Keeping a daily routine can help our mental health, and especially so when we’re all living in new circumstances during the coronavirus outbreak. Here, our Advocacy Manager and registered occupational therapist, Louise O’Leary, looks at how we can adjust our routines to support us through these challenging times.
In the weeks following the COVID-19 coronavirus oubreak, there has been a welcome sharing of recommendations, articles and videos relating to ways we can maintain our mental health during these strange times.
A commonly repeated recommendation is to keep up a daily routine.
In its advice on coronavirus and mental health, the Health Service Executive (HSE) notes "during difficult times like this, it’s best if you can keep some structure in your day”.[i]
Equally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) highlights the need for families to “maintain familiar routines in daily life as much as possible, or create new ones, especially if children must stay at home”.[ii] The WHO also points to the importance of this for older people, people with underlying health conditions or carers:
“Keep regular routines and schedules as much as possible, or help create new ones in a new environment, including regular exercising, cleaning, daily chores, singing, painting or other activities”.[iii]
With this current phase of increased restrictions now underway, it may be especially timely to consider what’s right and mentally healthy for you and your routine.
Why is keeping a routine important for our mental health?
Occupational therapists understand routines as part of our ‘pattern of occupation’, or how we shape and spend our time.
Why is keeping a routine important for our mental health?
Along with the different roles we engage in life, this is part of who we are, and can reflect our priorities and values in life.[iv]
When our habits and routines are seriously disrupted, not only can the sense of consistency they bring to our lives be impacted, but also our sense of who we are in the world. This might happen due to mental health difficulties or a life event, like marital separation. Adjusting to new, often temporary ways of doing things at such times is key to maintaining our mental health.
At present, we are seeing these kinds of disruptions to daily life on a worldwide scale, and to people of all ages and backgrounds. Coupled with this, in Ireland, we’ve seen sudden mass job losses, a further disorienting event for many to deal with at present.
Keeping up a routine that works for us, or setting up a new one for ourselves, can give a vital sense of control to our lives when so much around us is in flux. Having a sense of predictability and consistency to our days can be comforting and calming [v].
Adding structure to our days can also be important to reassure and support others in our lives we might be caring for, especially children, who themselves are faced with a major upheaval with the closure of schools. (There is some very useful advice and tips available for supporting children and teenagers through these current changes).
At stressful times, or when we’re experiencing mental health difficulties, we need to make sure we are attending to our needs as best we can, though sometimes the opposite can happen – for example, skipping meals or over-eating, or slipping out of regular sleeping hours. This also relates to the importance of keeping some sort of ‘balance’ to your day that works for you. Things are undoubtedly out of equilibrium for many of us at the moment and a balanced routine might restore at least some of this for us.
Another key recommendation to mind our mental health is to set limits to time given to reading news or updates related to coronavirus.[vii] Having a routine sketched out for the day can help us to do this.
What are the challenges to keeping a routine?
It’s not necessarily easy to achieve a satisfying routine, even at the best of times.
What are the challenges to keeping a routine?
It’s important to note too that, presently, where the whole world might feel out of sorts, it’s natural to not be at our most focussed or productive. Feeling anxious or worried, finding it hard to concentrate or having disrupted sleep are things a lot of us may be experiencing.[vii]
There’s no one right way to spend your time, though we know certain things help. What’s most important perhaps is to think about what’s right for you and yours now and over the coming weeks to stay mentally healthy, and then try and shape your day accordingly.
Everyone is trying their best in very difficult and uncertain times; below, we give a few suggestions which are given with this in mind.
What can help to build a routine?
Suggestions for everyone
Think about your needs in daily life and how and when you can meet them. This can include making time each day for:
- Personal care; keeping up with hygiene and regular, proper meals
- Social interaction: calling a friend or family member, or arranging a time for a video-chat or a ‘virtual dinner’ with others
- Productive activities; taking on achievable tasks that need to be done at home, such as housework, gardening, or decluttering
- Physical activity; going for a walk if you can, gardening, stretching, armchair exercises or home yoga
- Pleasure and interest; enjoying new or old pastimes you can do under current measures
- Rest and relaxation; keeping up regular sleeping and waking times as best you can, or practising exercises that can help manage worry or anxiety, such as breathing exercises or mindfulness. If you are having trouble sleeping, making time for a ‘wind-down’ hour to do such things may be helpful.
