Last week I wrote about my recent spike in anxiety. Since then, I’m happy to report that the brain weasels have remained at bay. But there was another contributing factor in my recent struggle to cope that’s worth taking time to examine: the breakdown of my daily routine.
As I mentioned already, I’m going through some life changes at the moment. They’re positive changes, but they’ve been disruptive enough that I have lost the ability to maintain the daily routine that was a staple of my previous life.
Now, I’m not the kind of person who likes to be too structured (even if anxiety made me believe otherwise). I recognise the importance of deadlines and to-do lists, but detailed daily schedules and rigid plans stress me out; I prefer to choose my priorities by how I feel in the moment – which project has me the most excited today?Am I up to working on that really difficult job, or do I need to be kind to myself and focus on easy wins for a while?
So I’m really not the kind of person who would usually want more structure in my life. But I do have routines – the little things I do every day, when I get up in the morning or before I go to bed. I like to think of them as a framing device for the rest of my day.
And those little routines are vital to my ability to deal with stress.
The little things that make a big difference
In my old routine, for instance, my morning started with getting dressed, making breakfast, and doing my stretches while my muesli got properly milk-soaked. Then I’d sit down with breakfast, decide on one or two main goals for the day, and send my dad a chat message to compare our daily plans.
None of those things might sound like a big deal, but let’s examine the cumulative effect. Right out of the gate, before my morning progressed too far, I was already:
- Wearing clothes I could leave the house in. On days I don’t have to go out for work, I don’t necessarily have a big incentive not to just hang out in my pajamas, but wearing day clothes is a huge mental boost for me. Clothes are a signal to myself that I want to be awake and get things done; they makes it possible for me to go outside (for an errand, for food or just for a boost of fresh air and sunlight) without having to plan extra steps that might derail me if I’m not doing well; and they can be easily layered for warmth, which means if I’m working on my laptop on the couch, I’m less likely to end up in a fortress of cushions and couch blanket that I don’t want to leave to, say, eat food and drink water.
- Fed. Nothing messes up my ability to cope like forgetting to eat, so a good breakfast is a very good start.
- Practising self-care. Daily neck stretches are vital to staving off my particular brand of stress-induced muscle tension, but on top of that they’re also a cue to practise slow-breathing and mindfulness, both key techniques in managing anxiety. My neck stretch routine involves using counted breaths to time the stretches, and focusing on the sensations in my body while I stretch.
- Finding my focus. Narrowing down the day’s plans to a couple of items I can dash off in a message to my dad gives me a chance to deliberately prioritise, choose what tasks are important to focus on today and what tasks can wait, and to deliberately and mindfully set all but a manageable number of things aside so that I won’t feel weighted down by to-dos.
So my old routine meant that before my day had even properly started, I was already looking after my physical and mental health and taking steps to make the rest of the day feel more manageable.
Habit: enemy of the brain weasels
Over the course of my journey pre- and post-diagnosis, I’ve learned about all kinds of techniques and lifestyle choices that can help keep the brain weasels at bay. The variety is endless – from meditation to running to reaching out to friends – but all of them have one thing in common: the more I need them, the less likely I am to use them.
Because knowing intellectually what can help me is very different from remembering to put it into practice right when my brain (a.k.a. the organ I need to do the remembering) is functioning at its worst.
That’s why coping mechanisms that have to be consciously practised are never going to be as effective as ones that are habitual. Once something is built into my daily routine, I no longer have to concentrate on remembering to make time for it – it just happens. And that means I’m much more likely to continue practising it at those times when the weasels are biting their hardest and I need coping mechanisms the most.
Building a new routine
As I settle into this new chapter of my life, one of my biggest priorities right now is figuring out a routine that fits around my new lifestyle. That includes making sure I keep practising the self-care and other habits that are most important to me.
I can’t control the stressors life will throw at me. But I can take steps to ensure that I have coping strategies built into my daily routine.
What elements do you have in your routine to help you look after yourself when times get rough?