Are you finding typical, daily tasks more difficult to do right now? Are you noticing yourself doing things everyday that don’t feel so great, but you’re unsure of how to change? Or maybe you’re one of those who has set routines and habits that you’ve been able to stick with. May is Mental Health Month, a national movement to raise awareness about mental health. Taking a look at your daily routines and habits is a great start to addressing your own mental health. 

All of us have habits we have been developing since birth. You may be noticing areas where you have established routines that are easy to keep up with. If you’re struggling with habits and healthy routines right now, that’s understandable too. The changes to our daily routines, life circumstances, and levels of stress can make it feel more difficult to keep up with positive habits. A third option is you don’t think about habits at all. Sometimes they are so ingrained in our lives and seemingly ‘small’ that they feel automatic. However, it’s even more important to keep up with or develop new habits right now. 

Why Should I Care?

If you don’t have an ultimate goal like losing weight, feeling more relaxed, etc., you may not have any motivation to create habits and routines. Especially when you’re starting out, creating habits and routines may feel difficult… There isn’t an immediate return. The gratification is delayed, like saving money or running faster. However, there is a physiological effect that habits have on us, mentally and emotionally. This quote describes it well. 

“In order to recover, mind, body, and brain need to be convinced that it’s safe to let go.” -Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk 

When you think back on your school days, you likely remember a lot of routine and structure throughout the day- math class at 10, recess at 12, home by 3. Children expect routine when they go to school and (ideally) when they’re at home. Most of us know children thrive when they have the same bed time, eat meals at regular times, and know what to expect. This knowing and expectation creates a sense of safety in their minds and bodies, and this can be applied to adults, too. Especially during a time of high stress when many old coping skills may rear up, it’s important to create this sense of safety for yourself through structure and routine. Your nervous system is affected during times of stress, and finding ways to create safety and security helps regulate it. 

Start Small

New habits and routines don’t have to be anything ground-breaking. Starting small can be more effective and easier to swallow, and it can create a momentum into improving other parts of your life. Want to start a meditation practice? Start with five minutes a day. Trying to cook more? Cook one meal a day. Starting a habit is about just that- starting. Rather than worrying about an end goal, prioritize doing something small every day. 

Repeat Every 24 Hours 

Whether you’re starting big or small, one important thing is to repeat every day. During more ‘normal’ circumstances it may depend on what your habit is, but during this current time of high stress for many, we need to keep up routines every 24 hours. When the state of things changes quickly, and we feel uncertain about our life circumstance, resetting ourselves after each night of sleep is especially important. Implementing habits and routines into our daily lives is what contributes to that sense of stability and safety. 

Environment Matters

This may be especially difficult when we’re stuck in our homes most of the day. Typically, we can develop habits when we associate them with different environments. For instance, answering emails at an office or coffee shop, doing the same yoga class every week, or meditating in a specific part of our house. You can still apply this to your own home during this time. Divide your home into spaces, indoor and outdoor. If you want to develop a habit of journaling, for example, decide to do it in the same spot each morning. Same goes for exercise, connecting with your partner, or calling a family member- decide to do it in the same part of your home or yard each day. 

I hope this helps you understand why habits and routines are important, and it gives you some ideas for how to continue with or implement new habits. At this point, you can give thought to how you’re spending your day, and what habits feel like they’re worth keeping and which you can do without.

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Ali is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist-Associate in Austin, TX. She works at The Practice and is supervised by Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT-S. Ali helps her clients create change and improve relationships, whether that’s a relationship with themselves, their partner, or a family member.