So for many, many people, a typical pre-pandemic day might have included:
Some of us had been working a 9-to-5 office job or teaching for many, many years. Up until early last year, most of us knew the route to work by heart and could likely drive it with our eyes closed (although that’s not advised). Our kids had their breakfast preferences and we knew they needed to eat something before starting a busy day of learning and socializing at school! We knew what day staff meetings were on and could anticipate where we’d sit during our lunch hour.
My husband and I had the good fortune of working from home prior to the pandemic so a lot of those routines didn’t necessarily apply. But still, we relied heavily – either consciously or subconsciously – on the routines we did have: walking our kids to school, knowing what time our weekly staff check-ins were, and knowing the kids would be expecting me to pick them up at 2:30pm on the dot. No matter what our unique working or living contexts were, all our lives have changed dramatically since early Spring 2020 and with that has come lots of unpredictability.
Some people may have complained about their busy schedules or their routines, but these did at least provide patterns and expectations that were part of our overall mental health. Once we were in the throes of COVID-19, lots of people felt completely flooded when they lost those familiar daily routines. Instead, they found those replaced by uncertainty and a lack of structure. Stress levels spiked. As communities and individuals, to varying degrees, we’ve been tired. We’ve been confused, sad, lonely. We’ve accumulated concerns. We’ve been disconnected. We’ve reconnected, albeit in different ways. We’ve been fearful and avoidant and disoriented…and...just, “off.” I read somewhere that many of us have been experiencing – a term I like now – “cerebral congestion.”
We know through Self-Reg, and more specifically through Polyvagal Theory, that short-term stress is designed to protect us. But prolonged stress – stressors that carry on for too long or affect us too often – leads to allostatic overload. We begin to burn copious amounts of energy trying to manage and it becomes much harder to recover from that stress, therefore potentially impacting growth and development. A lack of structure and routine can exacerbate feelings of distress in some people. Our brains like what's known, what's predictable and what's within our sense of control. And we know through the science of Self-Reg that increased cortisol levels, heightened sympathetic activity paired with decreased parasympathetic activity, are all a recipe for maintaining this allostatic overload – which ultimately can lead to structural and functional changes in the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and the hippocampus.
The brain can save energy with habits – whether they’re in the form of routines, rituals, or schedules. And in an effort to steer clear of slipping back into our age-old self-control mindset, we’d be aiming to create flexible habits, grounded in the questions “Why?” & “Why now?” The prefrontal cortex is involved in figuring out which routines might support us and how to go about putting them into place (all that planning part of the PFC’s job) but after enough practice, the brain stores those routines in our basal ganglia – otherwise known in neuroscience as our “habit centres.” In times of great stress (like during this pandemic), we experience heightened stress reactivity and we lose efficient access to our higher-order functions – all those positive things led by the PFC – including language, empathy, reflection, planning, and regulation. So bottom line is that under a lot of stress, we don’t have much PFC function to waste, as it were. We’re already often running on fumes. Those executive functions can take a heavy hit.
Routines can free up our prefrontal cortex’s working space so that we have lots more space and tons more energy for focusing on new tasks, learning and social engagement. Routines can also leave more time and energy for intentional restorative practice.
So when the predictable suddenly became unpredictable last year – for my little family & for so many others – we were aware of something important: when we’re faced with new & amplified stressors, our capacity for empathy and kindness is compromised. I didn’t want to be constantly worrying; I didn’t want to snap at my kids during every transition. We quickly went about setting up some proactive routines that could help reduce known stressors and which could support a calming rhythm for each of us. We also wanted to make room for restorative practice in light of a pretty quick and dramatic increase in stress.
Examples of a few things our family has done:
Our goal isn’t to eliminate all stress; it really is to recognize and reduce unnecessary stressors and maintain available resources for facing the stress that's just simply unavoidable. We know through Self-Reg that stressors are incredibly unique to each individual and what one person finds stressful, another person might find tolerable or may be indifferent to it.
In a future post, I'll share some common stressors across the 5 domains that have affected many of us over the past year or so. Plus I'll share some of our community's examples of which routines and rituals they've found most helpful!