Creating and maintaining structure and routine during times of crisis
While much of the world has regained a new sense of normalcy in the wake of the pandemic, the upheaval of COVID has nevertheless left scars: physical, emotional, and psychological.
Daily structures and routines might look different in the post-pandemic era, but their existence is key to maintaining good mental health.
The benefits of structure and routine
Philadelphia-based therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, CGT, pinpoints the value of structure. “Structure can provide an understanding of what’s next. It can help us organize what we’re doing in each moment. Without it, we start to forget what our purpose is. It’s the perfect storm for creating a bunch of really difficult feelings at the same time: sadness, guilt, anxiety.”
Routines anchor us. The predictability of routine is a tool to help manage uncertainty and cope with sudden life changes. Dr. Mimi Winsberg, MD, psychiatrist and co-founder of Brightside, a digital mental health company focused on depression and anxiety, notes the value of routine to mental health.
“The reassurance of a predictable routine calms nerves without us even realizing it,” she says. “When structure or routine vanishes suddenly because of something outside your control, it can feel like having a rug pulled out from under you.”
Establishing a routine
The best time to establish a healthy routine? First thing in the morning — or for those who work night shifts, at the start of each day. Having a good routine in place right when you get out of bed will set the tone for the rest of the day.
The first task? Make the bed.
In a now famous commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin, Navel Admiral William McRaven recounted the life lessons he learned during SEAL basic training, where every morning his instructors would inspect the trainees’ beds.
“If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another,” he said. “By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.”
There’s a reason junk food is a go-to in times of stress. It’s convenient, often cheap, and offers instant gratification, which may feel in the short-term like stress relief. The long-term consequences of a diet high in sugar, fat, and ultra-processed ingredients, however, can be severe, and may include heightened risk of diabetes, obesity, and other conditions.
In times of stress and uncertainty, healthy meal planning, grocery shopping, and preparation often slips to the bottom of the to-do list. Even so, research shows that eating healthier can affect mood, help manage stress, and strengthen the immune system.
Establishing a routine around food is one way to kickstart healthy eating habits. Block out time for meal planning each week, create a grocery list, and stick to it. For families, eating together at designated times is a daily ritual that can increase a sense of connectedness, as well as a chance to instill healthy eating habits for the future.
Good sleep hygiene includes maintaining a regular sleep-and-wake schedule, using the bedroom only for sleeping or sex, and keeping the bedroom dark and free of distractions like the computer or television.
Additionally, children need a predictable routine to prepare for bed and sleep. Turning off screen time two hours prior to going to bed reduces overstimulation. Reading, storytelling, listening to calming music, or having bath time can increase a child’s relaxation and improve their quality of sleep.
Incorporating some form of physical activity into your daily structure and routine is essential for adults, teens, and children. If going to the gym isn’t an option, there are still myriad options available online, from yoga routines to Zumba workouts.
In the warmer weather, take advantage of the great outdoors. Take a walk, go for a jog, ride a bike, or engage in an outdoor hobby like gardening. Spending time outside not only contributes to physical health, but it increases vitamin D intake. In addition to fostering bone health, vitamin D can help ward off depression.
Immersing yourself in nature has deeper psychological benefits as well. Beyond a sense of calm and tranquility, the natural world is a constant reminder that, even in the midst of upheaval, there is still beauty to enjoy in the world.
Adaptable, not inflexible
Though structure and routine are a critical element of a well-adjusted life, routines shouldn’t become so rigid, there’s no possibility of flexibility. If the 2020s taught us anything, it’s that life can change in a moment. A healthy routine adjusts accordingly, and may grow and change as circumstances demand.
- Bartell, S. (2020) Protect Your Family’s Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic. U.S. News. Retrieved from: https://www.health.usnews.com/wellness/for-parents/articles/protect-your-family’s-mental-health-during-the-COVID-19-pandemic
- Blurt Team (2018) The Mental Health Benefits of Having a Daily Routine. Blurt It Out.org. Retrieved from: https://www.blurtitout/2018/11/08/mental-health-benefits-routine/
- Callaghan, A. (2020) How to Maintain Good Habits Now That Coronavirus Has Blown Up Your Routine. GQ. Retrieved from: https://www.gq.com/story/coronavirus-mental-health-routine-good-habits
- Chun, KT. (2020) Expert Tips for Maintaining Your Mental Health during COVID-19 Panic. Verily. Retrieved from: https://www.verilymag.com/2020/03/managing-stress-and-anxiety-covid-19-pandemic
- Harvard Health (2019) Sleep and Mental Health. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/neesletter-article/sleep-and-mental-health
- Lohmann, R. (2020) Coping with Anxiety and Depression During the Coronavirus Pandemic. US News. Retrieved from: https://www.health.usnews.com/wellness/for parents/article/coping-with-anxiety-and-depression-during-the coronavirus-pandemic