If you’re here, there’s a good chance you like building healthy habits and routines. It’s sorta my whole schtick, and there’s a reason for that.
When my mental and physical health hit rock bottom in 2010, it was finding a way to create small, intentional, healthy habits that helped me see my way out of that season (for me, the answer was The Daily Page). It turns out that during times of distress, having reliable habits and routines can be vital to regaining stability.
When life starts to feel a bit uncertain (or hectic, or difficult) our impulse can actually be to cut out these healthy habits and routines we’ve worked so hard to develop. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, but it doesn’t have to be.
For some tips on how we can stay on track with our habits and routines when struggling with our mental health, I called in my friend Dr. Kristen Stevens, Psy.D., LP, of Brave Mental Health.
According to Dr. Stevens, “When our mental health begins to decline, we naturally cut out the activities that seem frivolous so we can save our energy and mind space. Generally, this is a great strategy! However, the activities we tend to cut out are the ones we actually need the most in that situation: self-care.”
She continued, “And I don’t mean the brand of self-care that usually gets sold to the public — a bubble bath, a manicure, a good Netflix binge. Those are all great, and are valid forms of self-care, but are also a really small part of it. Self-care is actually much more complex than that. It includes setting boundaries with others, saying no when you need to say no, and prioritizing the things that need to get done in order for you to get your mental health back on track. In short, self-care is about knowing where to direct your time and energy.
Turns out, the best way to avoid having your healthy habits and routines fall apart is to have a plan in place to quickly assess your energy and know what to cut and what to keep. That way you avoid ending up without the time or energy to engage in those seemingly “frivolous” things that are actually going to bring you joy, rest, and a restoration of your mental health. You might even want to designate a person who you trust to help you do this if you feel early symptoms of a mental health flare-up. This will prevent you from removing the things that feel superfluous but are actually really important to your recovery.
To circumvent this natural instinct to cut out self-care, we first need to remove any unnecessary demands on our time or energy so that we can prioritize sticking to the things we know help us. To get started, Dr. Stevens suggests that you:
Create a list of the activities or tasks that could be cut from your schedule. Anything that would help reduce your stress should be identified here. That might mean clearing your work schedule for a day or two, taking your dog to a sitter, focusing your daily to-do list down to 3 prioritized items, or perhaps having someone help you prep meals for the week.
Create a list of the activities you know can help you feel your best. This might include things like staying hydrated, your favorite local hike, remembering medications, or taking ten minutes a day to meditate. It might also include a favorite meal, a movie night with a close friend, cleaning your living space, getting sunshine, or eating a lot of green veggies. This way you can prioritize those things and avoid having them get cut from your schedule.
Identify the people who could help you do these things. A mild-flare up might mean you can rearrange your schedule and prioritize self-care on your own. But just in case things are hard for you to handle, it’s helpful to identify people who can jump in and help you through it. Their job is to quickly and efficiently help deploy List #1 (the things that can be removed from your schedule) and then help ensure you are finding time for List #2 (the things that help restore your mental health). Your flare-up might make you hesitant to ask for help, so having this pre-planned could mean that getting some relief and support is as simple as making a phone call or sending a text. You can give this designated person access to lists #1 and #2 in advance, or you could preemptively draft an email with links to those lists in a Google Doc to ensure they know how to best help you.
This process should help you identify what aspects of your daily routine and habits are vital during a mental health flare-up, and which ones could be set aside for a bit. Hearing Dr. Steven’s tips also helped me understand what it is about The Daily Page that has been so helpful to me over the years. The design walks you through some version of this process each day by aligning your work and wellness in one place to ensure you are thinking about the aspects of self-care, nutrition, hydration, and even joy that make you feel your best. In a lot of ways, maintaining my simple daily routines is my own form of this mitigation strategy.
Dr. Steven’s also stressed the importance of rest and support networks. If you are struggling with your mental health, find quiet activities that allow your brain to rest without constant stimulation or distraction. Lean on your support network, family, therapist, or a local support group so that you remember you are not alone. Try to be proactive about your mental health by creating plans to mitigate symptoms early on and ask for help when you need it.