When I think about starting the new year and everything that goes with it, budgeting, planning events, goals, work, education, taxes, etc., one thing comes to mind - STRESS! Regardless of the time of year, stress is an ever-present factor in our lives. One simple and effective way of managing stress is by creating a routine for ourselves.
Creating a daily routine can be as simple as waking up, going to bed, and eating meals at the same time (or more realistically, around the same time) every day. Including exercise and outdoor walking is even better.
The Importance of Routine
Routine helps balance our hormones and keeps our physiological processes running smoothly. Cortisol is our body's stress hormone. Ideally, Cortisol levels rise at the beginning of the day, giving us the energy and focus that we need, then decline slowly throughout the day. A spike in stress hormones triggers our nervous system to give the classic responses of increased heart rate, muscle tension, increased blood pressure, increased alertness, so that we may be better prepared to handle whatever the threat may be by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. This helps keep our species alive but is damaging if it becomes inappropriately prolonged. Our bodies are made to relax once the threat has subsided in order to resume normal functioning. 2
Our natural rhythms are disrupted and stress hormones increase when we have wide variations in our daily schedules. The more routine you are able to include throughout your day, the more your body can anticipate what is coming, and is therefore better able to relax. If your body is unsure of when you will be able to get rest or to eat next, stress hormones rise. Dr. Claudia Welsch does a wonderful job of explaining the importance of routine to hormone balance in her book, Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, which I recommend for further information. 3
Creating a routine is also important from a psychological viewpoint. Erik Erikson classified stages of psychosocial development, beginning with the trust versus mistrust stage during infancy.1 During this stage, we are completely dependent on the care of others for all of our needs. Infants either learn to trust that their needs will be met, or develop a sense of mistrust, which they will carry with them throughout their lives.1 As adults, we must take care of our own needs. When various aspects of our lives are inconsistent, it is difficult to develop the trust that leads to peace and wellbeing.
This is easier to see in children. Stress is increased with changes in routine. Children whose parents have recently divorced, or who have changes in housing situations have a more difficult time coping with the stresses of everyday life. Consistency and routine is the most important lifestyle intervention that I recommend for those diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, conduct disorders, anxiety disorders, and other developmental disorders. Resuming a normal routine following trauma sis one of the most important preventative measures for post-traumatic stress disorder. Regardless of diagnosis, I ask every patient in my practice about their sleep habits and quality at every single visit. It is vitally important to both mental and physical health.
Tips for creating a routine:
- Think about your current routine and habits and identify areas that could be improved. Write down them down.
- Write out your own ideal routine that fits with your life.
Keep circadian rhythms in mind.
- Try to wind down and prepare for sleep during the dark hours of the evening, and wake up with the sun.
- Get sunlight early in the morning to wake up our brains and body.
- Eat meals at the same time each day.
- Spend at least 30 minutes in natural sunlight every day.
Schedule sleeping hours according to sleep cycles.
- One sleep cycle is 90 minutes.
- Aim for at least 4 cycles, or 6 hours of sleep, timing your bedtime and waking time to coincide with a 90-minute cycle.
Practice good sleep hygiene.
- Turn off screens at least an hour before bed.
- Set your phone to night mode to decrease blue light after the sun goes down.
- Sleep in a cool room (around 68 degrees Fahrenheit) and keep the room as dark as possible.
Keep some flexibility.
- Life happens and your routine may vary according to circumstances. Stressing out about keeping an exact routine is counterproductive to the goal of reducing stress.
Example: My week-day routine.
10:00 pm – 5:30 am : Sleep. This gives a 7.5 hour sleep time, which is five 90-minute sleep cycles.
5:30 - 6:30 am : Get dressed and ready for the day.
6:30 - 7:00 am : Take the dog on a walk.
7:00 - 7:30 am : Eat breakfast.
7:30 am : Leave for work.
12:00 - 1:00 pm : Lunch break. Spend 30 minutes outside.
5:00 pm : Leave work.
6:00 pm : Exercise (yoga, gym, or calithestics).
7:00 pm : Eat dinner.
9:00 pm : Turn off screens, read a book, relax.
10:00 pm : Sleep.
Everyone's schedule will look different. My routine is not exact and varies according to my circumstances. I may have an event that keeps me up, or I may hit the snooze button a few too many times. Weekends differ from week days. Being too rigid is going to increase stress and be counterproductive. However, being mindful about routine will help create healthy habits in the long run.
- Dr. Elizabeth Cunningham
Dr. Cunningham received her BA in psychology from Rhodes College, her BSN from the University of Tennessee, and her Doctorate in Nursing Practice from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. She is board certified in Psychiatric Mental Health across the lifespan. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles as a Nurse Practitioner where she specializes in child and adolescent mental health.
References and Further Reading:
1Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
2McCance, K.L., & Huether, S.E. (2014). Pathophysiology: The biologic basis for disease in adults and children. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.
3Welsch, Claudia. (2011). Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life: Achieving Optimal Health and Wellness Through Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, and Western Science. Cambridge, MA: Claudia Welsch.