In the span of a few months, life across the globe has been turned upside down—and everyone is affected. So many of our daily routines have been eliminated, while new ones (like meetings over Zoom) have popped up. But while lots of things in our lives have to change, there is value to holding onto certain aspects of your pre-coronavirus life, say experts. Here’s how to maintain as much normalcy as is possible right now, given the circumstances, and why it’s so important.
The health downsides of disruption
The long list of unknowns we’re all grappling with—How long is this going to last? Will my loved ones stay healthy? Will my employer do layoffs?—is enough to make even the most zen among us anxious and stressed. And while that’s a completely normal reaction right now, there are physical ramifications to the mental strain and anxiety we’re all experiencing, says Erica Zellner, a health coach at Parsley Health in Los Angeles. “Stress directly results in inflammation in our bodies, which interferes with healing, digestion, and sleep,” she says.
The power of routine
On the flip side, “our bodies and minds love routine—they find safety in it,” says Zellner. In a climate of extreme uncertainty, maintaining habits and rituals makes us feel calmer and more comfortable. “Routines provide us with an anchor.” But now more than ever, they are crucial to keeping anxiety at bay. Maintaining some of your pre-COVID-19 routine (getting up at the same time each day, taking your dog for a walk every morning, etc.) can be calming, as can creating new routines, like eating lunch together with your family each day now that you’re all home.
Part of your new routine should include putting boundaries around your workday, advises Zellner. “Our minds and bodies create associations with places and things,” she says. “Not all of us have a home office; lots of us are on our couches and at our dining room tables. But there’s something so beneficial about taking a couple of minutes to set up in the morning and tear down your work station again at the end of each day.” Put your keyboard away, move your files out of sight, and your living space will feel like your living space again… instead of your office. “This sends a signal to your brain that you’re done, and that boundary allows you to let go of stressors,” says Zellner. Have a routine start time to your workday, and a routine end time, too.
Be consistent, but flexible
While it’s important to maintain some sense of normalcy in your life, it’s also important to remember that things can’t be exactly how they were before, advises Zellner. Be flexible, and allow for change—like streaming the yoga class that centers you each week into your living room instead of taking it in the studio.
There are certain touchpoints in our daily and weekly routines that Zellner says are especially worth holding on to, even if they have to change in their shape and form. One of those is any hobbies or passions you have. While they may need to change a little (for example, your book club might have to meet over Google hangouts instead of getting together at a wine bar), they’ll keep you grounded and in touch with your essential self.
Another big one is your social relationships, from friendships to family connections to the bond you have with your cube-mate. “Just because we’re physically distanced doesn’t mean we have to be isolated,” says Zellner. “We’re social beings at our core, and we very much need to have relationships and social connections to be our healthiest.” In fact, a review in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that social isolation and loneliness are associated with higher levels of several markers of inflammation.
Find a way to incorporate some of your previous social touchpoints into your week, in new ways. For example, if you used to get together with another family weekly for dinner, try cooking together over FaceTime and enjoying the same meal via video call. It’s also a great time to connect with people you haven’t talked to in a while—and to actually pick up the phone to connect. In the absence of face-to-face time, it’s worth going for a call over text to add a layer of reality to that human connection. “A phone call is so much more present than a text,” says Zellner.
If you previously had an exercise routine, it’s worth finding a way to move your body, even if your gym or spin studio has closed. “So many of us are spending more time sitting, working from home, not walking,” says Zellner. Exercise boosts your mood and helps keep anxiety at bay. And while the restrictions vary by state, if it’s possible to safely get outside, the natural sunlight can be so beneficial to your circadian rhythms. In fact, spending just 20 minutes in nature can actually reduce your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, research shows.
And while in-person religious services might not be possible right now, if you are religious or spiritual, maintaining those practices in whatever way you can—whether that’s through prayer, reading sacred texts, or meditating—can benefit your mental health, says Zellner.
If you have kids, it will benefit you and them to try to maintain a flexible schedule (just like adults, kids feel calmer with some routine in their days). But “do your best with the situation and cut yourself some slack as well,” says Zellner. “It’s not possible to suddenly be a full-time caregiver and full-time employee and expect to be 100 percent at everything.” Over breakfast each day, lay out the day’s schedule so everyone is on the same page.
But also, make space for new practices
Between ditching commutes, events being canceled, or even loss of employment, some people are finding themselves with extra time on their hands. (Of course, others like essential employees or working parents might be busier than ever.)
Instead of using that time endlessly scrolling bad news (and feeling your heart rate rise by the minute), think about how you can use that time to your advantage and create new, healthy routines, says Zellner. If you don’t have a meditation or mindfulness practice, now is a great time to start one. Meditation is a powerful antidote to anxiety, helping us stay calm and sending our bodies the message that we are safe. One study found that in anxious people, it can also help with focus, which can be especially difficult right now. Try using an app to help you cultivate a daily practice; Ten Percent Happier is offering free support during the COVID-19 crisis. (Parsley Health members save 40 percent on an annual membership.)
Another great use of any extra hours this time affords you is to play around with hobbies you’ve wanted to try but haven’t had a chance to, like knitting or playing an instrument. Providing yourself with a creative outlet can help keep you from falling down the social media hole, and give you something positive and enriching to focus on in stressful times.