Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

Virtually everyone has a preference for the level of structure they have in their life. For some, having the option be flexible offers peace of mind and a feeling of personal control. Others see established structure and routine as predictable, comforting forms of stability. In times of greater stress, however, there is evidence that suggests a greater use of routine actually helps manage feelings of overwhelm.

Routines can be as simple as setting mealtimes, fixed work or school hours, or as thorough as creating a full daily schedule. Some of the most common reasons for following a routine include establishing healthy habits and to maintain control over demanding family schedules.

The challenges and disruptions caused by COVID-19, among other ongoing social and political crises, have significantly impacted people’s ability to cope with stress in the ways they normally would. Today, we’re discussing the role that routine changes play in managing stress and offering some suggestions for relief.

Challenge: Unexpected changes to (or removal of) structure

Working from home. Sudden unemployment. Independent learning. Changing safety protocols. Caring for family members and community.

Millions of people have been thrust into unfamiliar territory this year. Something as simple as losing workplace social connections or adapting to new methods of communication can be mentally taxing whether they are sudden or not. When a lack of structure becomes part of the equation, the mental cost increases.

Psychologist and NYU School of Medicine Dr. Rachel Goldman points to the reason why routine plays such a big part in managing stress and anxiety, and it’s simpler than you’d think. Sometimes it’s about how much leeway the brain has to latch onto what it wants to worry about.

“If people don’t have structure and are sitting around with [fewer things] to focus on, then they will find themselves thinking about the stressful situation more, which can also lead to additional stress and anxiety.”

One proven way to break out of the cycle is to maintain or implement structure as part of your daily activities. Mental health educator Mariana Plata says that these three parts of life fit into routines in different ways:

  1. Personal life. Think about what you do every day that’s just for you. This could be taking 20 minutes to sip your coffee and catch up on TikToks or listen to your favourite podcast. It could be finding an hour to do your workout video or going to bed half an hour early to read the next chapter of your book. Whatever it is that helps you nurture yourself, make sure you create space in your routine to do it.
  2. Relationships. Introvert or extrovert, human connection is vital in order to thrive. What are some small things you can do to connect with your community? This could be time devoted to calling a friend, talking to family members, or having quality time with a romantic partner. Relationships look different to everyone, but positive connections do help to relieve stress.
  3. Career/work/school. As all-consuming as it might feel, there are lots of ways to manage the pressures of work or school. Especially in challenging times, consider having a conversation with your supervisor or teacher about accommodations that might be available for you. Priority lists and workflow tools are also great to stay organized.

Consider these tips when you’re setting up a routine to manage stress

Focus on things under your control. Things like wake-up and bedtimes are big building blocks to keeping a steady routine. Through the day, think about breaks or activity times as the key blocks. As much as we like to prioritize productivity, mental health is tied to giving the mind enough space to recover from high-intensity work. The timing of these might change, but sticking to a few constants can help you feel more under control and less stressed out.

Create a routine that’s geared to you. Nobody else’s ideal routine will serve you. The things that make you feel calm, healthy, and under control are the ones to integrate into your routine. Sleep schedules are a hotbed of ambition – lots of people decide to forgo an hour or two of sleep to start a new exercise regimen. Do what you think is right for you, but make sure it’s realistic. Not an early riser? 6am runs before the kids wake up probably won’t be the way to go. For many, sleep is key. This group might decide that their routine will involve having a phone call with a friend over lunch or scheduling 15 minutes of alone time in the afternoons where they get to close the door. Whatever activities you know will fill your cup, make sure you’re setting aside time for them.

Take the time to figure out what works. There’s no such thing as an overnight fix. If you’ve developed a routine and you’re finding that a few pieces aren’t working for you, let them go. In some cases, a detailed to-do list each day is enough. Others work better to have time blocked off for high-priority tasks with the freedom to fill in the unstructured time with other things. Allow yourself the freedom to try out different styles or set new goals for your routine. They do take practice. Most importantly:

“While having a routine is important, give yourself some flexibility and don’t beat yourself up if you have trouble sticking to your own schedule. Everyone copes with stress differently. Having a routine can help you maintain a sense of normalcy and focus through tough times, but don’t stress yourself out more if you sometimes deviate from your plans.”

After all, no single approach works for everyone. But there’s value in trying something out for a while if it could improve your day-to-day experience.

How does this work?

If I had to wager a guess, you’re here to figure out whether I am a good fit to be your therapist. The fastest way to do that is to schedule a free consultation, and go from there!