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Routine: Asset or Burden?

Apart from concerns of becoming sick with COVID-19, or the challenges of managing the illness in ourselves or loved ones, one of the most common challenges spoken about by my clients when this hit us so suddenly was the disruption of our routines. Feeling a bit yanked from most, if not all, of what’s familiar, and hurled into a whirlwind of change, uncertainty, and need for rapid adaptation; the anxiety and stress we all experienced was as natural as it was painful, or frightening, or ...(choose your adjective).

I noticed how common it was, the belief or expectation that this should not be the case. Expressions of “I don’t know why …‘I can’t concentrate.’ or … ‘I’m not sleeping,’ or … “I feel so anxious’ ‘ were frequently expressed with shock and confusion that these experiences were so.

So what importance do routines have to our sense of well-being, either physical, or emotional and psychological? Generally, a lot.

Routines- What’s Important About Them?

Routines create rhythms in our daily lives.

Physically, our entire existence is built around rhythms. A most obvious is our beating heart. At least once per second, and more frequently for most of us, we don’t survive for very long if this rhythm is interrupted for more than a few minutes. Our activity and sleep, overseen by cycling of critical hormones, is a vital rhythm that needs to happen daily for well-being. Both our immediate survival, and our long-term quality of life are dependent on a vast array and frequency of rhythms.

Our brains and nervous systems, therefor, are always scanning for threatening interruptions of internal rhythms, just as they are for more overt external threats such as the proverbial hungry tiger looking your way for dinner.

Predictability of behaviors and activity create rhythms in our daily living that support our brains and nervous systems to foster a sense of familiarity, know what to expect, trust we are prepared, and consequently, feel safer. This increases our sense of ease, and reduces the need for anxiety-- that ongoing, vigilant readiness for unpredictable danger.

Many of the lifestyle and wellness-oriented activities we’re very used to hearing about—regarding eating, exercise, proper sleep, prayer/meditation/contemplation—in and of themselves each have their particular benefits, which increase cumulatively with consistent repetition. But in addition, the predictability of a routine itself, helps reduce, and better still, prevent, the necessity for stress responses such as anxiety, in the first place.

Mindful Choice or Unconscious Habit?

The prevalence of the responses noted above, to the disruptions resulting from this pandemic, are evidence to me of the importance of routines to our sense of well-being. One challenge is that so many of our routines are not consciously chosen by ourselves. Many are simply unconscious habits.

But before facing these widespread stay-at-home orders, for many of us, a good portion of our lives consisted of routines more extrinsically determined by scheduled events such as work, class, sports, social events, and other structured activities. So when many of us found ourselves suddenly without those familiar structures, and more in charge of creating our own, our brains and nervous systems were set on high alert, and executive functions such as focus, and the sense of safety that comes from familiarity, needed time to adjust.

I can hear it now. When many think about the word routine, it’s easy to associate with the concept of ‘mundane.’ And then along comes ‘boring,’ and perhaps even ‘burdensome.’ The truth is, as new routines become more habituated, it’s easy to lose connection to the meaning and importance they provide. So in this time where so many of us are needing to cultivate new routines for ourselves, how might we do so with mindful attention to making sure those things we choose have meaning and importance; and that we remember and reconnect with the same in those things we may already do a bit begrudgingly?

Without this quality of attention to self-determined and self-directed routines, we are likely to find it difficult to maintain, over time, either the routine itself, or a positive attitude toward it, when stressors increase and distractions or novelty beckon.

Don’t get me wrong, novelty, growth, learning, innovation, creativity— these are all vital to a healthy life and healthy relationships. But remembering the importance of, and gratitude for, routines mindfully chosen, we’re able to create and maintain the scaffolding that allows us space and freedom for the novel and creative, while keeping us grounded, focused, calm, and most effective in our lives’ endeavors.

Making Meaningful Choices

Even as we witness some aspects of daily living beginning to open back up, it’s likely going to be a while before we return to life and lifestyles we knew before. With subsequent waves of infection anticipated, we’ll continue to be adjusting, and it’s likely there will be some that are changed forever.

Whatever our roles in life, we can consider this an opportunity to cultivate a renewed vision of ourselves, and for our lives. With a great deal of change and uncertainty abounding, we can take the opportunity to cultivate some predictability, grounding, steadiness, and calm to brave these demanding times with a bit more ease and love. I’m confident that you and those you care about both need and will appreciate these efforts.

To Begin:

· Take some time to identify one or a few experiences that feel meaningful to you to create routine around. Choose one, or no more than a few, to start. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Ideas might include:

· Health practices around exercise, food and meals, sleep, etc.;

· Spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, reading, conversation;

· Relational practices such as in-person or video-based family time or date night;

· Being in nature, growing a garden, hobbies and other activities of interest

· Activities of daily living like cooking, washing the dishes, folding your laundry, cleaning your home, paying bills, or enjoying your morning coffee or tea.

· Study or work responsibilities

· A counseling relationship

· What’s meaningful or important about this activity? Why are you choosing it? Where is the gift here? Take some time to tune in to the feeling experience you know or imagine you’re seeking. For example: the calm you know you find when you walk in the woods; the ease of finding your clothes when they are folded and put away properly; the love and connection of spending quality time with a loved one; or the confidence of knowing you’re ahead of schedule with that important assignment. Find a genuine sense of gratitude. If this is something you’ve never experienced before, use your imagination. It’s a powerful resource.

In A Listening Heart, Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast writes: “Joy is happiness that does not depend on what happens. It springs from gratefulness. When we begin to take things for granted we get sucked into boredom.”

How To Practice

· How do you imagine creating routine around this? Is this a daily routine? Weekly? Monthly? Be specific, and keep a flexible attitude. We’re seeking more ease here, not the strain of unattainable perfection.

· As you engage in the practice or activity, show up with your full attention and a sense of openness and curiosity. Include awareness of at least one level of sensory experience—sounds, smells, visual sights or images, tactile sensations, tastes/flavors if involving food. Slow down a bit, take notice of what you’re doing, take it in. For the moment, let go of habitual thoughts or judgments about the thing you’re doing, and just be there doing it.

· Recognize and appreciate the impact of this endeavor, and the gift it is to you. This is how you stay connected to meaning, and avoid taking it, or others involved, for granted.

Steindl-Rast again: “Common Sense tells us there is nothing in our intellect that did not enter through the doors of perception. Our loftiest concepts are rooted in sense experiences… To be alienated from our senses means being alienated from what is truly human.”

Beyond COVID-19

Addressing these issues with my clients straight up as the COVID-19 pandemic was first unfolding in our lives seemed to have a significant impact on reorganizing themselves and forming some important new foundations for living in a new and uncertain environment; and fairly quickly getting anxiety to more manageable levels throughout this time. But the fast pace of life for most of us before COVID-19 was also an environment in which it could be quite challenging to tune in to ourselves and make sure our routines and rhythms were meaningful and serving us well. It requires strong intention to stay connected to our sense of gratitude and aliveness in the busy-ness of our activities and relationships. As Steindl-Rast states: “Our culture does not prepare us for being alert to refined sense impressions, let alone for following them when they lead us beyond themselves.”

As we move through seasons of our lives, we change- we grow, learn and move toward new things, move away from others. Life demands it. In response, what’s most meaningful to us, and the routines that serve us will, to one degree or another, be in flux and need to be adapted. Because of how we’re wired, we’ll always need and benefit from having the dependability of routines and rhythms in our lives. Giving mindful attention to our experiences, and the gifts inherent in every one, will provide the information and flexibility to do that well.

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