Our Routine and our Mental Health: Building a Routine in a Time of Ongoing Uncertainty
New year, new resolutions. However, sometimes we plan with the best of intentions and things out of our control change those plans. Since Covid-19, we have experienced abrupt and ongoing changes to our daily routine. Many of us went from waking up and going to the gym, commuting to work or school, and gathering with our friends to attending virtual school or working from home, with limited or no opportunities to gather in person. Daycares and restaurants closed, group activities ended, culture and art stopped performing in person. Many caregivers had to drop out of the workforce. People went from interacting at birthday parties, soccer games, movie theaters, restaurants, and concerts to solitary weekends with limited social interactions.
As a mom and a therapist for children, I experienced the multitude of ways that families were no longer able to follow daily routines. In fact, many of us are still working to find our new “normal”, and it can be overwhelming to rebuild.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy tells us that optimal mental health comes from how we think about things and how we do things. Our actions and behaviors impact how our body feels and what emotions we feel, which in turn impacts how we think. Doing things that help us experience positive emotions daily and doing things that make our bodies healthy can increase our capacity to feel better about ourselves. Feeling better can help us be less vulnerable to challenging emotions such as stress or anxiety. Of course, challenging emotions will always be part of our lives, and can teach us how to navigate feeling those hard emotions and take them in stride.
With Covid-19 still impacting our routines, how can we live in a way that will help our daily mood and increase our resilience and recovery when it comes to challenging emotions? The ABC PLEASE skill has some practical strategies for daily and long-term routines.
A: Accumulate Positive Experiences short term and long term: Do things that make you feel a pleasant emotion, every day or multiple times a day. Have some things that you can do when you feel highly energetic or when you have low energy levels (or less time). Light a candle with a scent that brings up happy memories or relaxes you; make and savor a cup of hot chocolate or tea or coffee; take a walk; garden. On Saturday mornings at my house, at around 9 am, my young children begin to raise their voices and fight over toys. Instead of letting them bicker, we bundle into jackets and spend the morning outside on the playground where they scream with delight and chase each other on the slide. Sometimes we blast our favorite music and dance, keep balloons up in the air, or challenge each other to “floor is Lava.” Schedule positive experiences into your day and hold yourself accountable to doing them, however short or long they need to be, and however complicated or simple.
B: Build Mastery: Hone your skills at something. Encourage your children to do the same. Whether playing cello or cooking or working on your adult coloring skills, getting better at something builds confidence, predictability, and enjoyment.
C: Cope ahead: When you have to do something difficult in the future, schedule extra time to practice your skills, or build in pleasant experiences around that time. If I have a stressful week planned, I make sure to schedule time to exercise. Or, if that is not possible, I will get up a few minutes early in the morning to have an extra cup of coffee (keeping in mind, of course, that caffeine is best in moderation!) and listen to a few minutes of my favorite podcasts or audio books.
P/L: Treat Physical ILlness: get your preventative medical appointments done, and go to the doctor when ill. For a while, a lot of us took a break from dental appointments or eye appointments due to the risks of Covid-19. Let’s get back in the routine of taking care of ourselves. It’s hard to feel mentally sound when we have a toothache or are squinting!
E: Eating: Balanced eating is important. We all know what happens when we or our children are “Hangry.” Also, many of our eating schedules got off-kilter during the pandemic. Oftentimes we focus on feeding our children: let’s remember to eat regular, balanced meals ourselves, too.
A: Avoid mood-altering drugs. Prescribed medications are, of course, important; however, drugs and alcohol (and, ahem, caffeine!) can be harmful to our mood in the long run.
S: Sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene. Turn off screens or put on a blue light filter before bedtime. Have a regular time to go to bed and wake up.
E: Exercise. I am a runner. I run three to four times a week. Often times before I run I feel sluggish, my body feels stiff, and I have thoughts like, “I’m so tired.” During a run, endorphins are released in my body and my heart-rate goes up, my muscles warm up. My body feels alive and my thoughts change from “I’m tired” to “Look at how blue the sky is today” or I think about things I have to look forward to. However, exercise does not have to be running! With so much of the rest of my day devoted to work or caring for my children, I found that running was an outlet that maximized benefit in the short amount of time I have for myself. At the same time, many of us can be better served with other forms of exercise. One example is adding extra walking to our days in ways that feel manageable. Many of us have left gyms during the pandemic and have not returned; walking around the block, parking further away than necessary and walking to our destination, walking the dog, family walks… These are all healthy and manageable ways to put exercise back in our routines.
Even in ongoing times of uncertainty and unpredictability, we can think about short-term and long-term ways to incorporate the above guidelines into our lives to decrease our vulnerability to challenging emotions. We have the opportunity AND challenge to re-think our day-to-day.