Sep 2020

The power of habits on wellbeing in lockdown


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Back in March, when the first lockdown began, I started writing an article about the importance of routine and structure in lockdown. I didn’t get around to finishing it and when restrictions started easing, I accepted I’d wasted a few hours on a blog I’d never publish. Never in a million years did I think it would still be relevant in September.

My heart goes out to each and every person in Victoria. Being separated from loved ones, loss of employment, and all normal structure and routine being turned upside down, coupled with uncertainty of when this will end, is a recipe for mental health struggles.
The first lockdown was likely a bit of a novelty, there was an end in sight, and we felt we were all in it together. Apart from tougher restrictions, what’s also making this lockdown so much tougher is the end doesn’t seem clear and people are likely feeling a bit helpless without much control over their lives. People who were positive at the start are really starting to tire… If that’s you, please know its OK and you’re not alone.

Rationally, we know this period will end, the economy should recover and our way of life is likely to return, like it has done after previous pandemics. However, this knowledge doesn’t make the present any less difficult and it’s hard to think rationally when our lives are turned upside down and our mental health isn’t good.

As the days drag into weeks and especially for people who have found themselves out of work, it could be so easy to spend most of the day in pyjamas on the couch which is a recipe for feeling crap and poor mental health and why keeping busy is so important.
Although sitting on the couch all day isn’t a good idea, you also shouldn’t feel like you need to accomplish anything during lockdown apart from getting through it, e.g. you don’t need to start a side hustle or learn Italian etc. When our mental health is at risk this should be our priority, and consciously engaging in behaviours that support well-being is the most important thing to focus on. This may sound dramatic, but in the same ways we’re advising people to wash their hands and wear a mask to decrease the risk of COVID-19, our mental health is also at risk so we need to do everything to protect it too!

One of the most important things we can do for our mental health right now, is to keep some type of structure and routine in our lives. As humans we love structure, some degree of certainty and routine… All things that COVID-19 is screwing around with!

There is a tonne of psychological research into why routine and habits are so imperative to our wellbeing, but in short, they give us a sense of purpose and control (which humans love), decrease decision fatigue (decisions are very mentally draining) thereby reducing feelings of uncertainty and they decreases our fight-or-flight response which helps us relax!
Having routine and habits also stops us gravitating towards destructive or mentally unhelpful behaviours e.g. we’re less likely to stay up drinking till 2AM if we know we have a regular night-time routine or we’re exercising the next morning.

Most importantly, our habits can impact our mood, and our mood filters the way we look at the world. If we start our day in a positive healthy way, e.g. wake up early, do some exercise, practise gratitude, see a friend etc, it’s setting a positive tone that will hopefully have a knock-on effect through the rest of the day.

It’s all very well and good to know routines and habits are good for us, but putting them in place, especially if were feeling a bit depressed is hard, so that’s why I am going to suggest something a little different. Rather than make a list of all the things you should do e.g. clean the car, finish your tax return etc., make a list and schedule only the fun things you want to do! In the book, “Now Habit” by Neil Fiore (PhD in psychology) he talks about how scheduling all the fun things we want to do, actually helps us be more productive with our “chores” and activities that are less fun. By scheduling things we look forward to, it means we get them done without procrastinating beforehand. This is in contrast to making our only task for the day something we don’t feel like doing (does anyone look forward to tax time?), which we will almost inevitably put off and muck around until all of a sudden its 2PM and all we’ve done is drink coffee, flick through our phone and end up feeling crap for not getting anything fun or productive done.

Instead, if we start the day and schedule the things we look forward to, it’s setting the mood for the day.

We still get the same dopamine hit for ticking something off our list and a sense of control and purpose for having created structure in our day. Because these things lift our mood and set the tone for productivity, it also means we’re more likely to get through those less fun tasks (tax time is much less daunting after some exercise), even if we didn’t schedule them in. Obviously, this is a bit of a generalisation, but for people who struggle with procrastination or getting started with the day, it can be a real game changer!

Other tips for building habit into your day would be starting small and building up. A full list of activities could be a bit daunting, but if you just schedule one activity in the morning and one in the afternoon, that’s a great start! Furthermore, get your friends or family involved, even if from afar. You could schedule in a weekly yoga YouTube video with a friend. This helps us stay socially connected plus having something to look forward to… Double win!

My other big tips are still waking up at the same time every day and keeping your weekends. e.g. Try and be productive during the week, but let yourself have the weekends to relax. For example, if pre-COVID-19 you used to have beers with your friends on a Friday, keep up that tradition (via FaceTime) and keep it to the Friday. Although it’s not the same, having something to look forward that kind of resembles pre-COVID-19 life can be comforting and reassuring that those fun times will eventually return.

Finally, please know that you’re not alone. These times are so tough and hopefully the silver lining is that it shows how important and special human connection is. If you are struggling, reaching out to a friend or making an appointment with your GP are good places to start. Lifeline is also available 24/7 on 13 11 14, and Beyond Blue, Movember and the Black Dog have great online resources.

Sending love, Dr Izzy xx