In our last post we talked about how getting into a rut and routine without variety might be a bad thing during this pandemic. Doing the same things over and over without variety will likely lead to a feeling of malaise. We talked about how to use mindfulness with intentional scheduling of pleasurable and mastery building activities can help us cope. This week however, we're going to talk about how certain routines and rituals can actually be helpful - in particular morning and evening routines/rituals. We'll cover a number of ideas and include 4 guided audio exercises. If you want to jump straight to the audio, here they are.
While quarantined, it can be especially tempting to start staying up late, sleeping late, not getting dressed for the day, and just lounging around the house. This can actually be good for a short spell. Our culture and society is so fast paced and focused on busyness and hurry. Taking some time during the quarantine to just sort of relax and not do much probably felt pretty good and was actually a good thing. This is something akin to the farming practice of letting a field lie fallow, in which the rotate fields out of use periodically so that fertility and productivity can be maintained in the long run - let the land rest. If you let the field lie unused for too long thought, it is likely to become overgrown, filled with weeds, and no longer ready for use. Similarly, we neglect any routine or structure in our lives for an extended period of time, we're going to struggle in the long run as well.
Principles of recency and primacy guide our post today. Starting off our day well (primacy) helps set the tone for the day. Emotions facilitate or prime (think of priming an old school water pump) like/similar emotions. So if we start our day well, we are more likely to have positive experiences throughout the day. Similarly, ending our day well (recency) makes it that much more likely that we will wake in a better frame the next morning.
Morning routines. You're probably not going to like hearing this, but from a stability standpoint, one of the most important routines to maintain during this time will be when you go to bed and and wake up. Sleeping and waking at the same times regularly helps to normalize many different internal rhythms within the body, promoting quality sleep, stable body weight, and more even energy levels throughout the day. Your best bet is to maintain a sleep/wake cycle similar to what you expect to maintain when life returns to some sense of normalcy.
Create some sort of morning routine that promotes energy, presence, focus, and optimism (you can replace with hope, faith, or joy if you like). Here are some suggestions that I have found helpful in my own life and in my clinical work, particularly working with depressed clients:
Consistency. Barring occasional exceptions, wake up at the same time every day. Yes, I know how easy it is to sleep in now, but waking up at the same time helps set our body's rhythm, helping to normalize energy levels and making it easier to fall asleep at night.
Get moving. First thing, do some sort of physical movement. This does not mean doing a full blown workout, although for some people that works well. Do some type of movement for at least 90 seconds to as long as 10 minutes. Try doing 90 seconds of squats, pushups or something similar when your first wake up. Or find a light, beginners yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or stretching routine that lasts about 10 minutes that you like. After getting up, going to the bathroom, and washing your face, do the routine (have it picked out ahead of time). I've found that even 90 seconds of squats helps me get out of a morning funk, clears my mind of sleep related fogginess, and helps me to start the day well. Try our guided mindful movement below to help wake up in the morning.
If you're going to eat breakfast, my recommendation is to stay away from carb/sugar heavy foods. Rather, do a breakfast that is moderate protein and fat with carbs on the lower end. This helps prevent spikes in blood sugar and the resulting insulin release, leading to more stable energy and mood. Suggestions: Eggs and whole grain toast; low sugar (whole fat) yogurt and fresh fruit; whole fat cottage cheese and fresh fruit; low sugar protein shake.
Meditation. Even if you're not religious, you will likely benefit from some sort of morning routine of prayer or meditation. In addition to any normal religious/spiritual practices, I would suggest on building up to at least 10 minutes of mindfulness practice each morning. From a purely psychological and neurological perspective, research has shown that regular mindfulness practice brings a wealth of benefits including: improved mood, decreases in depression/anxiety, improved overall well-being, and increase cortical density in certain areas of the brain. Check out our introduction to mindfulness exercises.
Reconnect with your values. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one of my favorite types of therapy and informs my the work I do with almost every client. ACT is particularly focused on enabling clients to live by their values. Values are defined as qualities of action, doing, or being, that can be instantiated moment-by-moment, which the individual experiences as meaningful, rewarding, or enriching in the long-run. In short, values describe how YOU truly desire to live, act, and be when at your best. Values don't describe goals, emotional states, or people/places/things external to us - your spouse or significant other is not a value, but being a loving, supportive, loyal spouse can be a value of yours. Losing 10 pounds is not a value, but living a healthy lifestyle and balancing nutrition can be a value.
Each morning, take some time to intentionally reconnect with your values. You can do this in a journal, in prayer, or in quiet reflection/meditation. Think of the adjectives or descriptor words that you would want the most important people in your life to describe you with. Or list the roles that you fulfill (husband/wife, child, parent, employee, employer, sibling, community member, etc) and jot down some of the descriptors you hope to embody in each of those roles.
Create a plan or intention for the day. At the very least schedule the following three things each day in quarantine: 1&2) your pleasurable/relaxing and mastery building activities (from last week's article), 3) one action or activity that is connected with any of your values, something that moves you in the direction of the person you truly desire to be and the life you truly want to live. Then, make a commitment to yourself to do at least these three things today. Really make that decision to follow through with the commitment today and notice how it feels to make that choice. If you notice feelings or thoughts of doubt, anxiety, resistance, uncertainty, depression, etc, try the following:
Say to yourself "I'm having the feeling/thought...(fill in the blank). I notice myself having the feeling/thought...(fill in the blank). I can make room for the thought/feeling...(fill in the blank) AND I can commit to doing...(three activities from above)."
Here is a values and committed action guided visualization I use with clients sometimes.
Evening Rituals. Let's face it, our daily lives have been severely disrupted. It's hard to adjust and that's okay. You may be finding it difficult to wind down or go to sleep at night - anxiety, worry, and rumination are common experiences now. If we keep the same evening ritual each night, through repetition it will become a behavioral cue to your brain and body that it is time to go to sleep. Also, ending the day positively helps us to start the next day in a better mood.
Our mood can be strongly influenced by just changing what we recall and focus on. If you want to be happier, build a discipline of gratitude. The following exercise is a guided reflection to help cultivate gratitude. It's based on well studied concepts of positive psychology.
Start building your morning routines and evening rituals picking what you liked from today's article or develop your own. Practice them regularly and you'll find yourself coping better, feeling better, and enjoying life more even in this time of uncertainty.