Mental Illness and the Importance of Routine
When my friend Janice returned from vacation in Europe, she joked that she needed another week off from work just to “recover” from vacation. A lot of our friends gave her a hard time about it, since she had been on vacation after all – the whole point was to relax!
But I knew exactly what she meant. Although I love to travel, it almost always triggers my anxiety, and after a trip, I’m usually facing at least a week of exhaustion, loss of motivation, and even depression before things get back to normal. I’ve noticed this happens to me with other big changes in routine, too, whether it’s staying out late one night, getting sick, or entertaining a house guest for a weekend.
So I brought it up with my therapist, who stressed the importance of maintaining a routine when you’re managing a mental illness.
Setting a Routine and Sticking to It
Most of us follow some kind of routine in our day-to-day lives, usually set by our work schedules. But when I told my therapist that I already had a routine because of work, she explained that consistency is actually just as important when it comes to my free time.
So what’s most important to consider when establishing a routine (outside of obligations like taking the kids to school or keeping a doctor’s appointment)?
- What time you wake up – and what you do immediately afterward
- When and how you eat
- When you exercise
- What you do at bedtime — and when you go to sleep
- When you take medications and supplements
Exercise and healthy diet are very important, of course, but mental health experts agree that going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is THE most important part of a good routine. Personally, I’ve found this to be pretty challenging, as my sleep schedule is notoriously erratic. But I’m working on it! Other struggles have included eating on a consistent schedule and setting up regular exercise times (I’m more of a “whenever I feel like it” exerciser, but scheduling helps me follow through).
The best part of creating my daily routine was establishing my morning and bedtime “rituals”. Rather than hitting snooze a few times and chugging coffee, I’ve found that gentle stretching and an unhurried breakfast starts my day on a better note and helps me feel more awake in the morning. I’ve also been sleeping easier now that every night before bed, I take a relaxing shower, light candles, and write in my journal.
When I slip up and stray from the routine, I’m sure to forgive myself, but I try to keep in mind how much more stable and healthy I feel when my schedule is consistent.
Adjusting to Schedule Disruptions
We can’t always avoid a disruption in routine, however. Here’s what I’ve found helps the most, regardless of what’s going on at the time:
- Setting an alarm reminding me to go to bed. (Allowing room for my bedtime ritual of showering and writing in my journal.) This is especially helpful when I’m on vacation or have out-of-town visitors, since I easily get caught up in the fun, but then find myself cranky and anxious the next day.
- Eating a healthy breakfast. Even if I plan on indulging a bit more than usual at other meals, I try to keep breakfast simple and healthy. This seems to help regulate my digestive system and balance out the heavier foods I’m eating.
- Setting reminders to take vitamins and supplements, as well as to complete any other tasks I’d otherwise forget when I’m not on my usual schedule (pay bills, call the doctor, etc.)
- Taking a walk every morning. My usual exercise schedule may be interrupted, but I don’t have to skip out on it altogether. Usually when I’m on vacation, I try to get in a short, brisk walk every morning to ensure I get my heart rate up for a little while each day.
- Scheduling an extra “vacation recovery” day (or two). When I travel, I like to try to fit in another day or two off work after I get back to help myself settle back in. Few things set off my “crazy mode” more than getting back from a trip on Sunday and going back into work on Monday! If you have a hard time dealing with schedule disruptions, I highly recommend taking an extra day if you can.