When the last heavy snow hit Washington, a 42-year-old man looked out his window to see neighborhood children careening down a hillside on their sleds. In a flash, he grabbed his skis from the basement -- packed away from the winter before -- and joined them.

That's "spontaneity," says psychodramatist Elizabeth A. Stewart, whose work involves helping people release their spontaneous impulses as one way of solving personal problems.

"We all have that child within us," she says, "that can't get out and play.

We never take time to fly a kite or go for a walk."

In a recent presentation at the Northwest Center for Community Mental Health in Reston, Stewart asked the audience to close their eyes and "try to capture your feelings as a child."

Stewart, 32, a pupil of psychodrama founder J.L. Moreno, teaches psychodrama at Virginia Commonwealth College in Richmond and Prince George's Community College in Largo and has both a private practice and works with students at the Leary School in Falls Church.

"Spontaneity," she says, "is our psychic gasoline. It's what makes us go." She defines it as "a novel response to old situations or an adequate response to a new situation."

Most of us fall into ruts. We prepare for work the same way every day without variation, or we eat the same breakfast. Generally, it doesn't really cause any problems. But some ruts do.

A client came to Stewart complaining, "I come home from work and get depressed." In questioning, she learned the man followed the same routine: "Have two drinks, eat dinner, watch TV."

As part of the therapy, she asked him to come up with alternative things to do: "Go to a movie, read a book, take a hot bath, go out to eat."

It sounds simple, but to many depressed people "it's a big step to go take a walk."

Problem-causing ruts, she says, can include: Staying in a job, setting your goals so high you can't reach them, staying in a marriage, compulsive behavior such as overfastidiousness, drinking before going to a party to feel sociable. People can fall into ruts in their personal relationships.

"Never being willing to change is a big rut."

People who lack spontaneity, she says, may find themselves "tense and inhibited and bored." They may feel "rigid" and "very controlled." They also may find themselves at home on a weekend saying, "I don't have anything to do."