We are now X weeks into Shelter-in-Place due to COVID-19. For most, the initial transition into staying home and practicing “social distancing” was fast, disorienting, and probably surreal. In days, we learned how to transition work online, all the while fearing (or experiencing) pay cuts or job loss. We stopped driving that long commute, and going out after work to see friends. The basics – grocery shopping, a walk around the block – went from being monotonous, routine activities to anxiety-provoking experiences that consumed, what felt like, a day’s worth of energy. All this, while holding a real concern about one’s own safety, and the wellbeing of all. These changes, and the quick transition to a new way of being, peaked our acute stress response. We acted quickly, attending to immediate challenges, and made fast decisions about how to navigate a new world. We acted so quickly – and maybe even well – that months later, some may even wonder if we could have taken a moment longer to pause, before pushing forward.
Transition from Acute to Chronic Stress
Ten weeks in, we are now transitioning away from acute stress to chronic stress. Things are no longer new; we may not be acting as quickly. We feel fatigued (at the start of the day!) and irritable about any ask, or late night email. We are forgetful, and those daily transitions, between tasks or roles, often feel overwhelming. This new phase of stress – chronic stress – requires a new response. And while there are no knowns or answer about how to deal with the varied circumstances of our first lived pandemic, there may be one small thing we can do that may mitigate the adverse consequences of chronic stress, and may just be easy enough to give a try:
identify, develop and maintain a routine.
The Benefits of a Routine
We have been hearing about routines for quite a while, and here is why: making decisions takes energy. We have all felt this as of late, as we try to figure out the day-to-day of Shelter in Place. Do we go to the grocery stores at 6am, 6pm, or order online? Do we wear professional clothes to a work meeting, or are those sweatpants really that are much more comfortable? Do we still keep the same professional/personal goals? The cumulative cost of these questions: decision-making fatigue. Decisions are taxing, and decrease our ability to manage higher-level cognitive processes. Creating a routine helps us manage.
Routines Don’t Mandate Monotony
Now, it also matters that you make daily variety part of the bigger routine. Since Shelter in Place, many are reporting a harder time remembering things that, a couple months ago, weren’t so difficult. Of course, stress impairs memory. Yet, what also results in impaired memory is the lack of associative cues that help use differentiate a Tuesday from a Wednesday, let alone where we left the keys in a home that we have been in for months. Knowing that Tuesday is the day you exercise, and Wednesday is the day you get up at 8, helps us scaffold memory and again, decrease fatigue and improve wellbeing.
Again, what often seems easy on paper may be challenging in reality, so reach out if conversation helps while you develop and maintain a healthy routine.
Saralyn Ruff, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She’s an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco. Dr. Ruff has provided clinical services at Pacific CBT for over two years. As she departs the ranks of staff psychotherapist at Pacific CBT, she looks forward to focusing on research and teaching.
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