Find your Coach
Back to Blog

Feeling stuck? 6 tips to overcome restlessness

March 16, 2022 - 14 min read


Jump to section

What does it mean to feel restless?

Common causes of restlessness

6 ways to overcome restlessness

You sit down to work only to find yourself roaming the kitchen a few minutes later. Back in front of the spreadsheet and determined to finalize the budget you find yourself idly scrolling through vacation rentals. Back on task. Oops, scrolling job postings. What's happening?

Restlessness shows up physically and mentally. If you’re feeling restless, a few different factors could be to blame. You might be worried about an upcoming task or feeling impatient for a decision. You might have opted for the jumbo cup of coffee. Something might be causing you stress.

Those are individual factors, but larger events may have you chomping at the bit and unable to settle down. After all, we have been closed away in our homes for two years, thanks to the pandemic. You may have been laid off, had to close a business, or switched careers. You might have put off vacations, weddings, or missed graduations. There are quite a few reasons why you might feel like your life has been put on hold.

The world is still turning, but it’s more unpredictable than ever. The uncertainty of the job market has given way to fears of missing out on the Great Resignation. And social issues — from systemic racism to wars — can leave you feeling hopeless and helpless. 

It’s no wonder that many of us feel unsettled lately. There’s too much to worry about and not enough we can do about it. It’s hard to set a clear direction in the midst of uncertainty, and things have been uncertain for a long time.

Understanding why you’re feeling restless can help you cultivate self-compassion, resilience, and a sense of purpose. Learn more about restlessness and how to channel your nervous energy in this article.

What does it mean to feel restless?

When we think of restlessness, we might think of restless leg syndrome or another medical condition. This isn’t quite what we mean when we talk about psychological or emotional restlessness. But it’s a good metaphor because it aptly describes the feeling of not being able to sit still or feel at ease, even when you want to.

Whether literally or figuratively, we feel restless when we want to move forward, but can’t. The mismatch between our desired action and our state of inertia causes cognitive dissonance (or psychological discomfort).

Symptoms of restlessness

  • Difficulty sitting still
  • Inability to focus
  • Frustration, irritability, and agitation
  • Ruminating thoughts
  • Trouble thinking through or finding solutions to problems
  • Complaining a lot about the same issue
  • Talking about making drastic changes, like quitting a job or moving
  • Physical discomforts, like jitters, stomach issues, teeth grinding, or headaches
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
improve influence - half size

Common causes of restlessness

The interesting thing about physical and psychological restlessness is that they tend to go hand-in-hand. Let’s look at an example:

You’re standing in line at the grocery store, and you have just enough time to check out and get back to the car before the meter expires. The person ahead of you has several produce items, each needing to be weighed and manually entered. They begin debating with the clerk about the leafy herb on the counter. The customer swears that it’s parsley, while the cashier has rung it in as cilantro. There’s a forty-cent difference between the two herbs. You keep checking the time, wondering if the delay is going to end with you getting a ticket.

What makes this situation so frustrating? Well, there are a few things happening while you’re standing in line. One, you’re physically prevented from moving forward because the person ahead of you is taking longer than expected. Two, you can’t do anything about it. Three, you’re concerned about the consequences of being stuck in line.

In other words, we’re most likely to feel restless when our circumstances:

  1. Are out of line with our expectations
  2. Feel out of control
  3. Cause us to worry about the cost of staying still

We often feel most restless when we feel ineffective.

There are also physical reasons that we might feel restless. Certain medical conditions can create changes in the nervous system that leave us feeling jittery. See a doctor to rule out a physical cause for your nerves, like RLS or a thyroid imbalance.

Your discomfort may be psychological. Restlessness can be a symptom of a mental health condition, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, or anxiety. 

Overstimulation can also cause us to feel restless and overwhelmed. Our brains don't just process sensory input.  The brain rapidly makes decisions about whether stimuli is important and how we should react. If we’re already stressed or exhausted, this can trigger sensory overload.

Help yourself feel better by minimizing the amount of reacting you have to do at a time. Some conditions, like autism and anxiety disorders, make us more prone to sensory overload.

If you have any concerns about your mental and physical health, or your symptoms are affecting your quality of life, reach out for help. A doctor or mental health professional can help you determine the cause of your restlessness.


6 ways to overcome restlessness

If you’re feeling agitated all the time, there are several steps that can help you start to feel more settled. These include lifestyle changes, medical interventions, and Inner Work®. Depending on the root of your restlessness, you might find some or all of these helpful:

Lifestyle and medicine

1. Learn to relax

Rest and relaxation sound easy, but it doesn’t always come easy. If you’re stressed or anxious, just “doing nothing” may make you feel worse. In those cases, you need something to do in order to do nothing.

Try mastering some relaxation techniques, like meditation or mindful breathing. Set it up in a formal structure (for example, a meditation challenge or virtual live-stream yoga class) to get you out of your own head. You’ll benefit from a sense of accomplishment as well as ease.

2. Audit your sleep

Sleep is critical to our mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Take a look at your sleep rituals, including the time before you go to bed and just after you wake up. Good sleep hygiene is key to getting a good night’s rest, so turn off your devices at least an hour before bed and keep your bedroom comfortable. 

A sleep tracker can help you pinpoint sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea) that might leave you feeling exhausted and restless during the day.

