldn’t be around people either.”


If career change is affecting your mood try some of these out:

a) Gratitude — Practice being grateful. Sometimes we’d rather cry for an hour or smash a plate, but expressing gratitude releases dopamine and serotonin, making us feel better.

“It turns our mental focus to the positive, which compensates for our brains’ natural tendency to focus on threats, worries, and negative aspects of life. It creates positive emotions like joy, love, and contentment which research shows can undo the grip of negative emotions like anxiety.” Dr. Melanie Greenberg

Pick five things you’re grateful for, or you appreciate in someone else. Repeating this exercise will change your brain structure. But you need to keep doing it most days.

“We’re not grateful because we’re happy. We’re happy because we’re grateful.” Seth Godin

b) Name a mood — Anyone who meditates will know observing and standing back helps separate ourselves from our thoughts and feelings.

Here is a hairy example. Dr. Michelle Craske at the University of California invited arachnophobes to handle tarantulas — I know, psychologists are cruel. One group had to distract themselves with logic, e.g. “It’s in a cage. It can’t hurt me. Don’t be afraid.” Like that’ll work! A second described their emotions, e.g. “I’m feeling nervous and scared.” The third group said something irrelevant and the fourth said nothing at all.


We can do this exercise (sans spiders), by calling out our moods. The step from “I’m lonely,” to “I am feeling lonely,” creates a gap between our thoughts and feelings. We learn that our emotions don’t define us.


2) Stress reducers:

At times our brain can wage an inner war, but we don’t even know it’s going on. Some parts of our brain developed more recently in our evolution, such as the frontal lobes. This area does our thinking, decision-making and planning.

But other parts, like the amygdala, are much older. Here we process strong emotions like fear and pleasure and this part of the brain works instinctively. But it can be biased too. It assesses the world using emotions we’ve felt in the past, so often this will colour our perceptions and reactions.

Under stress the amygdala wants us to be in fight-or-flight mode. And it works extremely fast. The frontal lobes are left behind, carefully assessing all the information before they can work out a logical response.

Act in haste, repent in leisure

If the amygdala perceives a big threat it can overpower the frontal lobes and our logical responses. It’s what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls the ‘amygdala hijack.’ This is when we can’t think clearly or make rational decisions. We overreact and will probably do something we regret later on.

So what can we do to calm our amygdala down?

a) Know your triggers — First acknowledge you’re stressed. Try to calm yourself down by reminding yourself it’s your amygdala’s automatic response. Breathe slowly — in through your mouth, out through your nose. Focus on your breath, watching your body move as you breathe. Once you’re calmer, try and reflect on what set you off. Make a note and watch out for the warning signs next time.

b) Make a decision, have clear intentions and set goals — Career change can be stressful and it can be hard to make a decision. But if you do decide, it’ll calm the limbic system down and you’ll feel more in control. Focus on a “’good enough’ decision — don’t sweat it out to get 100%. Perfectionism can overwhelm your brain and tire it out.

“I didn’t leave because I was caught in a thought loop of what else would I do. I was a teacher. This is what I’d been doing for 10 years. This was me. I had assigned a lot of value to it and it became my identity. I definitely lost myself.”Emma

Be clear about your intentions and set achievable goals — Your amygdala will be busy identifying how important this goal is to you. Your frontal lobe will be problem solving — identifying the steps and actions you need to take. Both parts of your brain will be working in harmony.


3) Get physical:

I’m not suggesting lip-syncing to ‘80’s pop song ‘Physical’. Although you could.

“Let’s get physical. I wanna get physical. Let me hear your body talk.” Olivia Newton John, 1981

What I mean is we need to get out of our heads. These are actions you can take to re-set your brain and hormones:

a) Go outside – There’s a lot of evidence that green and blue improves mood. Get into the countryside. Go to a local park, a wood. Seek out a river or a lake. Try to combine it with exercise if you can as that will double the benefit. Can’t get out? Then look at pictures of forests, rivers or oceans – even those will make you feel better.

b) Get laughing — Laughter strengthens our immune system, boosts mood, reduces pain and protects us from stress. Connect with your friends and have fun, or tap into professional comedy — there’s loads on the internet or via streaming channels.

c) Use your hands — Do anything that uses your hands. Touch increases oxytocin levels and reduces the reactivity levels of your amygdala. Make bread, cook your favourite meal, tend your garden or box of herbs. Make things. Stroke your pet. The list is endless.

Getting stuck in a career change hole is easy, getting out of it is harder. Give yourself a helping hand to climb out by trying some of these actions. The road will be bumpy of course. Just keep travelling forwards.


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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