A simple strategy that can help if you are trying to work on your routine is to plan your day. This doesn’t mean accounting for all your time, rather thinking about what’s most important for you to give your time to and when. Writing it down is key, however. If you have a diary, use it. If not, you might find this straightforward weekly planner helpful to use.
Suggestions if you've recently become unemployed
In addition to the suggestions for everyone above, some of these ideas might be helpful to incorporate into your routine over the coming days and weeks.
While unemployment will hopefully be a temporary state of affairs, it might be helpful to give some time over the week to considering employment opportunities. Current job vacancies continue to be posted, especially in areas experiencing high demand, such as supermarket retail.
You might also find it helpful to plan time to explore learning and upskilling opportunities, and to revisit your career interests. Websites such as Careers Portal may be useful.
If you would like to have an alternative productive outlet at this time, consider volunteering, or taking part in community efforts that are ongoing to support those in need. You’ll find current public health advice on volunteering here.
Suggestions if you're working from home for the first time
If you are currently working remotely, keeping to regular work hours, if possible, and trying to keep a boundary with work and the rest of your day may be important.
It might be helpful to do things to mark the end of the workday; for example, changing your clothes, completing daily outside exercise if you can, or putting on some music.
Use your diary as you would in your workplace. Make time for priority tasks that need attention, and try and keep things achievable each day.
Keep up your breaks, including times when you would have perhaps met or talked with colleagues. If possible arrange a virtual coffee break, calling your workmates for a chat to stay connected beyond meetings and work-focussed calls.
Make time for regular physical movement, getting up and stretching and walking around your home, and take frequent breaks from screens.
Suggestions if you are cocooning or self-isolating
When you are cocooning or self-isolating, it is vital to schedule social activity regularly to keep connected with others. This time can also be an opportunity to reconnect with friends who you may not have spoken to for some time. Planning phone or video calls with friends and family, or writing an email are all ways to do this.
If you are comfortable using smartphones or other devices there which enable group activities, such as quizzes. If you are comfortable with video calls on a mobile phone or computer, coordinating dinner time with friends or family for a virtual meal might be enjoyable.
If you’re not sure how to use different apps or functions on your phone or computer, you can find some guidance from Age Action here, or a family member may be able to talk you through it. Age Action has a range of other learning resources available here, including how to use facilities like YouTube, that may be a worthwhile use of your time if you’d like to increase your skills in this area.
Maintaining daily activities which may seem less essential if you're not seeing other people at the moment, such as keeping up with personal care, are also very valuable to our wellbeing and important to attend to. Such activities can also serve to physically calm and soothe us; for example, having a hot shower or warm bath, or using a warm flannel on our faces, which can be most helpful if we are experiencing feelings of anxiety.[viii]
Planning something pleasurable for yourself each day is extremely important too during difficult times. For those of us who may struggle with downtime or spending too much time along, reconnecting with leisure activities, such as reading, revisiting music collections, sketching or drawing, indoor gardening or learning a new skill online, can be especially helpful.
[i] HSE (2020) Minding your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak
[ii] WHO (2020) Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID19 outbreak
[iii] WHO, Mental health and psychoscocial considerations
[iv] Eklund et al (2016) The linkage between patterns of daily occupation and occupational balance: Applications within occupational science and occupational therapy practice. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy 24 (1), pages 41-56
[v] American Psychological Association (2020) Keeping your distance to stay safe
[vi] HSE, Minding your mental health
[vii] HSE (2020) Minding your mental health
[viii] Champagne, T. (2011) Sensory Modulation and Environment: Essential Elements of Occupation. Pearson (third edition)