3. Read the label

Your nutrition can also make an impact on your physical and mental health. If you’re dehydrated, waiting too long between meals, or not getting enough nutrients, you’ll likely feel out-of-sorts and agitated. Restlessness and discomfort can be a sign of food or caffeine sensitivity. 

Additionally, some supplements and medications can have side effects that make you feel jittery. For example, albuterol, some antidepressants, and antipsychotics have this effect. Talk to your doctor if you notice you feel more agitated after stopping or starting a prescription.

If you’ve ruled out physical and medical reasons for your restlessness, then you may have to do some soul-searching to learn why you’re out of sorts.


Inner Work®

1. Get a coach

If you’re feeling stuck, one of the best ways to get unstuck is to reach out for objective support. A coach can provide a neutral space where you can talk through where you are and how to feel more settled.

Remember, when we feel agitated or stuck, often our expectations and locus of control are out of alignment. We may also fear both action and the consequences of inaction.  

Working with a coach can help you determine where you’ve gotten out of alignment with your goals and how you can regain control. In areas that aren’t as easy to change, you can reframe your thoughts so you can see what possibilities are available to you.

2. Build psychological flexibility

We experience our greatest happiness and success in life when we take actions that are aligned with our values, not our moods. This skill is known as psychological flexibility. When we’re psychologically flexible, we’re better able to regulate our emotions and handle setbacks.

Building psychological flexibility is a key part of building resilience. When we’re more flexible, we are less overwhelmed by our feelings and better able to see solutions.

3. Make a plan

Much of our restlessness — especially in our personal and professional lives — comes from the feeling that things aren’t going to plan. Even if circumstances are outside of our control, we can still make a plan to get things back on track.

Start by writing down your five-year plan. Where would you like to be in five years, and where did you think you would be by now? Taking a long view can help you put today’s frustrations into perspective.

For example, you’re still renting an apartment in your hometown when you thought you would have moved away a long time ago. Maybe you were under financial stress or the pandemic delayed your relocation plans. Either way, your current situation doesn’t match where you thought you would be by now, and you’re feeling stuck.

It can be helpful to acknowledge the source of your restlessness, even if only to yourself. Once you know that you’re upset because you’d really like to move, dig deeper. Start journaling about what your life will be like when you move. In my case, I always daydream about living somewhere warmer and within walking distance of a coffee shop.

Once you know why this goal is so compelling, bring as much of it into your life as you can. Maybe you can’t move right away, but you can start saving money for your new place. You can also visit a coffee shop every day, plan vacations somewhere warm, or research neighborhoods. Look at your home with a critical eye and declutter anything you won’t want to pack for the move.

These actions and visualization techniques can help you feel like you’re getting closer to your goal. They can also bring joy to your present experience. You may not be able to skip to the end of the book just yet, but you can enjoy the story.

One step at a time

There are times, whether at work or in our personal life, when we’re not moving forward as quickly as we’d like. This psychological discomfort can make us feel stressed, fearful, and as if we’re not capable of reaching our goals.

Restlessness leaves us feeling stuck, and being stuck makes us irritable and anxious. It can make us feel like starting over in life

But even when we feel stuck, we always have a choice to make. We can choose what we do with our situation and our feelings. We can choose our attitudes and how we react to our circumstances.

We can look for ways to influence the situation, reframe our thoughts, and enjoy the process of getting where we want to go. After all, as the cliche goes, life is a journey. Enjoy the scenery as you achieve your goals.


Published March 16, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

Read Next

14 min read | June 2, 2021

COVID PTSD is real — and here’s how to get through it

Is COVID PTSD real? If so, how we can get through it? Learn how we can resiliently overcome feelings of stress and anxiety lingering from the pandemic. Read More
10 min read | March 11, 2021

Not ill, but not well. The languishing of the “massive middle”

There is no quick fix to overcome languishing. Let's review the state of employee mental health and its impact on both companies and individuals. Read More
12 min read | December 18, 2020

12 days of kindness challenge

Kindness is contagious. When we see people helping each other, it gives us hope that we’re not all alone. It inspires us to act with courageous compassion and help those... Read More
20 min read | April 15, 2022

The best mental health podcasts to listen to any time

Mental health podcasts can teach, inspire, and reinforce healthy habits. Learn more about mental health podcasts and check out some of our favorites. Read More
6 min read | December 23, 2021

The special grief of the holiday season

The holidays can be hard, bringing up grief, old and new. Here are tips to help get through the season. Read More
11 min read | December 23, 2021

Men’s mental health: Why resilience is bigger than invulnerability

Being strong and tough is good, but men can be - and are - much more than that. Learn about the stigma around men's mental health & what we can do to help. Read More
18 min read | May 18, 2022

How to deal with postpartum depression and flourish as a new parent

Postpartum depression (PPD) can include mood swings, challenges making decisions, and crying spells. Here’s how to recognize and cope with PPD. Read More
20 min read | May 23, 2022

How to call in sick and what to say

Here’s how to call in sick to get the time you need to recover while being responsible and considerate of your team. Read More
16 min read | June 2, 2022

When tough isn't enough, build mental strength. Here's how

Building mental strength can help you be more resilient in unpredictable times. Here are 7 ways to improve and complement your mental toughness. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.